AN INTERVIEW WITH
Richard Hodges chats to Caitlin McCall about people, places, and the ‘alchemy of archaeology’.
The trouble with Richard Hodges is keeping him to a single subject. I’m catching up with him on one of his flying visits to London, to discuss his new book, Travels with an Archaeologist. This collection of vignettes, along the lines of the postcards he regularly sends in to Current World Archaeology, revisits sites and people he encountered throughout his distinguished career.
Regular CWA readers will be familiar with Richard’s writing style, a melding of lyrical prose, knowledgeable insight, and infectious enthusiasm that incites a restless wanderlust to follow in his footsteps, knowing that, equipped with his words, one can’t help but better understand and appreciate the sites he describes.
His conversation is much like his writing: it takes you on an energising and highly entertaining jaunt through a myriad of subjects, sites, and observations. So it was that, over a leisurely lunch, we covered a diverse range of topics that spanned his arrival at the British School at Rome during the early Thatcher years to digging at Butrint in post-Communist Albania; we touched on the absurdities of government bureaucracy at home and abroad, and the enduring importance of material culture, ancient and new. We discussed the management of heritage and its potential to secure a strong economic future for cash-strapped countries; and we lamented the opportunities missed through private and government self-interest. So that, by the time our coffee cups were cleared away and his taxi had arrived to whisk him off to Heathrow, I realised we had yet to mention his book.
From badgers to Romans
For Richard, archaeology is ‘the alchemy of experiences’, when ‘the five senses are tested and satisfied by the buried unexpected’. He became hooked as a schoolboy when he joined the excavation of a Roman villa at Box near Bath (in Wiltshire). The dig was directed by Henry Hurst, then a student at the Institute of Archaeology in London, and now Emeritus Reader of Classics at Cambridge University – and a lifelong friend.
Henry remembers meeting the inquisitive 15-year-old, eager to join in: ‘It was the first dig I had directed, and I can still picture, on a gloomy December day, meeting the two senior cloth-capped labourers with wheelbarrows, planks, and huts at the ready. I was asked if I would be happy for an enthusiastic schoolboy to join us. At the time, Richard’s interest was in badger-watching, but he was one of those resourceful, aware young persons who knew every inch of the landscape around Box, which was wonderful for me, since he was a mine of local knowledge. Still now, when I see Richard, with his host of achievements and author of many books, also present is that young badger-watching person from Box: and he rightly celebrates his Wiltshire roots, for they are the base for all that has followed.’
Those roots run deep. Hooked after his first taste of excavation, Richard was keen to join a local archaeological society, but there was none. So he set one up himself. The Box Archaeological & Natural History Society celebrates its 50th anniversary next year, and Richard returns regularly to give talks and catch up on local news, regardless of where he is living. And that is often abroad. In 1988, Richard was appointed Director of the British School at Rome, which was later followed by five years as Williams Director of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology; since 2012, he has been President of the American University of Rome.
Being an Englishman at the head of an American institution in a European capital does not faze Richard, but he is firmly tethered to the Old World. ‘I like the people of the New World, but I like memory of place, and I feel attached to the Old World through its literature and history, it forms a bond. So, do I like New York? Yes. But would I switch it for Rome? No.’ Then, pondering a little longer, he adds: ‘I’ve travelled to India, and I really enjoyed India, but again what did I really enjoy when push came to shove? I was fascinated by the Portuguese colonial archaeology!’
Gift of communication
Richard’s gift, says Brian Ayers, archaeologist friend and former Chief Executive of the Butrint Foundation, is his ability to communicate. This is evident in his writing both for academic journals and for more general consumption, often peppered with literary quotes from Classical authors and present-day writers, of both fact and fiction. His description in Travels of the remote headland at Knidos, in Greece – where he and Henry Hurst dug together in the 1970s – is interwoven with historical tidbits, quotes by the antiquarian Charles Newton, and descriptions by the novelists E M Forster and Lawrence Durrell.
‘I read a lot,’ he shrugs, when I ask about his literary influences. ‘And I think it is really important to transmit the thrill of archaeology, and to put it in a larger context. Umberto Eco, for example, is, I believe, one of the great intellects of the 20th century, and many people thought the monastery he describes in The Name of the Rose was Monte Cassino, in Latium. Well, I know Monte Cassino very well, it is the sister monastery to the one we were excavating nearby at San Vincenzo [al Volturno]. At the time we were excavating at the monastery of San Vincenzo, The Name of the Rose was huge – the film as well as the book – so it was a no-brainer to relate
his description to our site.’
One of the writers Richard admires most is Lawrence Durrell, who lived in a house on Corfu that looked out across the Straits to Butrint in Albania. ‘Durrell’s writing influenced me when we were digging there, and he brought me to the travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor – whom I once had the good fortune to meet. Rather than just a description of a place, Fermor gives you its spirit. His writing gave me a sense of the use of words and the cadence of a sentence, which I love, and which you can’t really do in academic books. So in a way it’s a glorious self-indulgence! But it’s a lot harder than writing academic reports because you’re trying to tell a story while at the same time conjuring up a picture and giving a sense of place. What I do – and it’s what I
tell my students to do – is, as soon as I have written an academic paper, I try immediately afterwards to write a popular version, while it’s still fresh, because it reaches a wider audience.’
If communication is his gift, another, I would suggest, is his ability to quickly grasp the big picture while, with laser precision, identifying pertinent details. This talent shows itself as much in his current position as President of the American University of Rome – overseeing budgets, academic direction, and the pastoral care of its young students – as in his early career when, as a young academic, he forced a radical rethink of long-accepted theories surrounding post-Roman Europe.
His book Dark Age Economics, published in 1982, challenged the established view on the period following the disintegration of the Roman Empire, and introduced the notion that rather than witnessing the total collapse and subsequent rebuilding of social and economic systems, archaeological
evidence – amassed for the first time as much from the countryside as from urban centres – points instead to a series of contiguous changes. These ideas, while initially earning him the reputation as an academic revolutionary, have subsequently been widely adopted, and the book, revised and updated in 2012, remains essential reading for anyone studying the period.
His mentor and former tutor at Southampton University, Colin Renfrew, remembers Richard as ‘one of the most original and able of my former students’ and now ‘a truly international archaeologist’, adding: ‘As an Anglo-Saxon specialist, he took seriously the theoretical advances in archaeology, which, at the time, were influential mainly among prehistorians, and took these new approaches successfully into the field with his excavations at San
Vincenzo al Volturno.’
A young Richard Hodges (far left) in 1971, with members of the team excavating at Knidos, Turkey: (from the left) Catherine Ward Perkins, Dick Keresey, Tim Tatton-Brown, and Henry Hurst.
A sense of place
Key, however, to the success of archaeology, Richard insists, is placemaking. In 1978, as a young lecturer at Sheffield University, he set up ‘a narrative of a hill farm’ at Roystone Grange Archaeological Park in Derbyshire, with the Peak District Park and, later, English Heritage, which he describes as ‘a wonderful collaboration around creating a narrative of a hill farm, in which you could walk and enjoy the landscape.’ The experience led to like-minded projects at San Vincenzo al Volturno in Italy, and later at Butrint in Albania, as collaborative enterprises between archaeologists, investors, the local community, and the visiting public.
Two people in particular were influential in how Richard approached such projects: Peter Addyman and Riccardo Francovich. ‘By creating the Jorvik Centre in York in the 1970s, Peter changed the city back into being a capital of the north,’ Richard explains. ‘Until then, it was known primarily for its railways and chocolate. But now it is recognised for its rich heritage, not just Viking, but everything from pre-Roman to Victorian. The way Peter championed that was ground-breaking, not only for the fine archaeology itself, but also because it recognised how to involve the people and the politicians in defining the place.’
Riccardo Francovich, whom Richard describes in one of his chapters in Travels, was an expert in medieval archaeology and responsible for a total reassessment of early village settlement in Italy. But he also championed the need to involve the local community in their own archaeological landscape, which significantly shaped Richard’s own approach to archaeology and preserving heritage. ‘Riccardo’s mantra’, says Richard, ‘was that good research leads to good cultural heritage. And it was he more than anyone else who influenced how I approached the tricky problem of making a park and researching Butrint in Albania. The Lords [Rothschild and Sainsbury, who funded the project] quite understandably thought it would be about finding treasure. But from the get-go I said that it must be for this place, and the people in this place.’
Butrint is a remarkable success story, with unlikely beginnings in the late 1980s/early 1990s, as Albania was struggling to shake off the breath-taking horrors of its tyrannical Communist regime under Enver Hoxha. ‘The Berlin Wall had just come down – remember those days when walls came down, rather than now when people want to build them up! To my generation, getting involved in Europe was the thing to do,’ he comments wryly.
It was not an easy project: the country was incredibly poor, and corruption was rife. Understandably, the local people were less interested in the archaeology, and more in exploiting their rich investors. ‘They had nothing, so it was not surprising that they wanted what they saw we in the West had.’ Yet, by fostering a cooperative spirit and involving the community, Butrint – Virgil’s ‘Troy in miniature’ – is today an efficiently run and economically viable archaeological park, and a great source of both local and national pride.
The excavations at the monastery of San Vincenzo al Volturno were directed by Richard. There he uncovered fabulous frescoes. San Vincenzo is the sister monastery to Monte Cassino, often associated with Umberto Eco’s description in The Name of the Rose.
Using archaeology as a means to help society is a common thread that weaves throughout Richard’s career. ‘There’s an energy about the past that’s very different, and it is good for society if you can engage it. It’s important to meet people, work with them, listen to them, and forge a dialogue with them. If you do it on your own, you’ll never get anywhere.’
The affectionate recollections in Travels with an Archaeologist of such dialogues with so many people from so many places reflect the success of this philosophy. While the second half of the book – imaginatively divided into sections devoted to sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch – reveal how each of the five senses is satiated by archaeological discovery. ‘With these senses,’ he writes, ‘in the company of friends, new places are created from old ones.’
This interview was originally published in Current World Archaeology Issue 83, May 2017. It is republished here with kind permission of the author, Caitlin McCall.
Richard's new book, Travels with an Archaeologist: Finding a Sense of Place, is available from Amazon.
Butrint, described by Virgil as ‘Troy in miniature’, is a Graeco-Roman city on the Adriatic coast of Albania. The Butrint Foundation, has transformed the ruins into a successful archaeological park, and created a blueprint for such ventures in the future.