The tradition of archaeology at Edinburgh

Continuing a long tradition stretching back to the the 19th century.

Photo of Lord Abercromby
Lord Abercromby

Archaeology in various guises has been taught within the University of Edinburgh since the nineteenth century, but the establishment of the modern department, focused principally on prehistoric archaeology began over a century ago, with the endowment of a lecture series in prehistoric archaeology and anthropology by Dr Robert Munro (1835-1920), a distinguished amateur archaeologist best known for his books on lake dwellings.

Munro himself gave the initial series of Munro Lectures, published in 1912 as 'Palaeolithic man and terramara settlements in Europe'.

In that year another Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, the Hon. John Abercromby (1841-1924), produced his two-volume 'A Study of the Bronze Age Pottery of Great Britain and Ireland', which is widely credited with bringing order to the study of Bronze Age pottery and associated grave-goods.

Four years later, by then Lord Abercromby of Tullibody and Aboukir, he endowed a Chair of Archaeology at Edinburgh University under the terms of his will. Following Abercromby’s death, the post was advertised and the first incumbent (1927-1946) was the Australian archaeologist, Vere Gordon Childe (1892-1957).  Edinburgh, where classical archaeology was already represented, was thus amongst the first universities in Britain to teach prehistoric archaeology.  

1927-1946: Vere Gordon Childe

Arguably the most distinguished prehistorian of his time, Childe did much of his most significant work during his Edinburgh years, publishing a string of important syntheses as well as academic papers and more popular works. These included:

  • The Danube in Prehistory; 
  • The Most Ancient East; 
  • The Bronze Age; 
  • The Prehistory of Scotland; 
  • Man Makes Himself;
  • What Happened in History.
Photo of Vere Gordon Childe
Vere Gordon Childe

This was the longest spell Childe held any academic post and during it his Marxist perspective on the human past developed. Childe managed simultaneously to develop his international knowledge and contacts whilst also conducting fieldwork in Scotland, where all his most significant excavations took place. The most famous of these was at the Neolithic village of Skara Brae on Orkney, but this project (in which the archaeological component was largely undertaken by Ministry of Works’ labourers in preparation for the stabilisation of the site) was atypical of his involvement in field archaeology. Many more of his excavations were carried out in association with his students at a variety of sites including chambered cairns, stone circles and hill-forts.

Childe moved south in 1946 to become the Director of London University’s Institute of Archaeology, which had been founded in 1937. Childe continued to undertake excavations in Orkney after his translation to London, lastly at the chambered cairn of Maes Howe. After a promising uptake in his early years at Edinburgh, student numbers in Childe’s classes thereafter dwindled during the hard years of the 1930s and into wartime. His sole PhD student was M E C Mitchell, who classified Scottish Beaker material. It was left to his successor to oversee the development of archaeology from essentially a professorship supported by a part-time assistant into a small but renowned department.

1946-1977: Stuart Piggott

Stuart Piggott (1910-1996) was the second Abercromby Professor. His tenure of the chair from 1946 until his retirement in 1977 makes him the longest-serving member of Edinburgh’s archaeological professoriate. He arrived in his mid-thirties from southern England following a career in field archaeology interrupted by notable war service. 

Piggott fulfilled the terms of Abercromby’s endowment by producing a stream of distinguished publications: 'The Neolithic Cultures of the British Isles, Scotland before History and Ancient Europe' may stand as examples, but he published widely across several fields including on carts and wagons (their manufacture still a rural craft in his Hampshire boyhood) and on the development of archaeology as a discipline.

From the 1950s, the Department of Prehistoric Archaeology began, slowly, to grow and delivered thereafter a full undergraduate curriculum. Amongst scholars who joined the department were Richard Atkinson and Charles Thomas (subsequently first professors of archaeology at Cardiff and Leicester respectively), Anthony Snodgrass, latterly Laurence Professor of Classical Archaeology at Cambridge, the late David Ridgway, Roger Mercer, subsequently Secretary of the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland, and Emeritus Professor Trevor Watkins.

Photo of Stuart Piggott
Stuart Piggott

During this period the field component of Edinburgh archaeology developed apace: important projects within Britain included work at Stonehenge (by Atkinson and Piggott), at the West Kennet long barrow near Silbury Hill, and in Scotland, where Piggott’s most significant project may have been his complete excavation of the Cairnpapple henge in the Bathgate Hills.

1977-2007: Dennis Harding

Christopher Hawkes’s pupil, Dennis Harding, arrived from a senior lectureship at Durham as the third Abercromby Professor, occupying the chair, as his predecessor had done, for three decades (1977-2007).

During his tenure, the kernel of the Edinburgh archaeology focus was retained: European and Near Eastern Archaeology from earliest times to the rise of the classical Mediterranean civilisations. Indeed, it was originally cemented by the appointment of Clive Bonsall (presently Professor of Early Prehistory) to teach early prehistory and Edgar Peltenburg, now an Emeritus Professor, to bolster our involvement with Cyprus and the Eastern Mediterranean.

Field research continued to be a major strength of the Department, with numerous projects directed by teaching staff taking place from the Western Isles of Scotland (on which Professor Harding published much) to Syria and in particular Cyprus.

Numerous innovations occurred: these included underwater archaeology, most notably on Scottish crannogs, teaching environmental archaeology as an undergraduate degree as well as undertaking postgraduate research in this domain, experimental farming in the Western Isles, and participation in applied archaeology especially in Britain as the ‘polluter pays’ world of developer-led projects became established from around 1990. Not all of these have been maintained as internal changes and external pressures intervened.

The future of Archaeology at Edinburgh

From 2007 the Abercromby Chair was vacant for a number of years, although the University established a new Chair of Classical Archaeology in the following year. In 2012 Ian Ralston was promoted to the Abercromby Chair.

Archaeology at Edinburgh is now better-represented, and has more professors, within the University than ever. In what is now the School of History, Classics and Archaeology, there are five professors of archaeology, of whom three are students of aspects of classical archaeology (including the Byzantine world) and two are prehistorians.

Archaeology itself has notable strengths in osteoarchaeology and forensic anthropology (where a range of taught masters programmes is available), as well as in its traditional core of European and Near-Eastern prehistory. 


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