Professor Peter Ucko
Maverick archaeologist who oversaw a revolution in the structure and outlook
of his profession
21 June 2007
Peter John Ucko, archaeologist: born London 27 July 1938; Lecturer in
Anthropology, University College London 1962-72, Director, Institute of
Archaeology and Professor of Comparative Archaeology 1996-2006 (Emeritus);
Principal, Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies 1972-81; Professor of
Archaeology, Southampton University 1981-96; died London 14 June 2007.
Peter Ucko was the most influential archaeologist of his time. Almost
single-handed, he brought about a revolution which irrevocably changed the
whole structure and outlook of international archaeology.
This upheaval began in 1986, when - in scenes of frantic drama and
controversy - the profession's international body exploded at its congress
at Southampton University. Out of the smoke and debris there emerged the
World Archaeological Congress, dedicated to new and radical principles which
included the notion that archaeology was profoundly political and that the
archaeology of indigenous peoples in post-colonial continents - societies
for whom the relics of a distant past were still components of a living
culture - was more significant than the academic and Eurocentric studies of
With his tight curls and his powerful, mobile face, Peter Ucko resembled a
small Roman emperor. Passionate and unpredictable in his loves and hates, he
could put superhuman energy behind causes and people he believed in (he was
still editing a book on Chinese archaeological training on his death-bed).
His own formation was as much in anthropology as in archaeology, one of the
sources of his gift for breaking through academic barriers. Anthropology
also satisfied his need (as he put it) "to be taught by and to meet
academics who had respect for the beliefs and activities . . . of the people
of other cultures". His antipathy to racism was always violent. As a friend
wrote about him, "the reason Peter is such a good hater is the motivation
which powers the hate - a deeply felt anger at unfairness and injustice".
Peter John Ucko was born in 1938, the son of intellectual Jewish emigrants
from Germany. From his father, a doctor, he inherited a lasting delight in
music, especially opera. After the "progressive" public school of Bryanston,
he began an anthropology degree at University College London in 1956, but
always - so he later said - hoped to get into Egyptology, a lifelong craze
which began when he collected figurines off antique stalls as a boy. After a
PhD on Egyptian figurines, he spent 10 more years at UCL lecturing with
increasing brilliance and originality in anthropology.
In 1967 Ucko and his then partner Andrée Rosenfeld published his first book,
Palaeolithic Cave Art. Shortly afterwards, they moved to Australia where in
1972 he became principal of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies.
This was to be a decisive, radicalising experience. "I found that my
Institute was a totally white institution - whites gave out money to whites,
through white committees, to study the blacks . . . an untenable situation."
When he left in 1980, he made sure, against angry opposition, that his
successor was an Aboriginal. It was in Australia that he met the
anthropologist Jane Hubert, then married to Anthony Forge (who died in
1991), who was to become Ucko's stout-hearted partner and counsellor for the
rest of his life.
Back in Britain, in 1981 he became Professor of Archaeology at Southampton
University. And it was here, in the 1980s, that he encountered the crisis of
his professional life. The International Union of Pre- and Protohistoric
Sciences (IUPPS) proposed to hold its 11th congress at Southampton and Ucko
was persuaded to organise it. At that time (it has improved since), the
IUPPS had decayed into a slovenly, deeply conservative and Eurocentric
clique. To its horror, Ucko insisted that he wanted the conference to be a
"World Archaeological Congress", attended by archaeologists from "the Third
World" and devoted to global themes rather than to the cosy comparison of
excavations and discoveries.
After enormous exertions, he seemed to be getting his way when disaster
struck. Unwisely, Ucko had pushed to the back of his mind the crisis of
apartheid South Africa, and the existence of an international academic
boycott. But in 1986, only months before the congress, the Southampton
student union and then the municipal authorities declared that they would
withdraw all facilities if South African archaeologists attended. Worse,
many of the African and Asian delegates now threatened not to take part.
Well aware of the storm he would provoke, Ucko decided that the cause of a
new "world archaeology" must not be abandoned. He declared that the South
Africans would be disinvited. It was an act of outstanding courage. Uproar
followed. Ucko was accused of betraying academic freedom. Funders withdrew;
many of the leading archaeologists of Europe, Britain and America resigned
from the congress and denounced him - sometimes with shameful abuse which
they would now prefer to forget. The IUPP condemned him and pulled out.
But Ucko, urged by Jane to stand fast whenever his resolve faltered, stuck
to his guns. In the end, over a thousand enthusiastic delegates arrived and
Ucko's dream of a new global order for a humanised science of the past was
triumphantly realised. The first World Archaeological Congress (WAC-1) took
off, and no fewer than 22 books were published from its sessions.
The cost was heavy, not least to Ucko's health. He had lived off his nerves
for 20 years, a heavy smoker with a generous wine intake; now appeared the
first signs of the diabetes which was to end his life prematurely. And the
crisis did not improve his confidence in his fellow humans. Students got the
benefit of his tough humour and his adventurous, eccentric imagination. But
colleagues had to tread warily; you were in or out. He could be childishly
sullen and suspicious one day; brilliantly welcoming and lovable the next.
In 1996, he was appointed director of the Institute of Archaeology at UCL,
Britain's leading centre of teaching and research. There were grumbles from
crusty colleagues. But the maverick Ucko was now, beyond challenge, the most
creative figure in British archaeology. In 1997, he launched the first
courses in Public Archaeology, typically redefining it as a critical audit
of the profession's ethics in areas as diverse as the handling of the
indigenous dead and archaeology in the media.
He retired in 2006. Surprisingly, Ucko refused to accept the presidency of
the WAC, but his master-work lives on, its vast congresses sparkling with
fresh insights and theories. The 1980s were a decade in which British
innovation in archaeology (for better or worse) led the world. Margaret
Thatcher "privatised" the profession, while Ian Hodder, Chris Tilley and
Michael Shanks invented "postprocessual" theory. But Ucko's contribution
will outlast them all: an irreversible, institutionalised commitment to an
archaeology which happens now rather than in the past, and is concerned with
the living as much as with the dead.
© 2007 Independent News and Media Limited
To extinguish hubris is
more needful than to
extinguish a fire !
-- Heracleitos of Ephesos