Philip Rahtz Conference

Philip and Mick Philip Rahtz and students

Several members of this society attended a conference on February 2nd in memory of Professor Philip Rahtz, acclaimed Archaeologist, who died in June 2011 aged 90. The conference was held at the Kings of Wessex Academy, Cheddar, the site of a huge Anglo-Saxon Royal Hall and its associated buildings excavated by Rahtz during the early 1960s.

Philip Rahtz, a Bristolian, came to archaeology late in life, having first trained as an accountant then served in the RAF during WW2 where he met archaeologist Ernest Greenfield who introduced him to many of the sites on Salisbury Plain. After returning to Bristol he opened a photographic studio and then trained as a teacher. He started visiting archaeological sites in Somerset with his first wife and they began to dig in the school holidays. He eventually gave up teaching to take paid archaeological work.

The lecture theatre at Cheddar was packed with academics and local community archaeologists, many whom had a personal involvement with Philip Rahtz during his long career. The conference was opened by Lorna Watts, his second wife, who recounted his many achievements. She assisted in most of his archaeological investigations and accompanied him on his travels to many ancient sites overseas during his retirement years.

This was followed by personal reflections from Professor Mick Aston, who told us he owes his career to Philip Rahtz who was then lecturing at the University of Birmingham. Rahtz put a card on the university notice board asking for undergraduates to accompany him on weekend 'digs'. Mick went along and found his true vocation.

We then heard a fascinating paper by Dr Roberta Gilchrist who is working on the Glastonbury Abbey Archaeology Archive Project. Philip Rahtz dug on Glastonbury Tor in the 60s and disagreed with the findings of Ralegh Radford who had dug there earlier. Rahtz said that we must put aside myth and legend and look at the facts. He said that there was no evidence that skeletons found by Radford in the abbey were those of King Arthur and Guinevere, but were 11th century cist burials.

Following an excellent buffet lunch, we met in the school grounds where Mick Aston and Bob Croft explained the site of the Royal Palace. This led to a discussion about public access to the site which is on school land and also about the part this important site should play in the education of the children there.

After the break we watched two films: a short piece taken from a 60s ITV film about the Saxon palace dig and an 8mm film taken from a TV screen showing the dig and aerial shots of the site. This was before the school was built and the whole site was rough ground and derelict farm buildings with the ruins of the Early Medieval Chapel of St Columbanus standing there.

Bob Croft, Somerset County Archaeologist, next spoke outlining the sites Philip Rahtz had dug in Somerset during the 50s, 60s and 70s. These included Pagans Hill, Chew Stoke, Chew Valley Lake, Glastonbury Tor, Beckery Chapel and Priest's House, Cannington Anglo-Saxon Cemetery, Brean Down, Cadbury Congresbury, South Cadbury, Cheddar Vicarage Garden and the Kings of Wessex Palace; many of these were rescue digs. This preceded his academic career at Birmingham and York Universities where he directed many digs in the midlands and the north, also becoming President of the CBA for several years.

Our final speaker was John Blair from Oxford who spoke about Cheddar and 'other Cheddars' in the Anglo-Saxon landscape. He made a comparison between the Cheddar hall and other hall buildings such as Yeavering, mainly in the Midlands, for the period 600 - 750 AD.

A summing up was made by Bob Croft who showed photos and cartoons of the light-hearted, fun times enjoyed by Philip Rahtz with his friends, students and family. A great end to a thoroughly enjoyable and fitting tribute to a great man.

I was fortunate enough to meet Philip Rahtz on February 1st and 2nd 1997, exactly 16 years earlier. He came to Bristol University to spend a weekend with my student group. On the Saturday he lectured to us and on Sunday accompanied us to three of his excavation sites:- Glastonbury Tor, Cheddar Palace, and Cadbury Congresbury, this was all arranged by our tutor Mick Aston. I count myself as extremely lucky to have met the great man and heard him talk about three of his most important sites.

Heather Morrisey