The tradition of archaeology at Edinburgh

The tradition of studying archaeology at Edinburgh University dates back over a hundred years.

Photo of Lord Abercromby
Lord Abercromby

Archaeology in various guises has been taught within the University of Edinburgh since the nineteenth century. However, 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 was the famous 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, the latter notably for Penguin. 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 receiving an honorary degree at his Alma mater, the University of Sydney, in 1957

This was the longest spell Childe held any academic post and during his tenure of the Abercromby Chair, his Marxist perspectives on the human past developed. Childe managed simultaneously to widen and deepen 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. He continued to undertake excavations in Orkney, 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.

As a significant world figure in the development of mid-twentieth century archaeology, Childe continues to attract substantial literature, including most recently Terry Irving’s (2020) ‘The fatal lure of politics’ (Monash University Press). The entire volume of the European Journal of Archaeology for 2009 was devoted to papers from a conference held on the fiftieth anniversary of his death. No other archaeological figure has been so thoroughly studied.    

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 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), and Anthony Snodgrass, latterly Laurence Professor of Classical Archaeology at Cambridge. Other key members included the late David Ridgway and Roger Mercer, the latter subsequently Secretary of the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland. Emeritus Professor Trevor Watkins developed teaching and research in the prehistoric Near East.

Photo of Stuart Piggott
Two Abercromby Professors: Dennis Harding with Stuart Piggott on the occasion of the award of an honorary DLitt by the University in 1983

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, an Emeritus Professor at the time of his death, to bolster our involvement with Cyprus and the Eastern Mediterranean area.

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 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. Since his retirement in 2007, Dennis Harding has continued to publish, notably a series of monographs on aspects of the British Iron Age for Oxford University Press.  

Archaeology in the School of History, Classics and Archaeology now

From 2007 the Abercromby Chair was to be vacant for a number of years. The University established a new Chair of Classical Archaeology in the following year, which was taken up by Professor James Crow. He acted as a link between Archaeology and the Classical archaeologists who remain, in the Edinburgh tradition, within the Classics subject area in the School.

Ian Ralston
Ian Ralston

In 2012 Ian Ralston was promoted to the Abercromby Chair of Archaeology, which he held until 2019. During this period he continued to research the European Iron Age (notably the major fifth century BC settlement at Bourges in France), as well as working on aspects of Scottish archaeology, the history of the subject and on applied archaeology. He co-directed (with Emeritus Professor Gary Lock, Oxford) a major project on British and Irish hillforts funded by AHRC and was Head of School (2013-16). Following Ralston’s retirement at the end of 2019, the Abercromby Chair remained vacant until the appointment of Manuel Fernández-Götz as Abercromby Professor in 2022.

Archaeology at Edinburgh is better-represented within the University than ever. In what is now the School of History, Classics and Archaeology, there are currently four professors of archaeology, of whom three are classical archaeologists (including the Byzantine world) and one is a prehistorian. There is now a stronger staff representation in teaching and research across the core areas of Europe, the Middle East and Egypt (and interests extending beyond this traditional focus). Archaeology also has notable strengths in areas such as heritage, marine archaeology and osteoarchaeology, as well as in other aspects of bioarchaeology and scientific approaches. 


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