The Prehistoric Society

History of the Prehistoric Society

Society origins

The Prehistoric Society has relatively humble origins as a regional society. In 1908, an 'East Anglian Society of Prehistorians' had been proposed and on 26th October of that year it held its inaugural meeting in Norwich Public Library. The society's Patron, Dr W. Allen Sturge, a retired doctor and passionate flint-collector of Suffolk was the first President, with Norfolk-born journalist-cum-prehistorian W. Grahame Clarke as Secretary until 1920 (Fig. 1). The Society's aims were to:

In 1911, with a membership of over one hundred - largely professional-class flint enthusiasts from Norfolk and Suffolk - what was by then named thePrehistoric Society of East Anglia first published its Proceedings at no less than 500 copies (five times that of its membership). The following year membership increased to 148, when the Society counted none other than Dr Marie Stopes amongst its number; by 1913 the membership had risen again to 189.

In 1914 - with now over 200 members - the Society funded its first excavation at the Neolithic flint mines of Grimes Graves (Fig. 2). In these early years, the apparent discovery of worked Tertiary flints in Ipswich by society member James Reid Moir caused national controversy (cf. Clark 1985) and by 1921 society membership had swelled to c. 300. In that year the Society even boasted its first female President in Palaeolithic specialist Nina Layard (Fig. 3).

A National Society

The success of the Proceedings meant that even by 1914 most members were from beyond East Anglia. Highly regarded professional prehistorians began to be counted amongst the ranks, with O.G.S Crawford, Dorothy Garrod and Cyril Fox joining in 1922-23 and Stuart Piggott, Grahame Clark, Gordon Childe, Leslie Grinsell and Charles Phillips in 1929-30. From an early interest in collecting and displaying flints, by the 1920s a concern with later Prehistory was now also on the agenda.

From 1923 the Society began to meet in London, first in the rooms of the Geological Society and from 1924 at the Royal Anthropological Institute. From 1925, the society began to recognise its increasingly national role, noting the following year that in reality it had become 'a national society with a local name'; however the issue of whether to drop 'East Anglia' from its name remained a contentious one for many years (cf. Plunkett 1996).

The 1920s saw somewhat of a plateau in membership. In 1928, however, Dorothy Garrod (Fig. 4) was sworn in as President - Garrod later became Cambridge's first female Professor and established the Cambridge degree in archaeology. In her presidential address she spoke of the need to recognise archaeology as cultural rather than natural history and address cultural variability by excavating beyond Europe. Once again, the Society's horizons had been broadened.

From 1930 the Society began its current practice of meeting in the rooms of the Society of Antiquaries of London. By 1934 - with now only 15% of its membership from Norfolk and Suffolk - the Society really had outgrown its East Anglian name. With an overseas membership of 11%, the time was right to seek recognition as a national society. The last President of the PSEA was the Abbé Breuil who, in his presidential address, spoke of the Society's important role in reforming French prehistory.

On 23rd February 1935 a change in name to the Prehistoric Society was proposed by Grahame Clark (Fig. 5). In an increasingly scientific age, a national society was seen by Clark as "a contribution towards the much desired rationalisation of the subject in this country" and this statement was very much supported by a new generation of professional prehistorians including Charles Phillips, Christopher Hawkes, and Stuart Piggott. This new phase began under the presidency of Vere Gordon Childe (Fig. 6), with Clark as Proceedings editor until 1970.

Between 1934-1938 membership of this new, national society doubled to c. 750. A new focus began on winter lectures and on providing a financial security from which excavation might be funded. In 1938 the Research Fund was established and Little Woodbury was chosen as the society's first sponsored excavation: a transparent attempt to improve the state of British prehistoric settlement studies, which also acted as a training and demonstration excavation (Fig. 7).

The war years and beyond

Between 1935-1939, a growing society had seen four presidents in as many years; between 1939-46, however, the Society appointed its longest-serving president: Cambridge scholar Gertrude Caton-Thompson (Fig. 8). Caton-Thompson saw the society through the uncertainties of the war years and, unlike other societies, publication of the Proceedings continued unabated. After the war, the Prehistoric Society study tours had their first outing to York in 1947 and members have been visiting prehistoric landscapes both home and abroad ever since (Fig. 9).

The growth of the society resumed in the post-war period, particularly under the presidency of Christopher Hawkes (Fig. 10) and continued throughout the 1950s, topping the 1000 mark in 1955. Key here was the new role of TV archaeology (Mortimer Wheeler was voted BBC TV Personality of the Year in 1954, Glyn Daniel in 1955). The result for the society was the ability to fund new research, including the well-known Yorkshire sites of Mesolithic Star Carr and Neolithic Thornborough, and the Iron Age settlement of Bodrifty in Cornwall.

In line with the expansion of the discipline more generally, the 1960s saw the society continue to grow under the presidencies of Grahame Clark (1958-62), Stuart Piggott (1962-66) and John Cowen (1966-70). This enabled the funding of more research, including the important sites of Mesolithic Thatcham in Berkshire, Bronze Age Gwithian in Cornwall, and the Iron Age 'lake village' of Meare (Somerset).

The year 1960 brought the first foreign study tour (to the Netherlands) and the society began lobbying on behalf of a State Archaeological Service. In 1963, Stuart Piggott's presidential address spoke of the society as a body concerned with setting and maintaining high standards in archaeology, as well as providing "a bridge between professional scholarship and the general public". By 1969, membership was at 1737 with overseas members at 21%, including 140 institutions in 34 countries.

In 1976, the Society reached its peak membership of 2100. Under the presidency of Geoff Wainwright (Fig. 11) the Society became increasingly concerned with strategy, forging links with the Department of Environment. The early 1980s too saw the Society considering issues relating to rescue archaeology, funding, and heritage management: with a focus on the future excavation, publication, and conservation of prehistoric archaeology and, importantly, its communication to the public.

With Proceedings editors John Coles and Tim Champion, UK research funded in this era included Palaeolithic Bakers Hole (Kent), Neolithic Carn Brea (Cornwall), the Late Bronze Age 'midden site' of Potterne (Wiltshire), and the British oppidum of Stanwick (Yorkshire), with more funding also going to prehistory projects beyond the UK. The 1980s saw regular annual conferences in London. In 1982, the Society's archive was rediscovered at the British Museum and papers going back to 1908 are now safely lodged at the University of Bradford. 1986 saw the birth of our successful newsletter: PAST.

Recent Work

During the 1990s - with John Evans as Proceedings editor - European subjects made up one in four articles (up 10% on the 1980s) creating a journal of increasing international relevance, with membership now held in 40 different countries. Since 1994, the Proceedings have been edited by Julie Gardiner and the journal now sees one of the strongest citation rates internationally.

Since 1990, we have contributed to the research funding of more than 120 research projects in the UK and abroad, be they survey, excavation or collections analysis (Fig. 12). As such, the society has encouraged cutting- edge prehistoric research, from the AMS dating of Upper Palaeolithic human remains to the digital image processing of rock art. In addition, our John and Bryony Coles Award has aided the travel of young academics carrying out studies across the globe, from Kenya to India.

In the 1990s, annual regional conferences were added to those held in London and during the 2000s we have averaged four conferences a year, with topics ranging from hunter-gatherer communities to Iron Age hillforts; from wetlands research to coastal erosion; from pottery studies to landscape survey; and from the history of prehistoric studies to its future. From 2001, the Sara Champion Memorial Lecture has provided young, talented scholars with a new forum in which to present their work.

Our popular reviews section was transferred to the website in 2002 to help us cope with the increasing volume of prehistoric literature - since then we have published over 200 reviews! In 2005, the Student Study Tour was established with the aim of widening access to specialist knowledge of prehistoric landscapes. In the same year, Miranda Aldhouse-Green became our first female President since the war and as a society we remain committed to issues of gender equality.

Today, 25% of our membership is from outside the UK (in forty different countries) and the Prehistoric Society remains the key route to finding out about prehistory, both at home and abroad. Our elected council represents the best in UK experts, whilst our popular review section and new research monograph series gives access to the latest work in the field. The Society advises on all matters prehistoric and contributes to international-level research through our grants and awards.

Society membership entitles you to our newsletter PAST (at three editions a year), as well as our annual Proceedings, giving information on the latest prehistoric discoveries, research and events. Members are also invited to our lectures and conference series and to take part in our regular study tours (Fig. 13). Becoming a member is easy: join us here and start discovering your prehistoric past.

Rachel Pope

Grateful thanks to Ian Cartwright, Bob Chapman, John Cruse, Alex Lang, Julia Roberts, and Pamela Smith.