Colin Renfrew interviewed by Alan Macfarlane 23rd October 2008

0:09:07 Born in Stockton-upon-Tees in 1937; father was working in ICI Plastics near there; don't have any great recollection of that as we moved to Welwyn Garden City when I was three or four and that was where I grew up; father worked at ICI Plastics there; I never knew either grandfather; I have fond memories of my paternal grandmother who lived in Giffnock near Glasgow where I spent many holidays; happy memories of travelling on the trams in Glasgow; maternal grandmother lived in Ardrossan with an aunt and I have memories of happy holidays there; we sometimes went across to the island of Arran which has good megalithic monuments; I still have quite a number of relatives on my mother's side although she and all her contemporaries are now dead; I have tried to do a bit of genealogy and found the Renfrew family is from the Paisley area which is in Renfrewshire; it is not a very common surname; have pleasant memories of two great aunts who lived near Paisley but that is as far as I have been able to trace it; father was a very energetic person with a wide range of interests, gregarious, with a nice sense of humour; he was interested in languages which certainly interested me; whenever he travelled he would take a phrase book and try to learn a little of the language; my mother was also enthusiastic so they encouraged me to go to learn more French; I went to stay with a family in Paris both before and immediately after doing National Service; both parents were very encouraging of my developing interests; during the war years when there was no petrol, my father and I would go off on bicycles visiting parish churches; probably something of the atmosphere of churches stayed with me from that time; he also used to take me to the National Gallery and British Museum; remember looking at the mummies at the latter as a small boy; these visits helped to set up interests which developed later

6:55:07 At about five or six I started collecting coins, firstly from change where one could find Victorian coins; soon I was collecting a few Roman coins; my father took me to Baldwins, the leading coin dealer in London, and bought me one or two; I developed a serious interest in collecting; after we visited Etruria when I was twelve it seemed natural to start trying to collect Etruscan coins; I subscribed to coin bulletins and would ask for interesting items for birthday and Christmas presents; over the years I built up quite a good collection of Etruscan coins; later became interested in coins of the Civil War - Newark 6d or shillings became very special presents; I never was a serious numismatist in a scholarly way; I have a friend, Ian Stewart, now Lord Stewartby, who as a schoolboy was writing books on the Scottish coinage; I really couldn't afford to buy good coins in my twenties and more recently I have become more puristic about the matter as I realize how collecting antiquities does serious damage to the archaeological record; although I don't think collecting coins is as bad as collecting artefacts that have clearly been looted from the ground, I have now made such puristic statements that it would be inappropriate of me to buy more; I did buy a small ushabti figure when I was excavating in Canterbury aged about sixteen; we used to go around the antique shops and I saw this beautiful figure that I bought for about ten shillings; I don't collect coins any more; there are problems that numismatists have to stay within ethical guidelines, and although I have a lot of sympathy with some of the things they say, but having been so dogmatic on the ills of collecting that I don't continue

11:59:08 My mother was a housewife; I am an only child though I believe my mother had a daughter who died at birth before I was born; she was a delightful person and very interested, but not in the same energetic way as my father; we had very good friends in Welwyn Garden City, Ted and Rene Power, and he formed a wonderful collection of contemporary art; he had made his money in Murphy Radio which was a great enterprise of the time; he was way ahead of his time in collecting such art; he had works by Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko in his house in the late fifties and early sixties; his wife and my mother were great friends and would visit galleries together; the first school I went to was in Welwyn Garden City, Sherrardswood School, which was in easy walking distance; it was well run and tried to have slightly modern ideas about education, but its academic standard was not very high; although I was happy there my mother thought I should go somewhere a bit more demanding; they put me down for the common entrance for St Albans School and I got a scholarship; in those days they were not means tested; St Albans was much more academically orientated and had a terrific group of schoolmasters, many of whom I still remember with great fondness; also a very good group in my class, one or two I still keep up with; they sparked interests; the English master, Mchellan, was very keen on poetry and he encouraged us; remember studying 'Twelfth Night' for 'O' level as well as Chaucer; also had a good Latin master, Coles, who arranged for me to go on my first excavation; Bob Tanner, the art master encouraged my reading of books on Renaissance art; it encouraged my interest in art and I began to enjoy visits to the National Gallery; the physics master, Geoffrey Pryke, was also a great amateur actor and arranged productions out of school which I took part in; there were lots of extra-curricular activities; I never enjoyed sport; St Albans School occupies the Abbey gateway and twice a week there was a service in the cathedral; I was in the school choir and enjoyed that

18:15:07 I do enjoy music; I learnt the piano for a little but never got as far as enjoying it much; I enjoyed singing and sung in Jesus College with the choir; while I was still at Sherrardswood School, aged about ten, we sang Bach's 'St John's Passion'; I began to enjoy listening to music; Geoffrey Pryke took school visits to all kinds of orchestral productions in London and elsewhere; I enjoy classical music but have never been a great exponent; I became more interested in the theatre than in going to a concert; I don't listen to music while working and it does not play a central role in my life; on politics, at school a lot of us were argumentative and there was a debating society which I enjoyed taking part in; it was probably a good training; I did not get more seriously involved in politics until I got up to university; Jack Goody was at St Albans, but earlier, so I didn't know him there; Stephen Hawking was also there, but younger than me; an exact contemporary is Joe Cann, a distinguished geologist, also Ansel Dunham, another geologist; I was baptised into the Church of England but never confirmed; I never felt the urge and nobody particularly encouraged me in the school; neither of my parents was inclined towards divinity; I remember being interested and asking questions as a child; I had an uncle, George, who was a Catholic and quite clear about being one; I used to ask him questions but was never very satisfied by the answers; I have always had a sceptical streak about anything, which developed while I was at school, so I have never found it possible to be a profound believer in the Trinity, or the Christian concept of God and Christ; it is a fascinating story and I find many beautiful things in the church service; I have not got provoked into the position of some to excoriate all religious thinking and activity, but not the central concept that this explains things; my approach has always been to try to understand how things work and I went up to university to do natural sciences; I have never really found that the concept of the divinity helped answer any of those questions; as Master of Jesus I did not find any difficulties; perhaps if I had taken a more rigorous analysis I would have found some inconsistencies; I think there is an inconsistency in pronouncing the 'Apostles Creed' when I can't say that I utter those words with a full and devout heart; however it is convention in a college like Jesus that the role of the Master is to be present, particularly at Sunday services, and perhaps to take the preacher into dinner afterwards; I know there are a lot of different devices; I recall that Harry Hinsley at St John's would not go to the service but would always take the preacher into dinner; one thing in both Jesus and St John's is that the choral music is very good; I would sometimes go in, quite apart from the obligation, to hear sung evensong; I have not done so recently as I no longer live in College but I can imagine going in from time to time to enjoy choral evensong; I was never hostile to the work of the chapel, partly because I very much respected the people involved, but I have never really done a census of whether the church is a good thing or bad thing in the history of the world

28:09:18 I read natural science; I had been good at sciences at St Albans, partly because I found general questions on the origin of the world, the universe, the nature of life very interesting; at that time in the fifties great advances in knowledge were being made; Penguin used to produce an annual science roundup where issues of scientific progress were addressed; I found some of the teaching in the humanities a little woolly and couldn't see the point in learning a little more about the history of the Tudors, for example, whereas  being introduced to, and understanding the laws of physics through experiment -  had a very good teacher, Mr Marshall, who was always prepared to answer questions; I liked the rigour of physics, and to a lesser extent the other sciences; the Headmaster, Mr Marsh, tried to encourage me to do the humanities; he was himself a classicist; it was a wonderful course in Cambridge as the Natural Science Tripos requires you to do quite a mix of subjects; I did mathematics and an additional half subject of mathematics, physics, chemistry and a half subject biochemistry, and a half subject history and philosophy of science; this was a two year course which I enjoyed very much but I was not a very good mathematician and it became clear that if one was going to see one's way through physics at a higher level one needed to be a first class mathematician; I was getting more interested in archaeology; I had been on excavations from the age of about fourteen or fifteen; Mr Coles knew a lady at the Verulamium Museum who knew Sheppard Frere who was excavating at Canterbury; he agreed that I could go and dig with him during the vacation; I did that for several seasons and found it fascinating to see the information emerging as you dig; I subscribed to 'Antiquity'; on a number of holidays I had seen some fascinating places, and gradually it began to dawn on me in my second year at Cambridge; I was not interested in researching on one particular organic compound; perhaps I saw some of the disadvantages of my father's life style; he was a successful director of ICI Plastics and as sales director was travelling round the world and enjoying it thoroughly, but only had a couple of hours to see anything; I didn't see myself wanting to become a captain of industry, so thought in the end that archaeology might be something to take more seriously; in Cambridge it is amazingly easy to change subjects; you take part 1 of the tripos and then you can, if you wish, change to another; I was lucky because I was in St John's College and in my first year I was on the same staircase as Glyn Daniel; he was a charming man as well as a distinguished archaeologist so I already knew him casually; when my tutor suggested I should discuss the idea of changing subject with Dr Daniel it was an easy thing to do; he saw no difficulty so I changed to archaeology; found it absorbing without the problem of wondering what to do afterwards; I did a two year part 2 although after one year I was actually qualified as a B.A. as I had taken natural sciences for part 1

36:05:04 At that time the professor was Grahame Clark, Glyn Daniel was one of the teachers, Charles McBurney was another though I didn't see much of him because I wasn't doing the Palaeolithic option, and John Coles was the Lecturer; also Eric Higgs was in the background doing supervisions; John Coles did the brunt of the work covering the Bronze Age and Glyn did most of the Neolithic; we learnt a lot about megaliths which he put across with great charm; Glyn was always up to date with news of the moment because he was the editor of 'Antiquity' at the time; all the students owed a great debt of gratitude to John Coles who was younger than Grahame or Glyn, and a little more in touch with what the students really needed to pass exams; he was at St Catharines; he took early retirement and went down to Somerset; he has had an active career since, also at Exeter; Glyn always made everything interesting and supervisions with him were always delightful; he was really interested in people so the personalities of archaeology fascinated him and became very entertaining for everybody; he would have drinks parties in his room on a Sunday morning where I first met Sir Mortimer Wheeler and other interesting people; I am also interested in the history of archaeology because of the growth of ideas; archaeology is a slightly curious subject because it isn't clear what you should be studying and it wasn't clear three centuries ago how you should find out about it; it is a subject that has had to construct its own theoretical framework just over the past two centuries; I think that Glyn's book 'The Idea of Prehistory' is one of the best books in archaeology that has ever been written; he did 'A Hundred Years of Archaeology' which is full of informative detail, but as an ideas book, the former is better; there are lots of things about prehistory that are not obvious and I am sure there are lots of developments yet to come; it is probably true of most subjects, but it is a subject that its practitioners have had to invent and it has been quite a difficult course doing so; Glyn really was thoughtful about the three age system, for instance, although it always disappointed and puzzled me a little that he wasn't thoughtful in quite the same way about our own time; he opined early on that the so-called new archaeology was just a lot of verbiage, and wasn't interested in the nature of new explanations which was curious because his book 'The Idea of Prehistory' is full of early examinations of what is the nature of explanation in archaeology; don't think that Glyn was central in the appointment of David Clarke although they overlapped; David Clarke was very much a protégée of Grahame Clark and Grahame and Glyn never got on very well; in their later years they didn't get on at all; Glyn used to tell the tale that he, Grahame Clark and Stuart Piggott had been approached to write a book together on world prehistory; they had had some discussion but suddenly Grahame Clark produced the book, which Glyn didn't think was entirely appropriate; they had very different styles but I have never really understood why they didn't get on; Grahame Clark's work was very tightly focussed and he probably had no great admiration for Glyn as a scholar; Glyn with his very broad interests probably thought of Graham Clark as too narrowly focussed; people who knew the Danish scene used to compare them to Becker and Klindt-Jensen in Copenhagen, the latter being a bon viveur like Glyn, and Becker being much more strictly focussed; that was one of the realities of the department in those days; Charles McBurney was a man of great enthusiasm, devoted to the Palaeolithic period which Grahame Clark would see the point of but Glyn less so; Glyn did not get on very well with McBurney; Eric Higgs was a protégée of Graham Clark and followed his line on the importance of environmental data; Higgs became completely focussed on the subsistence base; so there were a lot of differing views in the department which led to people really not talking to each other very much, and not on very good terms; in more recent times when I came back to Cambridge as the Disney Professor, Ian Hodder was already there and we had lots of disagreements of a conceptual nature; he was a “postprocessual” archaeologist where I am a processual archaeologist and had never totally accepted their claims to replace all former thinking; in the early days they were taking a rather anti-scientific view; though they were no doubt justified in criticising the excessive scientism of the archaeology of the late sixties, the polarity was quite unnecessary and I found some of their claims a little pretentious and certainly not entirely acceptable; however, I made sure that precisely because I got on well with Ian and have remained good friends, that some of that polarity has diminished; our different view did not lead to fractious feelings where I have the sense that was dissention in the department in the late fifties and early sixties when I was an undergraduate

48:24:06 David Clarke was a very exciting person and in some ways he was one of the greatest archaeologists in the world; we were roughly the same age but because I had done National Service I had some supervisions with him and found him very stimulating; he did as a research student to some extent keep himself to himself; then he was developing his doctoral dissertation, his analysis of the Beakers, which he was doing with a sort of computer seriation; this was the very early days of computer application in archaeology; his great contribution was his book 'Analytical Archaeology' which was a breathtakingly good book; he had some good ideas about how archaeology should be systematized, how theory should be made explicit, then carried them through in a very systematic way; although his contemporary in the U.S., Lewis Binford, in some ways had deeper thinking about what he was doing and wrote some articles which were the most influential in the new archaeology, nobody ever produced a book of the same coherence and breadth of David Clarke; it is true that he used a rather special vocabulary and this put a lot of people off; Jacquetta Hawkes, who was one of the great humanists of her generation, wrote a very scathing review; Glyn took rather the same view; I think it a mistake to be put off by the vocabulary and if you took the trouble to become familiar with twenty or so terms, it doesn't take very long to become totally at home in the jargon; I think it was one of the great archaeological books of the century; for me, Gordon Childe was the most influential archaeologist of our time; when I turned to archaeology seriously for part 2, I read most of the books that Childe had written; he had a very clear sense of problem early on and set out to construct a way of reconstructing the past, piecing together the past as he would call it, by using the concept of culture; he was interested in prehistoric migrations and then he wrote about the Indo-European languages; one of his best books, 'What Happened in History' where he took the business of the origins of civilization in the Near East and its gradual spread to Europe; he developed the concept of the agricultural revolution and the urban revolution which are central to archaeological thinking; I think that he set many of the agendas; now you would say that he was a materialist but he definitely considered himself to be a Marxist; in those days in the fifties to claim that you were a Marxist meant that you were viewed unfavourably in some quarters; he had a complicated relationship with Marxism; he was the son of a clergyman in Australia and obviously was unhappy at home; he was stigmatized as a Marxist in Australia, and this has been quite well documented, and that was his most active Marxist time; there were secret service reports on him during the First World War and subsequently; he then came to Britain and became established as the Professor in Edinburgh; he then became a member of the Athenaeum and was said to enjoy drinking a tankard of champagne there while still being a Marxist; then he became very disenchanted when he went to Russia; he remained a Marxist but if you read the few articles in which he sets out his Marxist thought, most people today would find it difficult to find anything at all to disagree with; Childe did not lay much emphasis on the class struggle, so I would see him today as a materialist who called himself a Marxist

57:07:21 After leaving school I went to Paris for two or three months which I really enjoyed; I got to know the Louvre very well and was unconsciously laying the foundations for a lot of archaeology; I also went to some interesting lectures; I heard Oppenheimer there; I have always enjoyed going to serious lectures; I heard Dirac in Cambridge, who was very lucid but essentially arguing to his formulae on the blackboard and far above my head in what he was doing mathematically; I didn't get a great deal out of that but he had a quiet clarity which certainly came over; Oppenheimer's was a public lecture and much more easy to follow; I also went to some seminars in the Sorbonne on advanced physics and there was De Broglie who wore a white wing collar; after Paris I did National Service; I could have deferred it and had I done so I would never have done it as it ceased being obligatory; I don't regret doing it - the first three months which involved officer training, mainly on the Isle of Man at RAF Jurby and that had its interests; then I did some signals training at RAF Debden and did a little bit more physics there; then I was stationed at RAF Wunstorf and learnt some German and got to know Germany and Austria a little bit; I also did some teaching of 'O' level physics to airmen; one of the nicest things I have done is to have taught a class of about fifteen people all getting good grades; that was an interesting time with lots of good moments with some dreary ones, but no painful ones; managed to get to Munich and get slightly drunk in the Hofbräuhaus and on the same trip I went to Salzburg and managed a get a ticket for a performance of 'The Marriage of Figaro' with Fischer-Dieskau, and von Karajan conducting and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf singing; that is when I first went to the Kunsthistorische Museum in Vienna and saw the wonderful Bruegel paintings; I came back refreshed and more mature