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Philip Rahtz (11 March 1921 – 2 June 2011)

posted 25 Jun 2011, 12:28 by Paul Brayford   [ updated 1 Feb 2016, 15:11 ]
It is with sadness that we report the passing of Professor Philip Rahtz who died on 2 June 2011, aged ninety.

Professor Rahtz was one of the pioneers of the techniques of open area excavation, the big break with the Mortimer Wheeler tradition of excavation, and of the combination of rescue archaeology and academic research. He was the first professor of the University of York's archaeology department, a post created in 1978. After earlier short-lived careers in accountancy, the Royal Air Force, photography, and school teaching, Philip Rahtz stumbled into archaeology after the Second World War—and never looked back. Until his death he was the oldest archaeologist in the country to be still active in digging, writing, and lecturing.

We reproduce below the obituary, first published in The Times on 14 June 2011 and reproduced in SALON, the online newsletter of the Society of Antiquaries of London, describing Philip Rahtz as a ‘famously hands-on archaeologist and excavator whose innovative teaching at York inspired and challenged a generation of students’.

‘Young people starting out in archaeology in the second half of the twentieth century would be lucky to find a more inspiring excavation director than Philip Rahtz. Most likely they would first encounter him down on the ground digging next to them, clad in a decrepit pair of khaki shorts and wielding a shovel — occasionally stopping to hold instant on-site seminars on what was happening. If excavation is theatre, this was not so much directed theatre as devised theatre. Everyone was expected to work, contribute and express an opinion. There was a buzz of expectation from morning to night, a sense of mission, of resolving the past’s great riddles, discovering people and revealing events. Things were not there just to be found and recorded, but to be unleashed back into life.

‘Now that inclusivity and multivocality are being urged on an overheated profession, it is easy to forget that such things were once considered routine, agreeable and essential by all successful practitioners. Philip Arthur Rahtz was one of the great archaeological excavators of the twentieth century. He was born in Bristol on 11 March 1921. After Bristol Grammar School he was called up and served in the RAF until 1946. He then worked briefly as a teacher and photographer before being taken on with Ernest Greenfield by the Ministry of Public Buildings and Works to record archaeology ahead of the construction of Chew Valley reservoir.

‘Then, aged thirty-two, he went on to excavate in Spain, Greece and Ghana, as well completing fifty-three excavations in England, thirteen of them in Somerset. His excavations opened windows on Bronze Age burials, Roman villas and temples, Anglo-Saxon palaces and cemeteries, medieval houses, abbeys, churches and a hunting lodge. The post-Roman cemetery at Cannington with its young female “saint”, the “Arthurian” fort at Congresbury, King Alfred’s palace at Cheddar and the great Cistercian landscape of Bordesley Abbey are household names in the profession, sites where history was revealed with exceptional clarity, proficiency and common sense.

‘Rahtz had a near perfect record of reporting and deserves to be as renowned for finishing and publishing his excavations as others are for failing to do so. He achieved it by toiling at home, day after day, turning field records into clear simple narratives supported by strong graphics. During these marathon indoor campaigns, which took up most of his life when he was not digging or teaching, a network of wires blasted waves of classical music into every room. His was a house where a visit to the lavatory was met by the Ride of the Valkyries.

‘The harvest of all this work was twofold: first, he was instrumental in forging the application of archaeology to the Middle Ages. While others theorised the role of medieval material culture, he went out and dug it up, creating a legacy on which modern medieval archaeologists will long continue to draw. Second, when in 1963 he became a lecturer at the University of Birmingham, he imported the mud and dust of archaeological exploration deep into the academy. Creating the department of archaeology at York, where he became professor in 1978, he extended his principle of on-site empowerment to students. They were not there just to listen to lectures, but also to speak, lecture and intervene. They had to cover all periods, in all places, linked by a chain of themes — settlement and economy, urbanism, death and burial.

‘His gift to teaching was not so much this innovative degree, with its rather controvertible syllabus, as the development of education as interaction: York courses were interactive before there was an internet. Out of term each student had to undertake twelve weeks of residential fieldwork, because that is where the love of archaeology took hold. In term, they were loaded into a minibus and when it stopped each had to deliver a ten-minute introductory talk about a place they may never have seen before. Seminar contributions were expected of students from Day One. By the time they graduated each had been recorded chairing a seminar, and videoed giving a public lecture — unusual forms of examination but great preparations for real work.

‘As an academic Rahtz performed two counter-intuitive conjuring tricks: he made medieval archaeology matter, and he made archaeological theory fun. He leaves a large and affectionate following. In a profession well known for its earthy character — in every sense — he relished his reputation as a Lothario, and attributed it somewhat eccentrically in his autobiography, Living Archaeology (2001), to evolutionary forces. His close friends included some of the most intelligent and influential women working in archaeology.

‘Philip Rahtz died on 2 June 2011, aged ninety, and was buried at the Anglo-Scandinavian church at Kirkdale, North Yorkshire, the subject of his last field project. His first wife, Wendy, died in 1977. They had three sons and two daughters. He and his second wife, Lorna Rosemary Jane Watts, had a son.’

(c) The Times 2011

A further tribute to Philip Rahtz can be found at

The Guardian obituary by Catherine Hills published on 29 July 2011 can be found at

His autobiography Living Archaeology was published by Tempus in 2001 or