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Teachers at Cambridge


Life as an undergraduate in Cambridge in the 1960s
Colin Renfrew Archaeologist
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Cambridge, of course, was a great place to be, no doubt it still is a great place to be, but in every direction there seemed to be interesting people. In the archaeology field, I mentioned Martin Biddle doing his excavations, also Barry Cunliffe whom I didn't get to know until I switched to archaeology but he was also at St John's and in the same year, and he was already doing his own excavations at Fishbourne, of course. But in all kinds of other directions, I was interested in art history, I was writing short art reviews for the student newspaper, "Varsity", and then the thing I think that attracted me most was the Union Society, the terrific atmosphere in some of those debates. The first debate of the year is the - the No Confidence in Her Majesty's Government, and so they always had a leading opposition politician and a government minister speaking, and in many ways the undergraduate speeches were the most impressive, I used to find, and so I started off greatly in awe of those speakers and then got more involved and in the end got very thoroughly involved in - in the debating and was president of the society in - during my third year, and made a lot of friends then who went on into politics. A lot of them became Conservative cabinet ministers and so on, and Leon Brittan and Michael Howard, Kenneth Clarke, Normal Fowler, Norman Lamont, just a lot of people very soon went into politics seriously and so, in a way, one found oneself as a result of those Cambridge years in touch with a number of directions. The acting was wonderful. I remember seeing "Beyond the Fringe" with Peter Cook who was, of course, a Cambridge undergraduate at the time in Cambridge before it went up to the Edinburgh Festival, and the acting was, of course, superb. Ian McKellan, Derek Jacobi, were student actors then. I'd like to have got involved in the acting but I decided there really wasn't time if one's doing - going once or twice a week to debates, you haven't really time to get involved. I think if I hadn't been doing sciences in part one, I might well have got involved in the acting but the science practicals mean that you're not really free in the afternoons which - which I might have been if - if I hadn't been doing natural sciences part one. So there was a lot of - a lot of variety and that's the great thing about Cambridge, you have to find time to do a little bit of work in between but it was - it was a very good experience, and so by 1960 I suppose it was, I switched to part two archaeology, and that was really very interesting from the beginning. I'd found with the history and philosophy of science that if you've got an interesting topic, I remember writing quite a long paper on simplicity, which is something desirable in - in scientific theories, really got into that and found that interesting sort of - researching that up. Well, as soon as I'd changed to archaeology, I found the - the essays, the supervision essays one had to write every week, some of them really were very interesting and they touched on matters that were already controversial. Glyn Daniel, of course, was a great enthusiast - enthusiast for the Megalithic monuments so he loved to set essays, what were the origin of the Megaliths of Western Europe, or when did the Megalith builders reach Britain, and so on, and the more one looked into it, the more one saw that a lot of the things that were generally believed, really were not very believable and I soon began to realise that a lot of the things one was being taught, which admittedly, I mean they were admitted to be somewhat hypothetical, but a lot of the hypotheses didn't really seem very plausible to me and I think the background I'd had at St Albans when one was being encouraged to question what one was being taught and if the proof didn't seem to quite work in the physics, say, come on, this proof doesn't work, I think that scepticism was also readily applicable in the archaeology field and there were a lot of questions that really seemed very open questions, and so that was an interesting situation to be - to find oneself in really.

Baron Renfrew of Kaimsthorn is a British archaeologist known for his work on the dispersal of the Proto-Indo-Europeans and the prehistory of PIE languages. He has been Disney Professor of Archaeology at Cambridge as well as Master of Jesus College and Director of the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research.

Listeners: Paul Bahn

Paul Bahn studied archaeology at Cambridge where he did his doctoral thesis on the prehistory of the French Pyrenees. He is now Britain's foremost specialist on Ice Age art and on Easter Island, and led the team which discovered Britain's first Ice Age cave art at Creswell Crags, Nottinghamshire, in 2003. He has authored and edited numerous books, including Journey Through the Ice Age, The Enigmas of Easter Island, Mammoths, The Cambridge Illustrated History of Prehistoric Art, and, with Colin Renfrew, Archaeology: Theories, Methods and Practice which was published in its 5th edition in 2008.

Duration: 4 minutes, 55 seconds

Date story recorded: January 2008

Date story went live: 14 May 2009