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Leslie Alcock

24th April 1925 - 6th June 2006

Appreciation by
Stephen T. Driscoll

Professor Leslie Alcock will be most widely remembered for his book Arthur's Britain, which made a lasting impact on the scholarly community and was hugely popular, and for his excavations at the hillfort of South Cadbury-Camelot, Somerset, which attracted world-wide media attention. These were the popular highlights of a career that had a major influence on the practice of archaeology in Britain and on the study of early medieval Britain in particular. As a native Mancunian he counted himself among the Gwyr y Gogledd, 'men of the north' and consequently developed a lifelong interest in the Celtic history and archaeology, which he pursued in Cardiff and latterly in Glasgow.

He won a scholarship to attend Manchester Grammar School (1935-42), after which he served in the Gurkas in India, reaching the rank of Captain. His Indian experience had an anthropological dimension (probably not intended by the army); not only did he become fluent in Urdu and Punjabi, but his close involvement with non-western culture influenced his understanding of archaeological evidence. The army service may also have kindled his interest in the study of ancient warfare, which was one of his favourite themes.

After the war he won a scholarship to Oxford, where he read Modern History at Brasenose College (1946-49). Archaeology was not taught at Oxford, so like many of his generation he pursued this interest through the Oxford Archaeology Society of which he served as president. He met his future wife, Elizabeth Blair, on a climbing holiday at Glen Brittle, Skye. She was an English student at Oxford with archaeological inclinations. They were married in 1950 and she went on to become his most important scholarly collaborator.

It was back in India that he gained his most valuable archaeological training, working as Sir Mortimer Wheeler's deputy on the large-scale excavations at the ancient city of Mohenjo-Daro on the Indus River. On the basis of this experience he was appointed the first director of the Archaeological Survey of Pakistan (1950), but he returned to Britain after not being paid for some time. In addition to providing an apprenticeship in archaeological fieldwork India also contributed to his lifelong love of mountaineering and hill-walking.

He worked as curator at the Abbey House Museum, Leeds, for a year (1952), before being appointed to a junior lectureship in Archaeology at University College of Wales, Cardiff (1953), where he developed a fluent and engaging lecturing style. He was to remain for twenty years eventually becoming Reader, during which time Cardiff developed into the leading Archaeology department in Britain. His first significant archaeological breakthrough came at the department's training excavation at the small hillfort of Dinas Powys, Glamorgan. His report, published virtually single-handedly in 1963, has become a classic of archaeological reporting and a hallmark of his later work. The clear analysis of the stratigraphy and insightful assessment of the finds, particularly the imported pottery and glass and metalworking evidence, were supported by a robust assessment of the social and political significance of this early medieval (5th -7th centuries AD) stronghold. Particularly innovative was the use he made of historical evidence including the early Welsh law tracts. So compelling was discussion of the archaeology that traditional historians took notice.

Following this success Alcock launched an ambitious assault on South Cadbury, an Iron Age hillfort identified by Tudor antiquarians as King Arthur's Camelot. Five seasons of excavation began in 1966 with the support of the British archaeological establishment. The excavations were astonishingly productive and revealed a sequence of British Celtic archaeology spanning 1200 years, including a major post-Roman phase. The dig was conducted on an unprecedented scale involving hundreds of volunteers attracted from around the world. The excavations were covered widely in the press and on television, not least because of the deliberate emphasis of the Arthurian connection. Methodologically, the scale of the open area excavations marked an important advance from the Wheeler method as was Alcock's early use of geophysical survey methods. A popular account, 'By South Cadbury was that Camelot' (1972) appeared at the conclusion of the dig, but the richness of the excavations exceeded all expectations and the final publication did not appear until 1995.

Alcock's most influential book, Arthur's Britain (1971), appeared at the height of interest in South Cadbury and offered an archaeologically informed account of British society in the post-Roman centuries (5th -7th centuries). It dealt in detail with the historical evidence for Arthur, which attracted some resentful criticism from historians, but the most remarkable feature was the balanced discussion of both the native British and the invading English. The confident command of a range of source material, the effective integration of the historical and archaeological evidence and, above all, his willingness to cut across the Celtic/Anglo-Saxon divide have ensured that it still remains in print today.

In 1973 he was appointed to the newly created chair in Archaeology at Glasgow University and thus drew a line under the Arthurian phase of his career. While the move to Scotland allowed him to shift the focus of his research northwards, he could never escape Arthur and throughout his Scottish career was pestered with enquiries about Arthur. He certainly lost enthusiasm for the topic, not only did he refuse to revise Arthur's Britain, but the prefaces he wrote for the later editions were increasing disparaging about the contents. He did, however, revisit some of the themes and material from Dinas Powys and Arthur's Britain in Economy, Society and Warfare among the Britons and the Saxons (1987).

Once in Scotland he initiated a series of reconnaissance excavations at places in the north mentioned in early historic sources, including Dumbarton, Dundurn, Dunottar Castle, Urquhart Castle and Forteviot. These targeted, small-scale excavations had a major impact in Scotland, where there had been relatively little scholarly interest in 'Early Historic' archaeology. The material was similar to that which he had been examining in western Britain, but he invested it with a Scottish resonance by emphasising that the archaeology complimented Scotland's earliest contemporary historical sources. In addition to the fieldwork programme, he set about building up the department and revitalising Scottish archaeology. He was a great champion of archaeological science and made it an important feature of the Glasgow curriculum and he was instrumental in establishing a radiocarbon laboratory in Scotland. It was his personal reputation that did the most to elevate Glasgow's position, particularly through attracting research students many of whom have gone on to occupy key posts in universities and the heritage services.

Leslie Alcock played a larger public role Scotland than he had while in Cardiff and helped to redefine Scotland's leading archaeological institutions. He served on the Ancient Monuments Board for Scotland, on the Commission for the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland, and as president of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland (1984-87). He took his leadership responsibilities seriously and instigated significant changes across all of these institutions. Much of this of course took place behind the scenes, but his belief in the value of open and frank debate led the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland opening the lectures up for questions and discussion during his presidency.

In the year before his retirement he drew the results of his Scottish research together in the Rhind Lectures for 1989, which had much of the synthetic character of Arthur's Britian, although they were less confident in tone. The publication of these lectures was delayed by health problems and by caring for his wife Elizabeth in the years before her death. Always scrupulous about publishing his fieldwork, he placed his outstanding excavation reports before the Rhind lectures, which did not appear until 2003 as the much expanded overview of the Early Historic North, Kings & Warriors Craftsmen & Priests, which included his most sustained discussion of the early Church.

In many respects Leslie Alcock lived for archaeology. He found it endlessly stimulating and long after his retirement was a welcome and lively figure in the Glasgow archaeology department. However, his greatest recreational interests were hill-walking and mountain climbing. Apart from his family his main social contacts were scholarly. He was fond of early jazz and a good dram. He was devoted to Elizabeth, who made substantial contributions to the Scottish work once their children Penny and John were grown up.

During his career he accumulated numerous honours and in 1991 was awarded an OBE. Perhaps his main intellectual legacy is that he dragged scholarship on early medieval Britain out of the Dark Ages through his willingness to bridge the Celtic/Anglo-Saxon divide and his facility for integrating historical and archaeological evidence. There is no question that his work redefined archaeological scholarship of the period and it is hoped that the Leslie and Elizabeth Alcock Centre for Historical Archaeology founded in 2005 at the University of Glasgow will be an effective memorial to his scholarly vision.

Born in Manchester 24 April 1925
Died Stevenage 6 June 2006
Survived by son John Alcock and daughter Penny A. Parkes