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Bridget Allchin, who has died at the age of 90, was a pioneer in the field of South Asian archaeology. During her career, she made some of the most important discoveries of South Asian prehistory, and laid the foundations for (now standard) interdisciplinary approaches to its study. She also played a pivotal role in promoting and facilitating South Asian studies across Europe.
Born Bridget Gordon on February the 10th 1927 in Oxford, the daughter of Major Stephen Gordon of the Indian Army Medical Service and Elsie (née Cox), Bridget spent her childhood in Scotland. During the Second World War, she helped her mother run the family farm, which at that time also involved looking after evacuees and even a German prisoner of war. It was here, inspired by the works of William Sollas, that she resolved to study prehistory at university. However, archaeology was not taught as a degree in Britain at the time. So she enrolled for a Batchelor’s degree at University College London that included Ancient History, and spent her Easter holidays excavating a prehistoric site in Oxford.
Her studies were interrupted when her parents moved to South Africa; and Bridget was compelled to follow them. She planned to return to Britain as soon as possible to resume her studies, but soon found that she could read for a degree in African Studies, including Anthropology and Archaeology, at Cape Town University. Here, she studied under Astley Goodwin, who instilled in her the necessity of strictly scientific methods of fieldwork; and in her free time, learned to fly in a Piper Cub.
In the summer of 1950, armed with her degree and all of her savings, Bridget returned to Britain on her own to study for a PhD. After being told by the London School of Economics that her ‘colonial degree’ was not considered adequate preparation for a research degree, she resolved to go to UCL instead. Demanding to meet the then Director of the Institute of Archaeology, Vere Gordon Childe, without an appointment—and in what she herself described as a ‘somewhat belligerent mood’—she managed to convince the Institute to admit her in less than ten minutes. She began her PhD that autumn, under the supervision of Frederick Zeuner, with every intention of working on later African prehistory and ethnoarchaeology.
It was there, in a lecture, that Bridget met her future husband and lifelong colleague, Raymond Allchin. The couple were married in March 1951, and spent their honeymoon in the Dordogne visiting the Palaeolithic cave paintings in the Vallée de la Vézère. Raymond, who had just won a PhD scholarship to study the archaeology of the Deccan, was due to spend a year in South Asia; and so Bridget made arrangements to spend a year’s study leave with him. Raymond’s supervisor, Kenneth Codrington was very supportive of this plan, not least because Bridget was the only one among them who had a driving license. While preparing to go, Bridget found out that she was pregnant. Hiding the news from both of their families, Bridget checked their itinerary, and with characteristic pragmatism arranged to give birth in Bangalore. They spent the next six months travelling throughout South Asia, and when they finally made their way to South India Bridget was eight months pregnant.
It was during this period that Bridget fell in love with South Asia, thereby sealing a personal and professional relationship that would endure for the rest of her life. She was awed by the richness of South Asian archaeology, astonished by the beauty of its artistic heritage, and developed a passion for its land and culture.
Bridget wrote her first professional paper during this time, on the Palaeolithic stone tools in the collections of the University of Mysore, before heading back into the field with a two-month old infant—her daughter, Sushila. It was also during this period that Bridget and Raymond embarked on what was to become a remarkable academic partnership. Their pioneering excavations at the prehistoric site of Piklihal resulted in the identification of its famous ashmounds as Neolithic sites associated with cattle.
Bridget returned to London; and after giving birth to her second child, William, was awarded her PhD (later published, in 1966, as The Stone-Tipped Arrow: Late Stone Age Hunters of the Tropical Old World). In doing so, Bridget became one of the few people in post-War Britain to attain a PhD—a feat that was even rarer as a woman, not to mention a mother of two. Indeed, she was told by her supervisor that she would never have an academic career precisely because she was a woman. Yet, with her own resolve and determination, and the support of her husband, friend and co-author, Raymond, she went on to build a career as a specialist in lithic technology and became a world authority in South Asian prehistory.
In 1959, Bridget left London for Cambridge, where Raymond had recently been appointed Lecturer in Indian Studies. Together, in 1963-64, they worked with A. H. Dani from Peshawar University on the excavations at Shaikan Dheri, one of the great Indo-Greek city sites of the later centuries BCE; before then discovering and excavating the site of Malwan, in Gujarat, with J.P. Joshi, former Director General of the Archaeological Survey of India, in 1967-68. In many respects, both of these excavations mirrored the trends of the time. Most archaeologists working on South Asia were fixated by either Buddhism, or the Indus Valley civilisation. But with the excavations at Malwan, Bridget, ever the master of her own path, began to research Chalcolithic trading sites that lay outside the ‘core’ area of the Indus—an aspect of archaeology that has become central to our thinking about the emergence of urbanism in South Asia.
It was also here, in West India, that Bridget developed interests in human-environment interactions, and her work became more interdisciplinary. She was one of the first scholars to recognise and acknowledge the need for greater interdisciplinary research in South Asia; and saw the necessity of working in collaboration with people from other disciplines, long before this became standard practice in many other parts of the world. Together with the archaeologist K.T.M. Hegde from the Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda, and the geomorphologist Andrew Goudie from Oxford, Bridget developed a project to survey the Thar desert—a vast arid expanse that lies across the border between India and Pakistan that had always been deemed too dry to support human occupation. Testing the idea that the entire area may have been formed due to cultivation, the team undertook a series of extensive field surveys across the Thar desert between 1969 and 1976. Their results established the existence of an extensive Stone Age presence in the area, showed that human groups had adapted to the changing environment of the region over time, and turned traditional notions of what optimal locations for Palaeolithic archaeology might be on their heads.
Following this, Bridget, together with Raymond, returned to (what was then) the North West Frontier Province. There, they worked collaboratively with F.A. Durrani and Farid Khan from the University of Peshawar, Robert Knox from the British Museum and Ken Thomas from UCL at the sites of Lewan and Tarakai Qila in the Bannu Basin. This shift to the northwest coincided with the establishment of the British Archaeological Mission in Pakistan, which Bridget jointly directed for many years. Here, Bridget developed close links with the Pakistan Geological Society and Department of Archaeology, and raised funds for further interdisciplinary surveys of the Soan Valley, Pabbi Hills and Potwar Plateau with archaeologists Robin Dennell and Linda Hurcombe, and the geologist Helen Rendell. Work in this area was initially set up to investigate earlier (1930s) reports of Lower Palaeolithic stone tools, and establish whether these were naturally flaked or purposefully made by locating Palaeolithic material in secure archaeological contexts. This work resulted in the discovery of the oldest stone tools outside of Africa—which, at almost two million years old, prompted wider archaeological scholarship to review the timing of migrations from Africa to Asia—as well as what were at the time of their discovery the earliest handaxes in South Asia.
Bridget, in partnership with Raymond, continued to be involved in the excavation of a series of sites that remain critical for our understanding of South Asia’s past. Throughout this work, fieldwork remained absolutely core to her endeavours. This was not only due to her strong personal connection with the land, people and cultures of South Asia, but also because Bridget recognised the deep connection that exists between that landscape, the environment, and the archaeology. It was this recognition that afforded her such profound insight into South Asia’s prehistoric past.
Bridget’s research output was prodigious, even by today’s frenetic standards. Her publications include a number of books, edited volumes and countless research articles covering subjects from hominin responses to climate change to ethnoarchaeology, with geographical foci from Afghanistan to Sri Lanka. Many of these continue to have significant impact. In addition to the results of her own research, Bridget also synthesised South Asia’s rich archaeological heritage, co-authoring and co-editing a number of volumes with Raymond that made South Asia accessible to other archaeologists. The Rise of Civilization in India and Pakistan (1982) and The Archaeology of Early Historic South Asia (1995), in particular, remain standard text books today.
Assiduous in befriending and collaborating with local scholars, Bridget built up an extensive network of friends and colleagues that included senior archaeologists and historians across the world, not to mention ambassadors, high commissioners, and world leaders. She was likely one of the few academics who had met and was able to make a direct comparison between Margaret Thatcher, Benazir Bhutto and Indira Gandhi. Beyond her own work, she was also acutely aware of the necessity of creating and fostering connections between South Asian archaeology and other disciplines—broadening its scope into art history, language and culture—as a way of both protecting and promoting the study of ancient South Asia. So, before there was even such a thing as the European Union, Bridget worked with leading European scholars such as Joan van Lohuizen and Jean-François Jarrige to forge links across Europe and set up the European Association of South Asian Archaeology and Art, becoming its first Secretary General in 1970. As a forum where both young and established scholars could share reports and preliminary findings before publishing their main reports, the establishment of the EASAA represented a great internationalisation and democratisation of research. Its biennial conference remains the largest international meeting of its kind.
Driven by the same ideals, and with a deft administrative touch, Bridget was also instrumental in founding the Society for South Asian Studies (sadly, no longer in existence) from its earlier incarnation as the Society of Afghan Studies. She also established this journal, South Asian Studies, as the world’s only journal exclusively concerned with the interdisciplinary study of ancient South Asia, and which she edited for over ten years. Recognising the precarious position of the study of ancient South Asia, Bridget, together with Raymond, Sir Harold Bailey, Joan van Lohuizen and Jan van Lohuizen, also established the Ancient India and Iran Trust in 1980 to preserve and promote the prehistory, archaeology, art history, linguistics, ancient languages and cultures of South Asia and parts of Central and Southeast Asia. To this day, the Trust maintains one of the finest libraries and photographic archives of South Asia; and has a long tradition of welcoming students and scholars from across the world to study, and develop new connections and interests.
Through all of these works and initiatives, Bridget played a central role in cultivating new generations of scholars, both in South Asia and the United Kingdom. Dauntless and formidable as a scholar, adventurous and resourceful in the field, she was at the same time unfailingly encouraging, kind and supportive to young scholars. Passing under her tutelage in the field, or mentorship while students or visiting scholars at Cambridge, were numerous Vice Chancellors, Pro-Vice Chancellors, Director Generals of the Archaeological Survey of India, Heads of Department, museum directors, and academics. Many of whom, like others who knew her, will remember her affectionately as ‘Aunty’.
In all of these ways, Bridget, together with Raymond, not only put South Asia on the map, but also kept it there. And all of this, let us not forget, she achieved as a woman in what is still a very male dominated profession. As such, she really was a pioneer in the field, not only in South Asia where, with friends like Debala Mitra, she blazed the trail for female fieldworkers, demonstrating that fieldwork was an integral part of archaeology that should be open to everyone. But also in wider archaeology, where she ranks with the likes of Lady Hester Stanhope, Gertrude Bell, Gertrude Caton-Thompson, Beatrice de Cardi, Amelia Edwards, and Kathleen Kenyon—all of whom overcame massive obstacles, requiring tremendous persistence and resolution, and who are inspirations to us all.
Bridget was a Fellow of Wolfson College, Cambridge, and in 2014 was awarded the Royal Asiatic Society Gold Medal, its highest award, in recognition of her achievements. Bridget will be missed by generations of friends and scholars; and the influence of her work and legacy will endure for generations to come.
She is survived by her two children, Sushila and William; three grandchildren, Benjamin, Joseph and Hannah; and four great grandchildren Rosa, Jasper, Effy and Lowen.
Bridget Allchin, born 10 February 1927; died 27 June 2017.Back to all news