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Moving to Cambridge and my inaugural lecture


Work with the Ancient Monuments Board for England
Colin Renfrew Archaeologist
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Before moving to Cambridge from Southampton, I'd got a little bit involved in the politics of archaeology as it were because I was made a member of the Ancient Monuments Board for England, which at that time advised the Ministry of Works - that was how it was organised in those days - and the Ministry of Works looked after the monuments in the care of the nation, like Stonehenge and Avebury and so on, the so-called guardianship monuments. Now, but it also advised on monuments that should not be destroyed but were not in care, the so-called scheduled monuments because they were on a schedule of the nation's important monuments and this was a time that rescue archaeology was getting underway. Peter Addyman and Martin Biddle and others had really made a great effort and it was recognised or became recognised largely through their efforts, that if motorways were going to be built and they were going to bulldoze through archaeological sites, there ought to be excavation in advance of that so that the information would be rescued. And that was developing but the Ministry of Works was rather slow to respond so it was an interesting experience to sit on the Ancient Monuments Board, which at that time was a very, very conventional body. It was chaired by a distinguished old gentleman, Sir Edward Muir, who had been the principal secretary or the chief civil servant in the Ministry of Works, and most of its consideration was whether we should schedule this monument or that monument and dusty files were produced and it was agreed probably we would schedule this one but the landowner wasn't too happy about that one and so on, and only very slowly did the realities of contemporary archaeology enter the Ancient Monuments Board. And I remember very clearly that probably in my first year on the Ancient Monuments Board, I think it was about 1974, we all solemnly went down to Stonehenge and we all agreed that it was a bad business that the road goes through Stonehenge, the A344, isn't it, the one that actually goes through the monument and how nice it would be if that could be closed and, and if a proper visitors' centre could be built because the existing one was getting rather tatty and the car park was too small and so on, and I remember the minister for culture, junior minister, Alma Birk, Lady Birk, this was a, the Labour government at the time, came down and we all met and we agreed that Stonehenge should be a first priority for national attention. And I mention that with emphasis because the story continues, and when the Conservative government had come in and Michael Heseltine was Secretary, Secretary of State for the Environment, and the Ancient Monuments Board met with him, he was much more dynamic and wanted to revise the system and it was no longer the Ministry of Works by then, it was part of the Department of the Environment, the archaeology section, and he agreed yes, Stonehenge should be a first priority for the nation and he was responsible for completely restructuring the way the heritage was dealt with in this country and passed the legislation setting up the Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission for England and Lord Montagu, Edward Montagu, was made the first chairman of the commission and I became one of the commissioners, one of the foundation commissioners. And so we had a lot of time discussing what the new organisation should be, should be called and we had consultants who finally came up with the theory that it should be called English Heritage, which we agreed after some discussion. Not everybody was happy with the word Heritage and a logo was established and so on, and so Edward Montagu proclaimed that the flagship operation for English Heritage would be Stonehenge and we all went down and had meetings with the villagers to explain that the A344 should be closed even though they argued it would take a fire engine three minutes longer to reach the village in the case of emergency, should this happen and so on. And so my experience of the politics of archaeology, which has been a continuing one has in that sense been a frustrating one because after Edward Montagu, it was Sir Jocelyn Stevens who was the chairman of English Heritage and he reasserted that this was the flagship monument of the commission and so on and there were grandiose schemes for dualling the A303, which is the main road which goes past Stonehenge and putting that under a tunnel, which would have been very satisfactory, and that project has just this month collapsed. The government has announced that it's too expensive. It's turned out to be more expensive than they imagined. It would cost £500 million and therefore they're literally going back to square one. And I find this one of the most astonishing things, as I say because I think 1974, that I was first introduced to the problem and so that's 33 years where successive British governments have succeeded in doing absolutely nothing about Stonehenge, which has got the same car park and the same visitors' centre as it had in 1974. But English Heritage did many good things. I mean that was one conspicuous failure, but it did many good things and so I was involved in an interesting way with those developments and also with the Royal Commission, which was again recording ancient monuments, which was later on amalgamated with English Heritage.

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: 6 minutes, 10 seconds

Date story recorded: January 2008

Date story went live: 14 May 2009