The Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland, Angus Graham and Gordon Childe (1935–46)
Mid 20th Century, Second World War
This paper explores the story of Scotland’s national survey body, the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland, between 1935 and 1946, with reference to Angus Graham, their Secretary, and Vere Gordon Childe, perhaps the best-known archaeologist of the 20th century. Much of the narrative describes the Commission’s survey of Orkney and Shetland, an eight year project which brought close contact with Childe, and special attention is given to debate over the Neolithic sites at Skara Brae and Rinyo. The outbreak of war in 1939 delayed their report for some seven years, but the government supported a major programme of rescue recording to mitigate damage caused by enemy bombing and the training of allied troops.
In 1938 Childe was passed over for membership of the Commission, who felt that they had sufficient archaeological expertise. His extreme anger at this snub was to be reflected in a negative review of their forthcoming report, but was allayed by neat footwork on the part of the chairman. In 1942, when the Commissioners did indeed put Childe forward as a member it was the Secretary of State for Scotland that stood in their way. Dedicated efforts by the Commission finally persuaded him that Childe was not in fact a Communist threat, and he and Graham went on to record some 636 ancient monuments, while Graham alone took 2,200 images of historic buildings. The archive material (and Graham’s diaries in particular) shine a light on what was a pioneering project in testing times. The circumstances of the war, and the short duration of Childe’s membership, meant that his influence was in fact felt through fieldwork and not, as one may have expected, in the development of the Commission’s over-arching syntheses.