Professor David Harris, outgoing director of the Institute of Archaeology, London, discusses the work of one of the world’s leading research departments

“A world institute involved in world archaeology”


Created by Sir Mortimer Wheeler and his wife in the 1930s as the first attempt to provide all-round training for potential professionals, the Institute of Archaeology (part of University College, London) is today the largest university archaeological teaching and research department in Britain with over fifty permanent staff and 400 students. Professor David Harris, Director of the Institute for the last eight years and Professor of Human Environment, talked to The Art Newspaper about the Institute’s role in current archaeology.

How would you define the role of the Institute?

Dr Wheeler developed archaeology as a fully professional, career-oriented subject with a strong emphasis on field work and on the whole process from the initiation of a project to survey, excavation, analysis of materials, right through to publication.

He was a man of vision and the way the institute has developed has largely fulfilled his original objectives. If we take just one example, something that was barely thought of systematically in those days was: what do you do with excavated objects at the end of the archaeological process? Wheeler established a “Repair Workshop”, as it was called then, to conserve objects after their excavation. That was a novel idea at the time when the norm would have been for selected objects to finish up in museums, and the rest not to be conserved.

The second thing I would stress, is that within the first few years of this Institute’s history, its international role was quickly established. One of the first things Wheeler did was to tour the Middle East in 1936 looking at excavations. He came back appalled at what he had seen in terms of the techniques that people were applying, or not applying, and courses on Mesopotamia and Palestine were immediately started, the latter taught by Kathleen Kenyon.

How comprehensive is the Institute in its approach?

We cover most aspects of archaeology from world prehistory to Egyptology, Western Asiatic Archaeology, Greek and Roman archaeology and Medieval archaeology.

More scientific aspects of the subject are covered in our Department of Environmental Archaeology which mainly works with the organic remains of plants, animals and people, as well as in the Department of Materials and Data Science which deals with the analysis of such inorganic materials as stone, pottery, metal and glass and also deals with the increasingly important area of quantitative analysis, including the application of statistical theory to archaeological finds. Finally we have the Conservation and Museum Studies department which makes us unique in that we train archaeologists, conservators and museum staff.

The central challenge we face is to bring the scientific and humanistic sides of the discipline together because, the philosophy of this Institute is to see them not as separate, but as complementary aspects of the subject. As far as possible, we aim to integrate them, particularly in field projects and in the analytical work that follows from the field work. This differs from the way that some other departments in the UK see what is often called archaeological science which tends, in some cases, to be seen as a separate activity. I have always resisted that view.

What are the Institute’s plans for the future?

I shall retire from the Directorship in the summer and be succeeded by Professor Peter Ucko. He will no doubt have different priorities. But I already know that one of the ways he hopes the Institute will develop is to give greater emphasis to what is loosely called the cultural heritage and to public education in archaeology. This is one of Professor Ucko’s personal interests and it has many facets, for instance: how should you manage archaeological sites and how present them to the public? All the controversy surrounding Stonehenge is one of the prime examples of that question.

Another area that falls within public archaeology concerns legal aspects of archaeological work. Professor Ucko comes to the Institute from Southampton University where he introduced a course on archaeology and the law. That is an area he may wish to develop in collaboration with the UCL law faculty.

Could you give me an idea of how many ongoing projects your staff are currently involved in?

Starting with the Americas, we have two field projects at present in the Caribbean, one in the Lesser Antilles, particularly Barbados, and one in Puerto Rico. In South America Professor Warwick Bray, who for many years has been the only UK archaeologist to hold a designated post in Latin American archaeology, works particularly in Columbia. We do not work in Canada or the United States at present.

Africa has been relatively neglected by British archaeology departments and there have been very few funded posts for African archaeology. We had one which was lost in an earlier round of university cuts, but happily, we have now been able to restore it and have recently appointed an energetic young lecturer to that post, who has a major project in West Africa.

We have also recently appointed Professor Fekri Hassan, who came to us from the United States but is Egyptian in origin, and he is opening up all sorts of possibilities for field work in Egypt, including a new project in the Delta which strengthen’s UCL’s traditional commitment to Egyptology.

Moving around the world, we have a major involvement in what we can loosely call Western Asia or the Near East which is, of course, a region of immense importance for the subject. There we have field projects in Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Bahrein, Yemen and the United Arab Emirates, and the Institute has the only lectureship in Arabian archaeology in this country.

We have also recently pioneered British archaeological work in Central Asia, which was very difficult before the Soviet Union ceased to exist. I started a project there in 1989. This was an excavation in what was then part of Soviet Central Asia, and is now Turkmenistan, a project on an early Neolithic site, which has shown that agriculture began there 8000 years ago. Another member of the Institute, Dr Georgina Herrmann, is conducting a major survey and excavation project, also in Turkmenistan, at Merv, one of the ancient cities on the “Silk Road” to China.

Going further east, we have an important project in Pakistan, up in the NorthWest frontier region, where my colleague Dr Ken Thomas and a colleague at the British Museum work together. This project is in a very politically troubled area. During one of their recent seasons they could only excavate under armed guards which were provided by the Pakistan army.

We do not have any field projects at present in India, but we have been the only department in Britain to have had a post in South East Asian archaeology, for many years filled by Dr Ian Glover. He has carried out a series of excavations in South East Asia, in Thailand, Indonesia and, currently, in Vietnam.

Another colleague, Dr Peter Drewett, has also recently completed a project in Hong Kong which has been a rescue operation related to the development of the new Hong Kong airport which destroyed a small island with an early Neolithic settlement on it. And, although we do not currently have projects there, we have worked even further east in northern Australia and southern New Guinea.

Coming back towards home, we have numerous projects in Europe, most of which are in collaboration with colleagues in various European countries. One of the most important of these involves survey and excavation at Sparta in Greece, which, together with the Merv project, is the subject of a new exhibition at the Institute by our Museum Studies students, ”Satellite, Spade and Sieve” which runs for most of the summer.

And then in Britain, our biggest and most famous project must be the one at Boxgrove in Sussex, directed by Mark Roberts and funded by English Heritage. There the earliest direct evidence of human occupation in this country has been discovered in the form of a shin bone and teeth dating to 500,000 years ago. A further season of excavation will take place there this summer.

Do you have local archaeologists helping with overseas projects?

Without exception, all those overseas projects involve collaboration with the local archaeologists. It is really a sine qua non of operating overseas. Even if it was not required we would want to do it, but in many countries it is actually a requirement.

Could you define more precisely the links that exist with museums such as the British Museum?

We collaborate with many museums, particularly the British Museum, the Museum of London, the Natural History Museum and even the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew.

The collaboration takes many different forms. For example, the various departments of the British Museum allow our staff to take students there for hands-on experience with collections, particularly material which is not on display.

We also collaborate on specific projects both in the field, such as the one I mentioned in Pakistan, and in the laboratory where one of our conservators, Kathy Tubb is working on a remarkable find of human figures from Jordan. We have talked about going a step further and establishing joint posts with the Museum.

What about funding? Do you get sponsorship for major projects? Have the recent cuts affected your ongoing work?

Yes, I fear they have in a major way. Funding is always a problem. Archaeology in this country has both benefited from multiple sources of funding and also suffered from the problems that this system presents.

In the past funding for scientific projects has come from the Science and Engineering Research Council. That responsibility was recently transferred to the National Environment Research Council. We compete with all environmental scientists from many different subjects and it is very acute competition. On the more humanistic side, the main source of funding has been the British Academy and that continues to be true.

A continuing problem has been to get enough money to do the analytical work which follows field work and it is always an uphill task to get enough money together year after year to fund a really substantial project. By that I mean a project that is going to have a field life of between three and six years and perhaps an afterlife of two or three more years to get everything analysed and published.

Do you have other sources of funding? What about the private sector?

We compete, as do many other academic institutions, for grants from many foundations, for instance, the Leverhulme which we are moderately successful with. We occasionally get support from private sources, but that is even more difficult.

What is the public perception of archaeology?

I think in many cases, it would be fair to say Indiana Jones! Some people would like to give money to projects, but very often they have their own idea about what they want to fund and that does not necessarily match what we are either already doing or want to do. On balance, as far as fund-raising from the private sector is concerned, we have focused our efforts on seeking support for students, in terms of bursaries, scholarships and studentships. In fact, last year we succeeded in matching from UK sources a generous grant from the Getty Grant Program of California which has provided a large endowment to support students training in conservation at the Institute.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘“A world institute involved in world archaeology”'