Hon. John Abercromby, 5th Baron Abercromby of Aboukir and Tullibody (1841-1924), inherited the title in 1917, seven years before he died. He served in the army from 1857-1870 before dedicating himself to a life of travel and scholarship. He was a scholar of wide-ranging interests in European and Old World archaeology in an era when much of Scottish archaeology was introspective and parochial. He was interested in northern and eastern Europe and the Aryans, and published in these fields. His major work, however, was The Bronze Age Pottery of Great Britain and Ireland, a two-volume study of Beakers and Bronze Age pottery published in 1912. The manuscript notes, photographs and letters that went with his corpus are still in the Edinburgh University Library. In some ways Abercromby’s career as soldier, scholar and traveller reflects that of his more illustrious near-contemporary, Pitt-Rivers, though there is no evidence that they ever met or corresponded. Abercromby certainly shared Pitt-Rivers’ meticulous standards in field archaeology. He was a prominent Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, carrying out excavations on its behalf and publishing his results in its Proceedings. Compared with his own exacting standards, the Society’s subsequent excavations left much to be desired, and in a letter to the President and Council of 21 March 1905 Abercromby resigned as Secretary of the Society and withdrew his financial support for its excavations. Instead he determined to endow a Chair of Prehistoric Archaeology in the University of Edinburgh.
In his Will dated 10 April 1916 Abercromby had stipulated the following conditions for the Abercromby professorship:
- I limit the subject for which the proposed Chair is to be founded to that department of the science of Archaeology that treats of the antiquities and civilisation of the Countries of Europe and the Near East from the earliest times to the period at which the written history of each country may be said to begin.
- It shall be a sina qua non that the Incumbent of the Chair shall be proficient in the French and German languages and shall have at least a working knowledge of the Italian language.
- The Incumbent of the Chair shall keep himself at all times as far as possible abreast of the whole literature of the subject that is published in Europe; and it is my desire that he shall impart his acquired knowledge not only to his classes, but to a wider audience through the medium of the Press and otherwise.
- I desire that the Incumbent of the Chair shall not content himself with the passive role of merely disseminating the facts and theories of other writers, but that he shall also apply himself to the investigation and solution of some of the many problems and difficulties that encompass the study of Archaeology, and to achieve this end and to ensure the success of the project from its initiation, the first Incumbent of the Chair ought to be not only a specialist in Archaeology but also a vigorous man in the prime of life.
There has sometimes been debate as to whether the Abercromby Chair was simply a chair of Archaeology generally or Prehistoric Archaeology specifically. The 1923 Codicil to Lord Abercromby’s Will leaves no doubt about this issue; it specifies that his Bequest is “for the purpose of founding a Chair of Prehistoric Archaeology to be called ‘The Abercromby Chair of Archaeology’ ”.
The first holder of the Chair was Vere Gordon Childe (1927-1946), whose scholarly reputation was established by his early publications, The Dawn of European Civilization (1925) and The Danube in Prehistory (1929). One of the most influential archaeological theorists of his generation, he is credited with laying the theoretical and methodological foundations of Old World archaeology. He is especially remembered for his definition of an archaeological culture as a series of types regularly found in association. He explored such major topics as the origins of agriculture, which he termed the ‘Neolithic Revolution’ and the beginnings of sedentary societies, which led to the ‘Urban Revolution’. His theoretical approach was profoundly influenced by Marxist materialism, and his developing interest in Indo-European origins was curtailed in consequence of his antipathy towards the political manipulation of the Aryan debate by the emerging political philosophy of Nazi Germany.
In keeping with Abercromby’s wishes, Childe was also a synthesizer and populariser of archaeology. The books Man Makes Himself (1936) and What Happened in History (1942) probably are the best known of his works, but others equally fundamental to the study of Old World Archaeology include The Most Ancient East (1928), The Bronze Age (1930), and Progress and Archaeology (1944).
Though arguably the foremost European prehistorian of the twentieth century, Childe was apparently Edinburgh’s second choice. In his autobiography, Still Digging, Sir Mortimer Wheeler (who spent his childhood in Edinburgh) records that he was offered the newly-created Abercromby Chair, but ‘unhesitatingly’ turned it down. I particularly recalled that claim when on my own appointment several well-wishers made a point of telling me that it had previously been offered to Colin Renfrew and John Coles. If Childe could swallow his pride, I thought, then so could I! Childe’s scholarly achievements hardly need re-iterating. Within the University Childe served on Senate and the Higher Degrees Committee, but otherwise played no significant part in University politics. He was nevertheless well-known for his eccentric appearance and his radical politics around the University, and it is something of a surprise that he made a point of attending in 1937 the conferral of an Honorary Degree on the young Queen Elizabeth shortly after the abdication of Edward VII. True to Abercromby’s reference to the ‘science of Archaeology’ the first students of Archaeology at Edinburgh studied for the BSc degree. The first recipient of the Class Medal in Archaeology in 1928-29 was Margaret Stewart (née Crichton Mitchell), who in her Will endowed the Dr Margaret Stewart bequest for the study of European Beaker pottery and related topics, naming the Abercromby professor as chair of its Trustees.
By the late 1930s the Abercromby bequest was no longer sufficient to meet the costs of the Chair. Accordingly the Senate had successfully sought a grant from the Carnegie Trust to top up the capital fund. Childe persuaded the Senate and then the Carnegie Trustees to divert the money instead to the creation of a post in Social Anthropology, an act of altruism that in the long term would jeopardise the future of his own Chair. In later years the salary of the Abercromby professor was met from general University funds; only the quite substantial Abercromby Trust Fund for student travel, in terms of the bequest administered solely by the Abercromby professor, survived as part of the original legacy.
Stuart Piggot at Stonehenge in 1958
From 1946-77 Stuart Piggott held the Chair, initially on a two-term-a-year basis and latterly full-time. Whether the two-term arrangement reflected the declining value of the bequest, or an expectation that a scholar and gentleman would be away on the Grand Tour from Easter till Autumn, is not clear. Piggott’s initial claim to distinction, surely unrepeatable since, was that he was appointed to his chair without a degree; he had no undergraduate degree and his B.Litt on Stukeley was awarded after his appointment. Like Childe, Piggott’s scholarly achievements hardly need rehearsing. Contrary to some uncharitable opinions, he (and still more so his wife Peggy) did a great deal for Archaeology in Scotland, including excavations at Cairnpapple and Dalladies, and a popular overview of Scottish prehistory Scotland before the Scots (1958).
He was nevertheless better known for his work in Wessex, including his excavations at West Kennett and at Stonehenge, whilst his European perspective was reflected in a series of books and papers, including one of the Edinburgh University Press’s best-sellers, his Rhind Lectures published under the title Ancient Europe (1965). But he made no secret of his dislike for the Highland Zone generally, and when he retired it was back to his native Berkshire. He only set foot in Edinburgh University once thereafter, to receive an Honorary D. Litt, for which as Dean of Arts at the time I had the pleasure of promoting him. In receiving an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Edinburgh in 2000, Her Majesty the Queen of Denmark singled out Stuart Piggott as someone whose academic reputation extended far beyond his native shores.
In 1977 when I arrived in Edinburgh the Department comprised four academic staff. Apart from myself, there was Trevor Watkins, then lecturer, later promoted to a personal chair, David Ridgway, then lecturer, later promoted Reader, and Roger Mercer, then lecturer, subsequently promoted to Reader before being appointed Secretary to the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland. In 1978 the Faculty of Arts advertised two new lectureships, filled by Edgar Peltenburg, subsequently promoted to a personal chair, and Clive Bonsall, subsequently promoted Reader. After 1978, when competitor Departments in Glasgow, Durham and especially Sheffield were expanding to twice or even three times the size of the Edinburgh Department, Edinburgh did not advertise a single academic post in Archaeology for more than twenty years, despite the case being made regularly and emphatically. Accordingly, the Department adopted other tactics. Under UGC transfer, Ian Ralston was transferred from Aberdeen to a lectureship and subsequently promoted to a personal chair in Edinburgh. Nick Dixon was transferred from St Andrews to a research fellowship in Edinburgh to promote underwater archaeology. Geraint Coles was promoted from a technical post to a lectureship and subsequently senior lectureship in Environmental Archaeology. And finally Magda Midgley was made a full-time lecturer, subsequently senior lecturer, after several years of ad hoc funding through the commercial earnings of the Department’s Centre for Field Archaeology (before it moved out of the University to become an independent commercial unit). Despite these initiatives, and a track record of promotions second to none across the University, the Department could not hope to keep pace with its competitors, and in 2001 slipped to a grade 3 in the RAE ratings, with substantial consequential loss of funding to the University.
While I was Vice-Principal responsible for Staffing and Student Affairs in the University from 1988-91, one of my major tasks had been to implement the Government’s policy decision to close Dentistry in Edinburgh (on account of a perceived over-provision of dental training in Scotland, a judgement that seems in retrospect breathtaking in its incompetence). This resulted in the vacation of extensive premises in the Old High School, not the new Old High School on Calton Hill that was once earmarked for the Scottish Assembly, but the eighteenth century building in Infirmary Street in which Sir Walter Scott and Daniel Wilson (of Prehistoric Annals fame) had been pupils. Not entirely coincidentally therefore the Archaeology Department in 1993 became the new occupants of the Old High School, having transferred to the Faculty of Social Sciences. Archaeology in Edinburgh had a new home in an extensive building with impressive classical façade. It had a strong postgraduate school, with particular strengths in the eastern Mediterranean (Cyprus) and the Middle East, and in Scotland with the Calanais Research Centre, which over a ten-year period (1985-95) had been the focus for eight PhD students and more than twenty undergraduate dissertation projects. What it still lacked was critical mass in terms of staff numbers. Successive internal and external enquiries had reported on what was required to boost Archaeology in Edinburgh, but the bottom line was always the need for investment.
In 2002 the University of Edinburgh had embarked on a major ‘restructuring’ exercise, in which the former Faculties were grouped into three ‘Colleges’ and former Departments were combined into ‘Schools’. Some large Departments effectively retained their former status as Schools, but Archaeology inevitably fell between disciplinary boundaries, and was incorporated into a School of Arts, Culture and Environment together with Architecture, History of Art and Music. The position of Archaeology, now only a ‘Subject Area’ rather than a Department, was frequently described as ‘anomalous’, and after further deliberations Archaeology has been transferred to the School of History and Classics from the autumn of 2007, coincident with the retiral of the present Abercromby professor, whose post now remains vacant indefinitely. Archaeology will thus be re-united with Classical Archaeology; indeed the implication of the recent filling of a new chair in Classical Archaeology is that the University will henceforth concentrate its resources in that field, and not in European (including British and Scottish) prehistory. Sustaining the degree in Archaeology (as opposed to combined degrees with Classical Archaeology) may prove problematic, since current staff numbers already struggle to meet the range required by national benchmarking standards in Archaeology. The University will maintain that Archaeology continues to flourish in Edinburgh, and in terms of Classical Archaeology that may well be true. But it will not be the Archaeology of Piggott, Childe or Lord Abercromby. And the use of the Abercromby title for anything other than a Chair of Prehistoric Old World Archaeology would be a travesty of the benefactor’s intentions, as would be the use of his Trust Fund for any other purpose than to support travel and research by students of Old World Prehistoric Archaeology.
In 1977 Antiquity described the Edinburgh Department of Archaeology as ‘one of the main centres of prehistoric teaching and research in the world’. The reality of the situation now is that by not filling the Abercromby Chair through public advertisement in open competition, Edinburgh University has signalled to the archaeological community that it is no longer committed to maintaining that role in Prehistoric Archaeology.