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Work on the prehistory of languages


Life as Master of Jesus College, Cambridge
Colin Renfrew Archaeologist
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We'd been back in Cambridge a few years and I'd become a fellow of St John's College again, a professorial fellow, which was very agreeable and then suddenly out of the blue we had a letter or I had a letter from the president of Jesus College saying that they were looking for a new Master. Sir Alan Cottrell would be retiring the next year, would be retiring in 1986, so this must have been in 1985 this letter came in, and would I be interested in being considered with a number of other people for the possibility of becoming Master of the college. Well, this is something that I hadn't really thought about at all and obviously would be rather a deflection from one's archaeological work to get involved so much in college affairs, but it sounded rather an attractive prospect and I didn't know Jesus College very well, but when I went there and met the fellows and so on, it really seemed a very interesting challenge. Jesus is one of the oldest colleges in Cambridge, was founded in 1496 but founded out of a nunnery which had stood there before and so the building, some of the buildings are very much older, going back to the 12th Century and so it seemed like an interesting challenge. So I discussed it very carefully with Jane because if, if one was going to become Master, if one was elected Master, then one would move in to the Master's lodge, which is a very handsome building, and would have all kinds of duties and it would be really rather time consuming but we thought it would be an interesting thing to do. It would be fun, so I agreed that I'd like to stand in the election, served at all kinds of meetings with fellows and so on and in the end I was indeed elected Master so we arranged to move into the Master's lodge in Jesus, which we did in 1986 and really got stuck into the work of the college, which made for a very different life because if you live in the Master's lodge, you're in the middle of things. You're living over the shop as it were, but it's enormously convenient. You can slip out to the college bar for a drink and you're expected of course to go to the evening service on a Sunday in chapel when there was a, an outside preacher but also it was hoped you would support the chapel in other ways and you were certainly expected to show some interest in student activities, sport and so on. So we got very interested in the, in the rowing, which is a very attractive feature of Cambridge and really enjoyed very much those years in Jesus College, but there was the risk I could see that one wouldn't have enough time to do, get on with one's academic work so very fortunately, I had the idea right at the beginning, that if I was going to become Master, would it be possible to have a research assistant who would help with the preparation of the publication of the second volume on our Melos excavations. The first volume had already been published by then or around that time but the second volume was going to take a lot of working up and very fortunately the college agreed with that, so we had a, a succession of research assistants who were extremely helpful, Christine Morris and then Chris Scarre and, and then Neil Brodie, and all that is relevant because from the point of view of archaeology in Cambridge, a significant event arose when I had a letter from a solicitor representing somebody who clearly might become a significant donor and could this donor who wasn't even named then, could he come and visit the department. So we organised sort of the laboratory such as they were functioning and so on and Dr McDonald, as it turned out to be, who was a, a rather brisk Scottish gentleman in his 80s came with his solicitor and his advisor and they went rather briskly round the department, took a great deal of interest. He was very well informed about archaeology. Then we gave him a good lunch in the college and that was relevant because if you have a, a Master's lodge, you can entertain rather well and so after lunch he discussed the Paleolithic with Paul Mellars. He discussed Mesopotamia with Nicholas Postgate and Joan Oates, the relevant specialist. He discussed Egypt with Barry Kemp who was the Cambridge Egyptologist and then said - oh yes, well, that's very interesting. Thank you very much and he took himself off and that was that really. So I thought, hmm, that didn't lead us very far but then about a month later I had a letter from the same advisor, could the two advisors come to call on me? So this time we didn't sort of go in for lunch. They were welcomed for a cup of coffee at 11 o'clock in the department, but they came and said Dr McDonald was very interested and he would like to do something for the department and he'd like to contribute £100,000 a year for field work for five years and would that be acceptable. So that question wasn't a difficult one to answer. That would be acceptable, yes, and then he, they said could you indicate how you would dispose of a larger sum, and that was a very interesting question because clearly the larger sum wasn't indicated and so that made me think. But I realised that what Cambridge very much needed was a new building for archaeology. We had very poor facilities and so I thought we should have new laboratories, and I could also see that there was no point in letting the university off the hook with its own responsibilities, which I didn't think it was meeting very well, which were mainly to undergraduates. That was where the university might have done something so I thought perhaps an institute for research, which would be useful for post-graduate and even post-doctoral work. So I said, well, I think it would be very useful to have an institute for archaeological research and it would need a building and it would need various facilities and so on and they said, well, could I think more about that and write to them about that. And that was very interesting and so I went to see the secretary general of the faculties, who was the chief administrator of the university, and he was very good. I think perhaps they'd lost a potential donation some time before by not following it up very vigorously so he lost no time and he suggested there was a piece of land in the middle of the quadrangle near the archaeology department on the Downing site and he would get an architect who would do an outline design of a building and so we invited Dr McDonald and his advisors in December of that year. I suppose that was, must have been 1988 by then and so they came and we gave them - we had a nice meeting in Jesus College, gave them a very good dinner. The choir, dressed in their robes, came to sing Christmas carols. We really sort of did our best as it were and then we had this project and the secretary general of the faculty said, pointed out that if you're going to build a building, which we reckon might cost about £5 million, then the university would have to have an endowment to run it, and so we calculated that might be another £5 million and so we said to Dr Mac, this is the project and it will cost about £10 million and he said, that's very interesting, and it really proceeded from there. And by that time the research assistant was Chris Scarre and so he and I spent a lot of time communicating with Dr McDonald and he spent several visits to Cambridge, and there were problems with planning permission, with the design and planning permission, but he took a keen hand in getting the right design and so he agreed it should go ahead and we organised the first McDonald lecture, and we have had annual McDonald lectures since then. And we took some temporary premises near the university and got some laboratories going. Very sadly, Dr McDonald then died but his affairs were in order and the matter was written into his will, so the institute got built so we got an institute for archaeological research, which gave us very good laboratories and it also gave an endowment to make possible not only field work but to appoint one or two research personnel, and so that was a very good thing for Cambridge archaeology. But it also made possible various other, various other developments and one of those was to host conferences and so on in the, in the new building.

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: 9 minutes, 20 seconds

Date story recorded: January 2008

Date story went live: 14 May 2009