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Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Philip Rahtz (1921-2011)

Philip Rahtz (second right) with friends at (I think) his
retirement in 1986.  The friends include (L-R): Prof. Barrie
Dobson, Prof Richard Morris, Prof Martin Carver [Philip's
successor] and a very young Dr Dave Jennings)
A brief post to pay my respects to the memory of my old prof, Philip Rahtz, who passed away last Thursday at the ripe old age of 90.  You will doubtless be able to read elsewhere of Philip's enormously rich life and many achievements.  For now suffice it to say that, in the field, he was (alongside others, including his friend Philip Barker) one of the pioneers of the techniques of open area excavation, the big break with the Mortimer Wheeler tradition of excavation, and of the combination of rescue archaeology and academic research.  Philip was also one of the founders of serious archaeological interest in the 'sub-Roman British' side of early medieval archaeology, via his work on Somerset, and did enormous amounts for church archaeology as well.  This limits his interests and activities to a very small sample, nonetheless.  As well as field archaeology, Philip was always open to all the latest developments in archaeological theory and this made him a very fine choice as the first professor of the University of York's archaeology department - though with characteristic self-mockery he used to say that it was because they knew that, as he was then in his later 50s, they wouldn't have to put up with him for long if things didn't work out!  I don't think it's too much to describe Philip as one of the last (maybe the last) of the really 'larger-than-life', heroic figures of British archaeology.

Thus Philip was my archaeology professor at York (I tend to think of Barrie Dobson, also in the photo above, as my history professor).  Actually, I met him before I came to university when, after having taken my A-Levels I spent a couple of weeks on the York/Reading training dig at Bordesley Abbey, Redditch.  Philip retired the same year as I graduated - with the first first-class degree awarded by the still-young department - and one of my most treasured possessions is the book he gave me, inscribed 'to Guy, whose beginning coincides with my ending.'  Of course it was anything but an ending as Philip had a quarter of a century of contributions left to make.

Many, many people will be able to talk with much more qualification about Philip as an archaeologist and about all the fun and laughter that - as well as his scholarly contributions - always be associated with his memory (the photo above captures this pretty nicely).  He had a wicked sense of humour and loved to tease and shock more straight-laced members of the academic community.  Others will have a boundless fund of better stories than I can tell on that front.  The tale I want to tell is a bit different and I've chosen it because it shows just that there was a lot of sensitivity and humanity behind his sometimes mischievous exterior.  I mentioned that the first dig I ever went on was at Bordesley Abbey, in the last season (I think) that Philip oversaw the excavations.  As a result it was there that I received my A-level results.  My Dad drove across from Stourport with the fateful envelope (having been telling people the night before that I'd be lucky to get two Cs with the amount of work I'd done...).  Sensing the nerves (I think my dad's were greater than mine), Philip swooped in and swept him off to look at the traces of the rood screen ("terribly important") that had just been unearthed in the church, to leave me to open the envelope on my own - well aware that a fifteenth-century rood-screen was the last thing on my Dad's mind.  Anyway, suffice it to say that I did get the grades needed to join Philip's department and the rest, as they say, is history (or history and archaeology equal honours, to be exact).  Anyway, it made Philip one of my father's favourite people (as well as one of mine) and sums up Philip's sensitivity and charisma.

Rest in Peace, Philip.  You'll be missed.  It'll be a crowded church on Friday but you'll always have known that it would be.


  1. Lucky man to have such a teacher for so long!

  2. I think I was extremely lucky with all of my teachers, really. In addition to Barrie and Philip, my supervisors (what personal tutors are called at York) were Edward James (History) and Steve Roskams (Archaeology): both big influences, especially Edward, of course, who supervised my doctoral thesis. Then there were Peter Biller and Tania Dickinson. If I am any good as a teacher (and I like to think I am) it's largely because I try to model myself on the people who taught me - and Philip figures very largely in that list.

  3. Stories of Philip Rahtz were pretty abundant in the site hut when I was learning my archaeology as a teenager, with each tale growing taller in the retelling. One in particular related to his 'rules' for excavation, including 'dig sites photographically, not stratigraphically', 'if in doubt, have it out' and 'if still in doubt, put it back'. At the time, I assumed these were apocryphal until I found them reprinted in Appendix C of his autobiography as a firmly tongue-in-cheek response to Philip Barker!

  4. Simon Trafford15 June 2011 at 03:03

    Yes, Philip was great fun and arguably amongst the most amusing writers that archaeology has ever produced, never mind his enormous erudition. I feel extremely privileged to have known him, and it's nice to see this tribute from you, Guy, as I've not yet seen any other obits.

  5. Well, I was a struggling digger in York 1980ish (no archaeological quals, just a degree from Art College and an interest in history) Work was drying up at the York Archaeological Trust and to keep body and soul together I remember approaching Prof Rahtz (he was by the photocopier in the entrance hall of the Micklegate building) to enquire if there might be any work in the department. Of course there wasn't, but seeing I needed a job Philip took me on there and then, paying me out of his own pocket every week as a general assistant. I even got to do some illustration work for publication. Kept me going all that winter until seasonal site work came up the following spring. I never forgot his spontaneous kindness to someone he'd never met before who'd just come off the street. A rare man

  6. I first met Philip during the 1960s, when he came to give a fascinating talk at Avoncroft about his excavations of the city defences at Hereford. I seem to remember a hilarious session in the pub afterwards, Phil Barker also present, when Rahtz recounted some adventures in West Africa, in which featured a chief, his daughter, and a tin of beans. The precise details escape me. Years later, as a mature student at Birmingham, we met again in a trench at Bordesley Abbey, in which we found ourselves excavating side by side. Rahtz looked at me quizzically, knowing we had met before, and then, leaning on the point of his trowel, and fixing me in the eye, said: Do you use a vibrator? I spluttered some inane response, to which Phil replied: Oooh, I do. Gives it lots of oomph!

  7. Philip enjoyed a good spoil-heap, and (in contrast to a good many contempories, too concerned about their own professional image) wasn't afraid to praise spoil-heap volume as a measure of serious excavation intent. I discovered this upon taking Philip to inspect Harold Mytum's efforts on a medieval site in Warwick: even before we came within sight of the trench, Philip exclaimed enthusiastically, "Look at that spoil-heap - here's a man who doesn't hang about!" I like to think that some of this rubbed off on Martin Carver, whose efforts at Portmahomack in due course produced what I suspect will be remembered as one of the last truly heroic spoil-heaps to be seen in this land. - Philip laid the groundwork for the professional rescue archaeology contractor. When he dug Cheddar, the government agencies (I think it was still Office of Workes in those days) as yet had not addressed the seriousness of the writing-up commitment - a commitment for the excavator that is, not yet for the funding agency! It seems extraordinary that the freelance excavator was expected to provide his ongoing living by taking on a new site, meanwhile devoting his evenings to writing-up the last one. Philip should have the credit for the essential changing of official attitudes.


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