Peter Ucko (1938-2007)

01st December 2007

Peter Ucko 2Neal Ascherson

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 ‘prehistory’.

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.

Reprinted by permission from The Independent, Obituaries, 21 June 2007.

Selected Publications

Ucko, P.J. (ed.) 1977 Form in Indigenous Art: Schematisation in the Art of Aboriginal Australia and Prehistoric Europe. Canberra: Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies.

Ucko, P. 1983 Australian academic archaeology: Aboriginal transformation of its aims and practices. Australian Archaeology 16:11-26.

Ucko, P. 1983 The poltics of the indigenous minority. Journal of Biosocial Science Supplement 8:25-40.

Ucko, P. 1985 Australian Aborigines and academic social anthropology. In C. Schrire and R. Gordon (eds), The Future of Former Foragers: Australia and Southern Africa, pp.63-73. Cambridge, MA: Cultural Survival Inc.

Ucko, P. 1987 Academic Freedom and Apartheid: The Story of the World Archaeological Congress. London: Duckworth.

Ucko, P. 1995 Archaeological interpretation in a world context. In P.J. Ucko (ed.), Theory in Archaeology: A World Perspective, pp.1-27. London: Routledge.

Ucko, P. 2000 Enlivening a ‘dead’ past. Conservation and Management of Archaeological Sites 4:67-92.

Ucko, P. 2001 ‘Heritage’ and ‘Indigenous peoples’ in the 21st century. Public Archaeology 1:227-238.

Ucko, P. and G.W. Dimbleby (eds) 1969 The Domestication and Exploitation of Plants and Animals. London: Duckworth.

Ucko, P. and A. Rosenfeld 1967 Palaeolithic Cave Art. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.

Ucko, P.J., R. Tringham and G.W. Dimbleby (eds) 1972 Man, Settlement and Urbanism. London: Duckworth.

Neal Ascherson
Peter Ucko (1938-2007)
December 2007
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