‘Archaeology’ in Cardiff before ‘Archaeology in Cardiff’

Professor James Whitley
Cardiff University

In  the first volume of T.H. White’s re-working of the Arthurian legends The Sword in the Stone (the book, not the Disney film) – when the ‘Wart’ first meets Merlin – there is an elaborate description of Merlin’s rather eccentric possessions. These include a copy of A.B. Cook’s Zeus, a three-volume work of classical scholarship published in the early years of the twentieth century. This deliberate anachronism is of course part of Merlin’s oddity (in the book) – whereas everyone else is travelling forwards in time he is travelling backwards. Merlin himself – though he clearly has antiquarian interests – therefore cannot be an archaeologist. But he possesses a book by someone who, in his time, was considered an archaeologist – in that, in the last few years of life, he held the Laurence Chair of Classical Archaeology at Cambridge.  

Today we would not call A.B. Cook ‘an archaeologist’ nor his great study comparative study of the Indo-European sky-god a work of archaeology (though it does include archaeological material). But in his time he was a kind of archaeologist. In the decades before and after 1900 the word ‘archaeology’ still meant ‘the science of ancient things’. These ancient things might include words, customs and practices as well as things. So Sir James Frazer’s commentary on Pausanias (Frazer 1898) could be considered an example of ‘archaeology’ just as Jane Ellen Harrison’s Themis (Harrison 1912)Archaeology then could embrace ethnology, comparative philology, the study of religion, folklore as well as concrete, material things. Archaeology was, at that time, still largely conducted by scholars with a classical background.  

In this short piece I want to take a brief look at two of these scholars who practised a form of ‘archaeology’ in this earlier sense: R.S. Conway and P.N. Ure. Both were at Cardiff briefly (presumably in the Classics department) in the years between 1900 and 1912, before moving on to Manchester and Reading respectively. Both were well-known and highly regarded scholars – so both have Wikipedia pages (though neither mentions Cardiff).  

R.S. Conway (1864-1933 -above) was the elder of the two. In 1901 when Conway was at Cardiff he was asked by the then Director of the British School at Athens, R.C. Bosanquet, to comment on some of the philological aspects of the inscriptions that had been found at Praisos in Eastern Crete (a region Bosanquet was later to call a ‘Cretan Wales).  

Conway was not an epigrapher but a comparative Indo-European philologist. His publication (Conway 1902) does contain pictures of the inscriptions which are written in a local (regional) version of the Greek alphabet. Though written in the Greek alphabet these late Archaic and Classical inscriptions are not written in the Greek language. What language were they then written in? Homer had talked about the ‘Eteocretans’ (‘True Cretans’) as one of the five peoples of ancient Crete; and Herodotus had mentioned that the people of Praisos claimed descent from the pre-Greek inhabitants of the island. These inscriptions seemed to confirm these ancient sources.  

Conway was not able to decipher these ‘Eteocretan’ inscriptions – there were too few of them. His best guess was that they were in an Indo-European language related to Venetic (the ancient Italic tongue once spoken in the area close to Venice). In this he was not alone – no-one has since been able to decipher them. Of the many wild claims that have been made since then (perhaps the wildest being that these inscriptions whose context strongly suggests they are legal are in written in a Semitic language and are in fact tombstones) none has been accepted. In his definitive study of the language Yves Duhoux reckons that Conway’s guess remains the best we have.  

By the time Conway wrote his second article on ‘Eteocretan’ inscriptions (Conway 1904) he was in Manchester. He is now best known for his study of ancient Italic languages – Venetic, Oscan, Umbrian, Messapian and so forth. These interests are now maintained in Cardiff by one of our colleagues in ancient history, Guy Bradley.  

P.N. (‘Percy’) Ure  (1879-1950) arrived in Cardiff soon after. His first publication as a Cardiff scholar (Ure 1906) is, on the face of it, not very archaeological. It is a study of ancient – particularly Archaic – tyranny in Greece in the 7th and 6th centuries BC. It proposes a thesis that was to become an orthodoxy though much of the twentieth century – that tyranny arose in part because of a class struggle between a landed aristocracy and a rising mercantile class (a thesis later discredited by another scholar who was briefly at Cardiff, Hans Van Wees). This idea – that there was an economic basis for major social and political change – drew Ure to what we would recognise as more directly archaeological material. With R.M. Burrows (Burrows and Ure 1911) he published an article on a rather odd vase shape – the kothon. 

What was the function of this curious type of Greek painted pottery (also known as an exaileptron), found largely in late Archaic and early Classical times? Was it a lamp? Or an incense burner? This focus on function (and on economics) was very much at odds with the kind of study of Greek painted pottery practised by J.D. Beazley – with its emphasis on style, attribution and iconography.  

In 1911 P.N. Ure left Cardiff to become Professor of Classics at Reading. Though a Professor of Classics his interests remained largely archaeological and economic. He built up the archaeological teaching collection at Reading and published numerous articles on vase shapes (such as the ‘Droop cup’) as well as pursuing investigations of the site of Rhitsona in Boeotia. 

So the ‘study of ancient things’ in Cardiff precedes the establishment of an archaeological department here.  With its with institutional links to the National Museum of Wales Cardiff archaeology after 1920 went on to develop a marked emphasis on the material remains of Britain (and Wales) in all periods from prehistory to the present. Under Mortimer Wheeler it developed a strong focus on excavation – excavation conducted with increasing accuracy and stratigraphical refinement. Of course Wheeler famously declared that he was ‘digging up people, not things’. Partly through this the meaning of the word ‘archaeology’ was to change radically after 1920. The presence of ancient historians and comparative philologists in SHARE is, however, is a continual reminder of the older sense of the word ‘archaeology’. 


Burrows, R.M. and Ure, P.N. 1911. Kothons and vases of allied types. Journal of Hellenic Studies 31, 72-99. 

Conway, R.S. 1902. The Pre-Hellenic Inscriptions of Praesos. Annual of the British School at Athens 8: 125-56. 

Conway, R.S. 1904. A Third Eteocretan Fragment (The Neikar-Inscription). Annual of the British School at Athens 10: 115-26. 

Cook, A.B. 1914. Zeus: A Study in Ancient Religion: Volume I: Zeus, God of the Bright Sky Part 1. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.  

Cook, A.B. 1925. Zeus: A Study in Ancient Religion: Volume 2: Zeus, God of the Dark Sky (Thunder and Lightning). (2 volumes) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.  

Cook, A.B. 1940. Zeus: A Study in Ancient Religion: Volume 3: Zeus, God of the Dark Sky (Earthquakes, Clouds, Winds, Dew, Rain, Meteorites). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.  

Duhoux, Y. 1982. Les Étéocrétois: Les Textes, La Langue. Amsterdam: J.C. Gieben. 

Harrison, J.E. 1912. Themis: A Study of the Social Origins of Greek Religion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.  

Frazer, J.G. 1898. Pausanias’ Description of Greece. London: Macmillan.  

Ure, P.N. 1906. The origin of the Tyrannis. Journal of Hellenic Studies 26, 131-42. 

White, T.H. 1938. The Sword in the Stone. London: Fontana-Collins.