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Choosing a research topic


Teachers at Cambridge
Colin Renfrew Archaeologist
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One of the features of Cambridge, of course, is you're taught by people who are really high powered researchers. That was true already in the sciences where one got lectures from really distinguished biochemists and if one was interested one could go to seminars and so on. I was very impressed that in St John's we had Paul Dirac, one of the great figures in quantum mechanics, going back to, he was an old man then, but going back to earlier days won his Nobel Prize in the 1930s or something, and I went to one of his seminars and this is something I'd done in Paris already. I'd gone to quite a lot of science seminars in subjects that were really rather above my head, quantum physics and so on, I'd actually heard Louis de Broglie speaking in a seminar, or at least asking questions in a seminar in - in Paris, but I think it's very interesting to hear people talking seriously about a subject even though you don't understand every bit of it and certainly couldn't repeat it. And so, in fact, I remember going to call on Dirac which was rather a daring thing to do while I was president of the Union to ask him if he would speak in a Union debate and he was known to be a man of few words as I later on found, once I became a fellow of St John's, I'd occasionally be sitting next to him and you had to be rather skilful to get a word out of him at all. It wasn't that he was taciturn, he was just a man of few words and didn't really think it was necessary to speak unless there was some purpose, and I remember knocking on the door that said Lucasian Professor, which was professor of mathematics and science, and Newton had been Lucasian Professors - professor 200 or whatever it was years before. So I knocked on the door and opened the door and there was a very long table and there was Professor Dirac sitting thoughtfully at the end. So I went in and said, good morning, Professor Dirac, I'm doing this and I'm going to have this debate on science and religion and I wonder if there's any possibility of your speaking in the debate. And he was a very polite man and there was nothing hostile in his response but he just raised his head from his hand and said, no. And so I then said, well, thank you very much, I'm sorry to have troubled you and in a slight fluster, left. So that was my brief contact with - with Dirac, but in the archaeology field, more productively perhaps, Glyn was, of course, a great raconteur and so in his lectures he'd always tell you the latest news since he was editor of "Antiquity" which was the best periodical for archaeological news, he'd always have a new radiocarbon date that he was about to publish or something of that kind, and, of course, he held good parties in his room and so sort of one term you'd be bumping into Sir Mortimer Wheeler, the next term you'd be meeting somebody was excavating in - in Africa. Grahame Clark was a very different character. He was less effusive in manner but deeply serious about his archaeology and if one went to call - in my second year of archaeology, my fourth year as a student, I did get to know him quite well and would call - tap on the door to ask about something, and without really asking what you wanted to know, he would tell you about his latest fascination. At that time he was researching into bows, bows and arrows, and was doing interesting work carrying - studying the archaeological remains of bows back into early - back into the Neolithic period, so we would go in perhaps with some small point you want to ask. You'd have half an hour of Neolithic archery and then you'd feel you have to take your leave and not be much the wiser other than for the Neolithic archery. But the department was really one of factions at that time. There was Eric Higgs, great enthusiast for studying ecology, usually from animal bones, and so he was taking a very economic view of the prehistoric past, taking a leaf, really, from Grahame Clark's book, while Glyn Daniel was not interested in that at all, he was interested in Megaliths, interested in the history of archaeology, and in the personalities of archaeology, and then Charles McBurney was very preoccupied with the Palaeolithic period so that it was an interesting mix of people and the lecturer at that time, a relatively junior lecturer who really did a lot of the bread and butter work, was John Coles, later Professor John Coles, who gave really well organised series of lectures on the Bronze Age, so that one heard from a lot of different people in a lot of different styles. And I think probably it was very good for us that we could see that not all these lecturers got on with each other very well and they certainly didn't follow each other's lines of thinking, so that you could already see there were things that didn't fit together and potential conflicts and sort of minor controversies underlying the surface all the time. And I think because of Glyn's enthusiasm, I became very interested in the Megalithic monuments which, indeed, are hugely romantic. You have these great stone funerary structures dating obviously from before the Bronze Age, dating from thousands of years ago, about which relatively little was known and so my parents were always very willing to have a proposal for where one should go on holiday, so one summer we went to Spain and went and visited some of the Megalithic monuments in Spain that we'd been hearing about which were genuinely very impressive and one Christmas we went down to Malta and saw the so-called Temples of Malta which are enormously impressive stone structures about which, again, rather little was known and this was a very good way of knowing what one was talking about and it made the essays one was writing, if you were doing an essay on the temple cultures of Malta, if you'd actually seen the temples then you had something to say and so that was really profitable. So I think the questions, I was going to say examinations but if one's writing an essay question, they really became quite real questions. We were discussing the chronology of these monuments, they didn't seem dry questions when you'd seen the monuments and so it was quite easy to get enthused about that. And that was all, as it turned out, a very good training because later on as more radiocarbon dates became available, the problems became even more real and to become quite involved in them already was actually a very good start from a research point of view because I think it had become clear to me during my final year that I really would like to go on and do archaeological research and I could imagine whereas I wasn't going to spend my life analysing some organic compound, I could imagine spending a lot of time researching into some of those issues, and so it seemed natural to apply for research. And, of course, to do that it was necessary to get a good degree, get first class honours or something, but I was fortunate in being in a very good group. I mentioned Barry Cunliffe and the - the year that I did part two, there were, I think, four or five first class honours degrees, three or four of them were in St John's College so Glyn Daniel who was the director of studies in St John's, was - was very pleased and so that worked out quite well 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: 8 minutes, 47 seconds

Date story recorded: January 2008

Date story went live: 14 May 2009