An austere intellectual digger

Grahame Clark
September 27, 2002

Grahame Clark was one of the small band of professional archaeologists who in the middle decades of the 20th century transformed archaeology from its rather gentle image as a healthy amateur pastime, essentially parochial, to a tough profession global in its vision and always ready to engage in political debate.

Clark was born in 1907, the only child of a moderately prosperous stockbroking family. His earliest experiences of archaeology involved rambles on the Sussex Downs in the company of local amateur antiquaries collecting flint implements; a fascination he developed, along with his interests as a naturalist, in the early 1920s as a schoolboy at Marlborough College.

In 1973, he retired from the Disney chair of archaeology at Cambridge, having recently published the second edition of his ambitious World Prehistory , heaped with honours, and content in the knowledge that his students were now strategically placed throughout the world in positions of influence to develop the Cambridge vision of archaeology in which they had been so carefully schooled. It would have given him particular pleasure that one of them, Brian Fagan, whose doctoral research in Africa eventually led him to the chair of anthropology at the University of California, should be his biographer.

But Clark does not lend himself easily to biography. His life was comfortable, middle class and largely uneventful. After Marlborough College he went up to Peterhouse, Cambridge, in 1926, and remained there throughout his professional life, as an undergraduate, research student, lecturer, professor and master of the college until 1980, continuing to live in retirement in Cambridge until his death in 1995. He was happily married with a supportive wife and family.

Clark was an austere man, an austerity born partly of a self-sufficiency that came from being an only child whose father had died when he was eight, and partly from an innate shyness. He was also spare in all his ways, particularly in his relationships with all but a very small group of friends. Life was effectively ordered: there was seldom waste, no personal clutter was allowed to accumulate and letters were often returned with a few scribbled lines of reply on the bottom. Pity, then, the poor biographer.

Yet Fagan has risen brilliantly to the challenge. Knowing Clark well for the past 40 years of his life since he was himself an undergraduate in the mid-1950s, he was well prepared for his daunting task, though he admits to being surprised at the "disappointingly uninformative" nature of the interviews conducted with former colleagues and students, concluding that Clark "remains surprisingly invisible outside the narrow coterie of Mesolithic archaeologists and former Cambridge graduates. His personality was not one that invited celebrity; his lecturing style was dry rather than entertaining."

It was for this reason that Fagan decided to focus the biography "almost entirely on Clark's academic contribution, while the man tends to stand in the background. Yet it matters little, for the Clark you encountered was the Clark you also met on paper." Thus the subtitle, An Intellectual Biography of an Archaeologist .

Not at first sight very promising, one might think, but what emerges is a fascinating and extremely lively and perceptive account of the coming of age of British archaeology in the 20th century and of Clark's dominant, indeed magisterial role in that process. Through Fagan's critical eyes we trace Clark's intellectual development against the background of a series of vignettes drawn to explain and enliven the world of archaeology as it evolved largely around a Cambridge-London axis. Each of Clark's major intellectual achievements is carefully introduced and then dissected in some detail to demonstrate its contribution to the advancement of the discipline. The use of contemporary reviews provides an interesting insight into peer-group response to Clark's work, though, as is so often the case, it often tells us more about the reviewer than the reviewed.

Clark began his archaeology, embedded in the amateur tradition of the flint collector and of artefact typology, with his doctoral thesis subsequently published as The Mesolithic Age in Britain (1932), and went on to produce a more extended study, The Mesolithic Settlement of Northern Europe (1936). In the interim, he had begun to appreciate the potential value of excavation in contexts where organic preservation was good and environmental data could be expected to survive to supplement the artefactual record. This led to the creation of the Fenland Research Committee, the precursor of the subdiscipline of what is now called wetland archaeology. This initial interest culminated in the excavation, in 1949-51, of the Mesolithic settlement at Star Carr in Yorkshire, resulting in a seminal work published in 1954 that can fairly be said to have changed the direction of British field archaeology, not least in introducing the concept that human society must always be seen in the context of the environment with which it interacted.

In parallel with this, Clark's interests were developing more widely. His travels in northern Europe had introduced him to the importance of recent ethnographic data, while contact with the economic historian Michael Postan had refocused his attention away from the predominantly artefactual and cultural approaches then current towards the economic systems within which prehistoric societies operated. The results of this research were published in 1952 as Prehistoric Europe: The Economic Basis , a volume that set the agenda for much of what was to follow from the Cambridge school for the next three decades.

Clark's widening interests and his increasing familiarity with archaeology outside Europe led, inevitably, to his last major contribution - a tome, slight at first, titled World Prehistory: An Outline (1961), which, through subsequent editions, became much strengthened and expanded. In many ways World Prehistory marked the end of an era - it dragged archaeology out of its provincialism and opened entirely new vistas, but, as Fagan succinctly puts it, it "was a descriptive work with no theoretical sophistication", and it appeared at a time when the new generation of archaeologists was avidly embracing "theoretical archaeology". The "new archaeology", as it was then called, was of little interest to Clark whose whole life had been devoted to acquiring, refining and explaining data. Asked his opinion on the latest theoretical approach, he dismissed the subject replying that "today's isms are tomorrow's wasms".

Clark's intellectual impact was central to the development of prehistory in the 20th century and through Fagan's careful, measured analysis we can begin to see this austere giant in his true perspective. Those of us who were students of Clark will recognise the man we knew and will, I suspect, be a little saddened that we did not do more to break through the facade of shyness that kept him at such a distance from us.

Barry Cunliffe is professor of European archaeology, University of Oxford.

Grahame Clark: An Intellectual Biography of an Archaeologist

Author - Brian Fagan
ISBN - 0 8133 3602 3
Publisher - Westview
Price - £18.99
Pages - 304

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