Professor Geoff Wainwright

Elected: 2011

Area(s): Humanities, Arts & Social Sciences

Specialist Subject(s): Archaeology

ob. 6 March 2017

Chairman, Wessex Archaeology; formerly, Chief Archaeologist, English Heritage

The young Geoff Wainwright once nervously approached Dame Kathleen Kenyon to inquire about employment prospects in archaeology. She apparently told him that without an inheritance or private income he had no hope. Luckily, he disregarded her advice and went on to become a big influence on archaeology in Britain and Europe.

Geoff, who has died aged 79, was fascinated by archaeology from an early age and in 1956, while still a student, excavated a Mesolithic settlement at Freshwater West in Pembrokeshire, two miles from his family home. His early excavations were traditional affairs, but led him to a realisation that empirical research required clearly defined questions, and methods that matched the scale of the problem.

When he thus took a JCB to a prehistoric settlement at Tollard Royal, Wiltshire, in 1965, clearing the topsoil to expose the underlying remains, there was consternation from traditional archaeologists. But it was the first time that an entire Iron Age settlement had been revealed, and the increased understanding of such places was immeasurable. Undeterred by criticism, and shielded by his seniors, he did the same at several other Iron Age sites in southern Britain before turning his attention to late Neolithic henges. Large-scale excavations are now commonplace, but in the late 1960s this was radical. Moreover, he published the results of his work promptly and his reports on excavations at Gussage All Saints, Dorset, and Durrington Walls, Wiltshire, remain heavily cited and models of their genre.

Changing political philosophies in the 1980s and 1990s prompted greater concern for the conservation and management of the historic environment, and a quest for new ways of making archaeology contribute to the modern world. Although left-leaning in his politics, Geoff nonetheless saw opportunities to expand the profession by combining public-service support and regulation with private-sector delivery of key operations such as survey, excavation and community engagement. As a pragmatist, strongly influenced by the idea that the perfect is the enemy of the good, he saw that working with other interests could achieve worthwhile results for everyone.

Stonehenge was the proving ground for such ideas, and between 1984 and 1999 he worked tirelessly to negotiate schemes for the relocation of the visitor centre, closure of the A344 beside Stonehenge itself, and rerouting of the A303 in a tunnel south of the stones. The first two were finally achieved in 2013; the third is still under review.

Geoff was instrumental in drawing up Planning Policy Guidance Note 16 on Archaeology and Planning, published by the government in 1990. This influential document placed archaeological concerns at the heart of decision-making within the UK’s town and country planning system after a number of high-profile developments endangered important archaeological sites. He was one of the expert group convened by the Council of Europe that drafted the European convention on the protection of the archaeological heritage in 1992. These achievements set the stage for a vibrant period of development-driven investigation that revolutionised the professional practice of archaeology and our understanding of Britain’s historic environment, by opening it up to communities for whom it had previously been invisible.

Charming, forthright, or gruff as he felt appropriate, Geoff was often mischievous and always entertaining. He was the master of the pithy phrase, or a shrug of the shoulders that shook off all offending arguments. His interest was in the big picture, but he always built from the bottom up, checking detail and listening carefully to the evidence. His vision of archaeology was broad, and all had a place in the scheme.

Geoff was born in the seaside village of Angle, in Pembrokeshire, Wales. He was the youngest of three children of Dorothy (nee Worton), the village school teacher, and Frederick, a miner and farm labourer. A happy childhood, despite financial hardships and the austerity of wartime Britain, led to a place at Pembroke Dock Grammar School. He studied archaeology at University College Cardiff, played rugby for the university, and graduated with first-class honours in 1958. He moved to London to research the Mesolithic cultures of south-west Wales at the Institute of Archaeology, University of London, completing his PhD in 1961. While there he married Sue Lukes and their daughter Rhiannon was born in 1961.

His supervisor in London, Fred Zeuner, offered him the opportunity to help set up a new department of archaeology at the University of Baroda, Gujarat. Geoff jumped at the chance and was promptly appointed Visiting Professor of Environmental Archaeology. He travelled extensively in India, sometimes camping in the bush for weeks on end while recording sites. His second daughter, Sarah, was born there. The growing family returned to the UK in 1963. Nick, his son, was born in 1966.

Geoff joined the Ministry of Works as a field archaeologist and spent a decade excavating prehistoric sites. Managing these investigations piecemeal became increasingly difficult and in 1975 he established and led a rapid-response excavation team known as the Central Excavation Unit. By the mid-1980s they were undertaking more than 20 excavations a year across England. During an early project in the long hot summer of 1976 at Shaugh Moor, Devon, Geoff met Judith Paton; divorced from Sue, they married in 1977.

In 1980 he was promoted to principal inspector of ancient monuments and in 1989 became chief archaeologist in what had become English Heritage. There, in the changing political and social climate of Thatcherism, he oversaw and encouraged the creative team that put in place the foundations for today’s highly professional archaeology.

Geoff’s contributions were widely recognised. He was elected a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries in 1967, a member of the Institute of Field Archaeologists in 1984, and a fellow of the Learned Society of Wales in its 2011. Among many prizes and awards he was appointed MBE for services to archaeology in 1991, and given the Grahame Clark medal by the British Academy in 2006.

European in outlook and bitterly disappointed by the recent Brexit vote, he had been a driving force behind the creation of the Europae Archaeologiae Concilium in 1999, and a corresponding member of the Deutsches Archäologisches Institut from 2009.

Retirement in 1999 did not curtail his passion for archaeology. Internationally, he helped to establish standards for heritage management, and advised the government of South Korea and the World Bank on cultural heritage management.

Moving home to west Wales provided him with the opportunity to re-engage with research there, and together he and I set about investigating the sources of the famous bluestones that were taken from the Preseli Hills to Stonehenge around 2400BC. New excavations took place in Pembrokeshire, and inside Stonehenge itself in 2008.

Geoff was a lover of landscape and the great outdoors, and walking was his favourite recreation, especially when coupled with exploring the cultures of other countries and enjoying their sites, food and drink. Rugby was a lifelong passion and he followed the Welsh team closely. He had a strong singing voice, and at home loved the garden, his cats, and settling by the fire with the newspaper or a chosen book.

He is survived by Judith, Rhiannon, Sarah and Nick, and three grandchildren.

Prepared by Professor Timothy Darvill, Bournemouth University.