Brian Hope-Taylor (1923-2001) and Northumbria: a centenary re-assessment of excavations and interpretations at Yeavering and Doon Hill, Dunbar
by Ian Ralston FSA & Roger Miket
In 1963 Brian Hope-Taylor, at the age of 40 and by then a Cambridge academic, received a standing ovation from this Society for his lecture to it on his excavations of the Anglian palace site at Yeavering. The skill-set he applied in winning a story through the recognition of elaborate timber architecture from its intractable soils established his importance as an excavator and laid the foundation for what would mark the zenith of his career over the following decade. On the basis of his work there which gained him his doctorate in 1961, he was appointed Assistant Lecturer at Cambridge. As TV writer and presenter, his Who were the British? (1966) and the Lost Centuries (1968) represented key early milestones in the televising of archaeology in Britain.
His work was composed within the crucible of contemporary historical interpretation and against a backdrop of limited comparanda. In the intervening seventy years inevitably excavation and scientific advances have transformed understanding of that landscape, exposing flaws in the reliability of some of his data and raising doubts as to the validity of his interpretations. We may today now seriously question the basis for his elegant narratives as to the date and cultural affiliations of his earliest spaced-post buildings at Yeavering, voice some scepticism on the basis for his proposed chronological sequence for the Great Enclosure and legitimately reject outright both his ‘Celtic Fields’ and the two burning episodes that provided him with so crucial a plank in underpinning the site’s chronology. Yet notwithstanding our ability to point to the flaws in his ‘evidences’, can we show him to have been wrong in his interpretations?
Discovered from the air by Kenneth St Joseph when fieldwork at Yeavering was underway, Doon Hill held the promise of providing an earlier context further north within Bernicia for some of that site’s remarkable timber architecture. Excavated in 1964-66 and presented to camera by Hope-Taylor in Who were the British? the site is still unpublished. Its supposedly British and Anglian architecture was laid out for the public in coloured concrete fifty years ago, but Doon Hill can now be demonstrated not to include any features attributable to the first millennium AD.
With the recent re-examination of the finds and surviving archives from Hope-Taylor’s campaigns at both Yeavering and Doon Hill, it is timely to look anew at the man and his approach to archaeology; and to consider what of Hope-Taylor’s historically-led vision of Yeavering and its settlement sequence might have stood the test of time. In this lecture, marking the centenary of his birth, we seek not to offer a complete overview of Hope-Taylor’s contributions to British, primarily English, field archaeology in the post-War period. We hope, however, critically to review the evidence he recovered from, and the interpretations he advanced for, these two northern sites which he examined during what Philip Larkin might have termed his fillet steak years as a field archaeologist.
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