History of Archaeology at Aberdeen

History of Archaeology at Aberdeen

Hector Boece (1465-1536), first principal of King's CollegeThe University of Aberdeen has a lengthy tradition of archaeological research. As early as the late 15th and early 16th centuries, the very first Principal of the university, Hector Boece, recorded the discovery of numerous pottery vessels containing cremation deposits throughout Aberdeenshire in his History and Chronicles of Scotland:

"In the yeir of God, M.DXXi yeris, in Fyndoure, ane town of the Mernis, v milis fra Aberdene, wes found ane anciant sepulture, in quhilk wer ii lame piggis, craftely maid, pdth letteris ingravit, full of brint powder; quhilkis sone eftir that thay Aver handillit fel in dros. Siclike in Kenbothen, ane town of Mar, x mills fra Aberdene, wer found two sepulturis, on the samin maner, full of brint powder. Mony othir sepulturis lies bene oft times found on the same maner, ful of brint powder."

In translation: "In the year of God, 1521 years, in Fyndoure, a town of the Mearns, 5 miles from Aberdeen, was found an ancient sepulchre in which were 2 earthenware vessels, cleverly made, with (patterns engraved?), full of burnt powder [cremated bone]; which soon after they were handled disintegrated. Likewise in Kenbothen, a town of Mar, 10 miles from Aberdeen, were found two graves, of the same manner, full of cremated bone. Many other graves of the same kind have often been found, full of cremated bone."

Boece sought to link the vessels to the burial traditions of the Picts, the late Roman and post-Roman inhabitants of the Northeast. While the vessels are probably much older than he initially proposed - more likely of Bronze Age manufacture - Boece's endeavours were at the time well received and are among the earliest archaeological observations of Scotland.

Serious archaeological enquiry began at Aberdeen in the 19th century, when increasing antiquarian curiosity resulted in the formation of our first institution devoted to the interpretation and preservation of material culture. Following the fusion of King's College and Marischal College in 1860, the first archaeological museum was established on the Old Aberdeen campus. With displays of antiquities from Scotland and Egypt together with ethnographic items from throughout the world, the museum was the predecessor of the present Anthropological Museum established in Marischal College in 1907.

Four years earlier, in 1903, Aberdeen also saw the creation of the first Chair in Archaeology at a Scottish University, with the establishment of the Burnett-Fletcher Chair in 'History and Archaeology'. In practice, however, the incumbents have always been historians rather than archaeologists and although members of the History Department were instrumental in the development of Scottish archaeology, there were never named courses in the discipline here until the 1970s. Instead, much of the impetus for the development of archaeology at Aberdeen in the 20th century actually came from the medical faculty in the university.

Successive Regius Professors of Anatomy were critical in establishing and encouraging the research-led collecting of archaeological material from Northeast Scotland, and some of these figures also became curators of the museum. They included Robert Reid (Chair-holder 1889-1925 and honorary curator of the Anthropological Museum 1907-1937) and Robert Lockhart (Chair-holder 1938-1965 and honorary curator 1938-1979).

Some of the medical faculty also made important contributions to the development of archaeological theory. For example, Sir Alexander Ogston, Regius Professor of Surgery from 1882-1909 (in between ground-breaking discoveries in disease resistance, fighting in the Boer War and becoming royal surgeon from Queen Victoria's time onwards) produced what was in effect an early example of 'landscape archaeology' in western Aberdeenshire, though its the publication was delayed until 1931.

In addition to the medical faculty, Dr W. Douglas Simpson, Lecturer in British History and, from 1926, University Librarian, also encouraged the growth of archaeological research, directing excavations and writing copiously on the topic of medieval castles. Simpson also gave the prestigious Rhind Lectures in Archaeology to the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland in 1941, which were later published by the university as The Province of Mar, an important early regional survey of Scottish archaeology. He was also chairman of the Ancient Monuments Board for Scotland.

In the second half of the 20th century, much of the impetus for archaeological research at Aberdeen emanated from the Department of Geography. These contributions included not only significant field archaeological investigations, most notably at St Ninian's Isle, Shetland, with its discovery of the renowned Pictish silver treasure hoard in 1958 (led by Professor Andrew O'Dell), but also excavations at Norse Underhoull on Shetland and the great Pictish promontory fort of Burghead in Moray (Alan Small).

From the 1970s onwards, there were excavations and contributions to environmental archaeology at numerous locations in north-east Scotland, notably by Kevin Edwards and Ian Ralston. When Ian Ralston, a student of Edinburgh University's Stuart Piggott, was appointed as a Research Fellow in Archaeology in the Department of Geography in 1974 (Lecturer from 1977), the fact that there was only one archaeologist available was seen to preclude the establishment of a First Ordinary class in the subject. However, honours options such as Prehistoric Geography of North Britain and Environmental Archaeology were successfully embedded in the Geography syllabus taught by Dr Ralston and the late Dr John Smith.

Teaching of archaeology also occurred elsewhere in the university (e.g. Celtic, African History) on a more limited scale. Fieldwork programmes, largely staffed by Aberdeen undergraduates, were developed in several areas of north-east Scotland, and the first research students in Archaeology were admitted. Ian Ralston's Lectureship in Geography/Archaeology was, however, transferred to Edinburgh University in 1985 as a by-product of a national reorganisation of university disciplines - Ian later became Professor of Later European Prehistory in that University.

Important developments also included the establishment of the Geddes-Harrower Chair of Greek Art and Archaeology, a visiting professorship created in 1960, which has been held by a range of distinguished scholars. The establishment of the Northeast section of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, which has been hosted and frequently chaired by Museum and other University staff, provided a key forum for local professional and amateur archaeologists to meet and led to the establishment of Aberdeen City Council's Archaeological Unit. The Northeast section continues today as an important venue for the discussion of new research.

Famously, since the days of W. Douglas Simpson, there has been a strong extra-mural audience for archaeology throughout northern Scotland. The Centre for Lifelong Learning and its predecessors, with Donald Paterson acting as a driving force, introduced postgraduate certificate and diploma courses in archaeology in 1994 and 1996 respectively, culminating in a designated degree in Scottish Archaeology in 1999. These were taught by University and other professionals, and moderated by Geography's John Smith and latterly Kevin Edwards until the formal establishment of Archaeology within the University.

The long-term interest in archaeology has meant that the University Library has been well-provisioned in archaeological literature. This was doubtless fostered, also, by H.J.H. Drummond, who arrived in Aberdeen as deputy to W. Douglas Simpson in 1951, eventually becoming University Librarian himself. Prior to becoming an assistant librarian at Edinburgh University, Drummond had been Lecturer in Prehistoric Archaeology there as assistant to Vere Gordon Childe, Stuart Piggott's predecessor as Abercrombie Professor.

The University holds significant artefact collections in Marischal Museum with Neil Curtis (appointed 1988), an archaeologist, at its helm. The Museum collections are not restricted to local archaeology, although the regional collection is arguably the most significant for Northeast Scottish archaeology beyond the National Museum in Edinburgh.

The University has one of the best prehistoric human skeletal collections in the country thanks to early interest from the University's anatomists. The Museum has long employed archaeologically-trained assistants and runs a successful conservation laboratory directed by Margot Wright. Collectively, the University possesses an archaeological resource base which would be the envy of any archaeology department.

In more recent developments, Tim Ingold arrived as Professor of Anthropology in 1999, contributing to an interdisciplinary research agenda that included a course on The 4 A's:

  • Anthropology
  • Archaeology
  • Art 
  • Architecture

A year later, having previously left Aberdeen in 1975, Kevin Edwards returned to the University as Chair of Physical Geography in 2000 - having spent the previous six years as Professor and latterly Head of Archaeology at the University of Sheffield.

In 2001, enquiries as to the formation of a department of Archaeology received support at the highest levels, but in the midst of other initiatives, the University was unable to move forward with the idea at that time. Discussions between Tim Ingold, Kevin Edwards and Neil Curtis, did however, lead in 2005 to the formal submission of a proposal to the University for the establishment of a Department of Archaeology. Archaeology was seen not only as a key subject, but also one which complemented the research and teaching interests of a range of existing departments.

Through various submissions to the University, the three advocates suggested that the 'North', essentially North Britain and beyond, including the North Atlantic and adjacent areas during Postglacial times, would represent a good research focus for a nascent department. The case made to the University drew attention to the fact that active teaching and research interests in archaeology within the institution existed in numerous locales beyond Geography, Anthropology and the Museum, and included staff in such disciplines as Art History, History, Education, Plant and Soil Science, Chemistry and Geology.

The University agreed to welcome Archaeology formally in 2006 and the College of Physical Sciences elected to provide the necessary home and resources.

The new department is located in the School of Geosciences alongside disciplines centred upon Geography, Geology and Planning. The first staff appointments were advertised in early 2007, with their arrival and that of the first cohort of students in the autumn of that year.