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The Institute of Archaeology: the first 75 years

Digging up the Institute

Students using the Institute's first 'computer network'

In 1943, during Kenyon’s Directorship, the Institute hosted a remarkable event, the Conference on the Future of Archaeology. As architects and planners like Patrick Abercrombie were beginning to design the brave new post-war Britain amidst the rubble of the old, archaeologists recognised the opportunities for urban archaeology on bombsites, as well as their wider commitment to building a new society. The conference ranged widely and ambitiously across the world of archaeology and archaeology-in-the-world.

The programme featured Kenyon and her directorial successors Childe and Grimes, as well as luminaries such as Leonard Woolley, Christopher Hawkes, OGS Crawford, Gertrude Caton Thompson and Cyril Fox. The delegates discussed issues such as archaeology and education, museums and the public, and the relationship between archaeology and the state – all topics of enduring interest and significance.

Wheeler’s emphasis on the Institute as a training centre for archaeologists was marked by Kenyon’s insistence on the importance of fieldwork experience, and Frederick Zeuner’s forward-looking ideas on training in archaeological sciences.

It is remarkable to think that in 1943, with the second world war in full swing, so many of the stars of British archaeology could meet in St John’s Lodge to discuss issues such as the future of Islamic archaeology, the place of archaeology in the school curriculum, and the roles that archaeology could play in the social and physical reconstruction of the post-war world.

Rod Clough, a research student at the Institute in 1958-59, who went on to lecture at the University of Auckland

Such concerns remain the Institute’s key strengths. The archaeological sciences pioneered by Zeuner, Cornwall and others are a powerful focus of research and training, particularly in the fields of palaeoenvironments and archaeometallurgy. Museums, heritage, education and the social roles of archaeology are still central components, as the ghost of Wheeler stalks the corridors exhorting us to share our archaeology with the world.  The global perspective on the human past that might have seemed overly-optimistic and ambitious in 1943 is now at the core of the Institute of Archaeology’s mission to carry out comparative world studies.

In the run-up to our anniversary year in 2012, a number of discoveries and donations have begun to bring the history of the Institute home. Gordon Childe’s chair from St John’s Lodge – the one he actually sat in – has come to the Institute as an inheritance, and two wooden plaques have been unearthed that date from the institute’s opening in 1937. One commemorates Mary Woodgate Wharrie, the millionaire philanthropist whose donation to Petrie enabled the Institute to open.

Gabriel Moshenska holding the plaque dedicated to Tessa Verney Wheeler at the Institute

The other names Tessa Verney Wheeler, whose titanic efforts to bring the Institute into being came at the price of fatal damage to her health. These artefacts can now be seen in the Institute, alongside portraits of past directors and photographs from our 75-year history. These icons are just the visible peak of a great hidden iceberg of historical material, documents and photographs that make up the memory of the Institute as well as its own archaeology.

An anniversary is an opportunity to celebrate and a moment to reflect. In 75 years the Institute of Archaeology and its world have gone a long way towards fulfilling Wheeler’s and Childe’s hopes, as well as growing in directions that neither could have dreamed of. 

With over 200 undergraduates, 300 masters students, 160 registered PhD students, 13 postdoctoral researchers and 65 members of academic staff, the Institute today is a contemporary powerhouse of teaching, research and innovation with a bright future. Amidst mounting interest in the history of archaeology, as well as a growing concern for the future of British universities, it is both interesting and timely to consider the role of the Institute of Archaeology and other departments in the emergence, development and future directions of archaeology in Britain and beyond.

  • This article on the first 75 years of the Institute of Archaeology was written by Gabriel Moshenska, Leverhulme Trust Early Career Fellow at the Institute, and published in British Archaeology (May/June 2012)

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