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Peter was born in rural Norfolk in 1929 and remained to the end of his life acutely conscious of the struggle borne by his parents at this time of great economic hardship, his father coping with difficulty with the afflictions wrought upon him by his service as a World War One soldier. Moving to Ilford, Essex to be closer to Gathercole family members, while Peter was still a small child, his parents were determined to secure a good education for their son and were guided towards entering him for a scholarship to St Paul's Cathedral Choir School in London where his passionate interest in music really began.
In September 1939 Peter, along with thousands of other London schoolchildren, went by train as part of the government's planned evacuation to a 'place of greater safety'. It had been arranged that St Paul's Choir School would share buildings, services and schooling with the Truro Cathedral Choir School and thus began Peter's long love affair with Cornwall. He boarded for a time with Mr Knight, who appeared to keep much of the war-time county stocked with precious honey from his bees, and then with the Misses Johns, retired teachers who were quick to recognise the potential of their rather bookish young boarder. Peter's mother followed him down to Truro and spent much of the war helping Eileen Jessop Price, the wife of the St Paul's Choir School headmaster, care for their children. Peter remained in touch with the family for many years after.
In 1943 he moved on to Clifton College, again on a scholarship, the school having been evacuated from Bristol to Bude. Returning only briefly to Bristol and preparation for a Cambridge scholarship, he was already developing strong left wing views and was regarded by his headmaster, Bertrand Hallward, who was much irritated by regular deliveries to Peter of the 'Daily Worker', as a pupil who would be more appropriately destined for the LSE as a student.
Peter did his army national service between 1947-1949, undertaking his basic training, like his father before him, before leaving for Egypt where, as he later often recalled with a certain wry humour, he was eventually promoted to the rank of Warrant Officer, serving in the Army Education Corps. Peter took this role very seriously and perhaps learned from it that he was truly a born and gifted teacher.
In 1949 Peter began his university studies in History at Peterhouse, Cambridge, on an Open Minor Scholarship. He changed his studies to Archaeology for Part 2 of the Tripos and thus began his career in the field to which he devoted the rest of his life. During his time at Cambridge he met Falmai Williams to whom he was married in 1951 while still a student. In 1954 they set up home in a very small flat in Hackney, together with their baby son, Jonathan, and Peter began his studies for the Postgraduate Diploma in European Prehistoric Archaeology at the Institute of Archaeology in London. It was here that he met the Australian Marxist archaeologist, Vere Gordon Childe, whose work was to remain a vital influence to the end of his life.
Falmai and Peter moved to Birmingham with their growing family which now included Nick, where Peter had a post as a trainee assistant in the City Museum. In 1958 they moved again when Peter was appointed Curator to the Borough Museum and Art gallery, Scunthorpe. It gave Peter much pleasure many years later when he was invited back to Scunthorpe to join in the celebrations for the museum's centenary.
In 1958 Falmai and Peter made the momentous decision to leave for New Zealand where Peter was appointed to a lectureship in Anthropology at the University of Otago, Dunedin, simultaneously being appointed Keeper of Anthropology, Otago Museum. The tasks of developing university studies and promoting the Museum were daunting, taking up much of his capacious energy.... At the same time there was much joy in the arrival of their daughter, Julia, and their son, Adrian. Peter was inordinately proud of the fact that two of the children were 'kiwis'.
Between 1962 and 1968 Peter was Senior Lecturer and Head, Department of Anthropology, University of Otago, before returning to the UK n 1968 to a lectureship in Ethnology in Oxford and, later, a Fellowship at Worcester College, Oxford.
In 1970 he returned to the University of Cambridge as Curator of the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and became a Fellow of Darwin College in 1977. Peter's time at Darwin brought him enormous pleasure and as Dean there for over five years he captivated and assisted a host of graduate students who remember him with gratitude and affection. In this last part of his working life he was truly inspirational. Peter retired officially in 1989 with a determination to complete unfinished research and the writing up of his book on Gordon Childe. In 1993 he and his partner, Bobbie Wells, bought a cottage in Veryan, Cornwall where Peter was to spend the last seventeen years of his life. Together they enjoyed many happy holidays on St Agnes, Isles of Scilly. At the same time, Peter renewed his acquaintance with the Cornwall of his boyhood, making new friends at the Museum in Truro and, for a time, taking on the presidency of the Cornwall Archaeological Society (1997–2000) and subsequently the vice presidency. To the very end of his life he maintained his intellectual zeal, writing up his final papers, and his overall published output is phenomenal. He took a quiet pride in the lives of his four children and the arrival of his many grandchildren and his two great grandchildren. In the Veryan cottage, alongside his vast piles of academic files lie many personal ones of family letters, photographs and cards.
Peter had a very great capacity for friendship and an enthusiasm for life which, even at this sad time, seem indistinguishable. That his friends are able to celebrate his life as they are doing with so many heartwarming personal tributes is a testimony to the enduring memory of a most lovable and inspirational man.
Peter Gathercole was my dear friend and colleague over three decades. We were jointly recruited by Peter Ucko to help organise his spectacularly beset and divisive First World Archaeology Congress in Southampton in 1985, the first international gathering to escape from elite European autocratic control and outlook. Peter and I sustained each other and our conjoined panels through two years of bitter conflict between opponents of South African apartheid and defenders of academic freedom, in a still largely untold story, tragic, ludicrous, and at times hilarious, that tried the patience and morality of thousands of scholars and academic institutions worldwide. The ultimate success of the World Archaeology gathering owed much to the persistent perseverance of Peter Gathercole, ever patient, open to reasonable compromise, alert to constructive possibilities among even obdurately partisan obstructionists. Our thronged joint session at the conference proved so popular that we had to cut presenters from their promised twenty to merely five minutes. And as hurriedly contrived cogent remarks replaced written papers, forthright clarity emerged.
Conference problems paled by comparison with the editorial difficulties we confronted in preparing The politics of the past, a melange of our own session presentations with other materials saddled on us. Over more than two years Peter and I toiled together, in bibulous days and nights at my home in Harrow or his in Cambridge, to fashion awkwardly matched contributions, many of them jargon-laden and parti-pris, into coherent discourse, cajoling reluctant authors into grudging consent with our editorial requirements. It was the most rewarding of collaborative efforts, neither of us ever out of temper with the other. Peter's unflappable tact and diplomacy won over the most recalcitrant and hidebound of our contributors. His editorial summaries are models of insightful synthesis. And the book's highly favourable reception gratified us as recognition of a rare conjunction of disciplinary insights and disciplined effort.
Peter's warmth and gregarious generosity, like his hospitality and his courtesy, were much in evidence during his tenure as Dean of Darwin College. As a frequent visitor I watched him win the confidence and devotion of colleagues and students at every level. Meanwhile his continuing zeal to complete research and publication in several realms — the Maori and Gordon Childe enterprises in particular — continued to pre-empt his remaining energies often to the point of exhaustion. The move to Cornwall relieved him of college duties only to saddle him with local archaeological responsibilities, to which as ever he gave unstinting time and dedicated stewardship.
Peter's uncompromising and fearless defence of humane values, his unswerving attachment to social justice and intellectual freedom, his sturdy defiance of humbug and hypocrisy, and his laughing delight in paradox will be long remembered and sorely missed.