Richard Hodges chats to Caitlin McCall about people, places, and the ‘alchemy of archaeology’.
The trouble with Richard Hodges is keeping him to a single subject. I’m catching up with him on one of his flying visits to London, to discuss his new book, Travels with an Archaeologist. This collection of vignettes, along the lines of the postcards he regularly sends in to Current World Archaeology, revisits sites and people he encountered throughout his distinguished career. Regular CWA readers will be familiar with Richard’s writing style, a melding of lyrical prose, knowledgeable insight, and infectious enthusiasm that incites a restless wanderlust to follow in his footsteps, knowing that, equipped with his words, one can’t help but better understand and appreciate the sites he describes.
His conversation is much like his writing: it takes you on an energising and highly entertaining jaunt through a myriad of subjects, sites, and observations. So it was that, over a leisurely lunch, we covered a diverse range of topics that spanned his arrival at the British School at Rome during the early Thatcher years to digging at Butrint in post-Communist Albania; we touched on the absurdities of government bureaucracy at home and abroad, and the enduring importance of material culture, ancient and new. We discussed the management of heritage and its potential to secure a strong economic future for cash-strapped countries; and we lamented the opportunities missed through private and government self-interest. So that, by the time our coffee cups were cleared away and his taxi had arrived to whisk him off to Heathrow, I realised we had yet to mention his book.
From badgers to Romans
For Richard, archaeology is ‘the alchemy of experiences’, when ‘the five senses are tested and satisfied by the buried unexpected’. He became hooked as a schoolboy when he joined the excavation of a Roman villa at Box near Bath (in Wiltshire). The dig was directed by Henry Hurst, then a student at the Institute of Archaeology in London, and now Emeritus Reader of Classics at Cambridge University – and a lifelong friend. Henry remembers meeting the inquisitive 15-year-old, eager to join in: ‘It was the first dig I had directed, and I can still picture, on a gloomy December day, meeting the two senior clothcapped labourers with wheelbarrows, planks, and huts at the ready. I was asked if I would be happy for an enthusiastic schoolboy to join us. At the time, Richard’s interest was in badger-watching, but he was one of those resourceful, aware young persons who knew every inch of the landscape around Box, which was wonderful for me, since he was a mine of local knowledge. Still now, when I see Richard, with his host of achievements and author of many books, also present is that young badger-watching person from Box: and he rightly celebrates his Wiltshire roots, for they are the base for all that has followed.’
Those roots run deep. Hooked after his first taste of excavation, Richard was keen to join a local archaeological society, but there was none. So he set one up himself. The Box Archaeological & Natural History Society celebrates its 50th anniversary next year, and Richard returns regularly to give talks and catch up on local news, regardless of where he is living. And that is often abroad. In 1988, Richard was appointed Director of the British School at Rome, which was later followed by five years as Williams Director of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology; since 2012, he has been President of the American University of Rome.
Being an Englishman at the head of an American institution in a European capital does not faze Richard, but he is firmly tethered to the Old World. ‘I like the people of the New World, but I like memory of place, and I feel attached to the Old World through its literature and history, it forms a bond. So, do I like New York? Yes. But would I switch it for Rome? No.’ Then, pondering a little longer, he adds: ‘I’ve travelled to India, and I really enjoyed India, but again what did I really enjoy when push came to shove? I was fascinated by the Portuguese colonial archaeology!’
Gift of communication
Richard’s gift, says Brian Ayers, archaeologist friend and former Chief Executive of the Butrint Foundation, is his ability to communicate. This is evident in his writing both for academic journals and for more general consumption, often peppered with literary quotes from Classical authors and present-day writers, of both fact and fiction. His description in Travels of the remote headland at Knidos, in Greece – where he and Henry Hurst dug together in the 1970s – is interwoven with historical tidbits, quotes by the antiquarian Charles Newton, and descriptions by the novelists E M Forster and Lawrence Durrell.
‘I read a lot,’ he shrugs, when I ask about his literary influences. ‘And I think it is really important to transmit the thrill of archaeology, and to put it in a larger context. Umberto Eco, for example, is, I believe, one of the great intellects of the 20th century, and many people thought the monastery he describes in The Name of the Rose was Monte Cassino, in Latium. Well, I know Monte Cassino very well, it is the sister monastery to the one we were excavating nearby at San Vincenzo [al Volturno]. At the time we were excavating at the monastery of San Vincenzo, The Name of the Rose was huge – the film as well as the book – so it was a no-brainer to relate his description to our site.’
One of the writers Richard admires most is Lawrence Durrell, who lived in a house on Corfu that looked out across the Straits to Butrint in Albania. ‘Durrell’s writing influenced me when we were digging there, and he brought me to the travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor – whom I once had the good fortune to meet. Rather than just a description of a place, Fermor gives you its spirit. His writing gave me a sense of the use of words and the cadence of a sentence, which I love, and which you can’t really do in academic books. So in a way it’s a glorious self-indulgence! But it’s a lot harder than writing academic reports because you’re trying to tell a story while at the same time conjuring up a picture and giving a sense of place. What I do – and it’s what I tell my students to do – is, as soon as I have written an academic paper, I try immediately afterwards to write a popular version, while it’s still fresh, because it reaches a wider audience.’