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Paul Ashbee

23rd June 1918 - 19th August 2009

Appreciation by
Graham Connah

Lawrence Barfield, Auvergne, 1952
Paul Ashbee (centre) with O.G.S.Crawford, founder of Antiquity (left), and Isobel Smith (right) when they visited him at the Fussells Lodge Long Barrow Excavation in 1957. (Graham Connah's collection, photographer unknown).

The recent death of Paul Ashbee brought back many memories. I saw him infrequently after 1961 because of my absence, first in Nigeria and then in Australia, but in the 1950s I knew him well. In 1956 I was a volunteer at his barrow excavations on New Barn Down. In 1957 I was present throughout the Fussells Lodge Long Barrow excavation, as one of his assistants. In 1958 I was his deputy director at the Milton Hill barrow excavations and acted in the same capacity in 1959 on the Windmill Hill Long Barrow excavation directed by him and Isobel Smith.

Before working with Paul I had participated in excavations in various parts of England and Wales but I had no experience of sites on Wessex chalk. I rapidly came to respect his skills in that specialised environment. Although excavating burial mounds, he gave their structures almost more attention than the burials themselves. He was a remarkably able excavator by the standards of the times, carrying out ordered and neat work and appreciating the vital importance of stratigraphy. In particular, he was considering site-formation processes long before they became a focus of attention in the discipline, hence his involvement in the experimental earthworks at Overton Down and Wareham. He was also innovative in his area-stripping of sites when this was appropriate and, at the Wilsford Shaft, he was the first in Britain to monitor the process of excavation with closed-circuit television.

In short, Paul Ashbee was a good practical field archaeologist, what at one time would have been called a 'dirt archaeologist' before the description became unfashionable. Nevertheless, he also published his excavations, as well as writing several books. He usually illustrated his publications with his own photographs and drawings, although his prose often had a famously rocky quality. At the time that I worked with him I found it remarkable that he managed to accomplish so much, because there were then so few jobs in archaeology that he had to make his living by teaching history in a London School. It was only in the 1960s that he gained an appointment at the University of East Anglia. Prior to that he had spent summer after summer excavating on behalf of the then Ancient Monuments Division of the Ministry of Works and managing to turn what were actually rescue excavations into published research projects. This was at a time (has anything changed?) when most of those who did such excavations did not publish. After Paul's lecture about Fussells to the Society of Antiquaries in 1958 (he was elected to the Society that year), Mortimer Wheeler, the President of the Society, remarked: 'It seems that sometimes the Ministry of Works can do quite good things'. Wheeler was wrong, it was not the Ministry that sometimes did quite good things, it was Paul Ashbee who did very good things all the time.