So why 20 years?

As I have written before, I came to Jacquetta Hawkes’s writings in the process of researching my thesis at Oxford on poetry and archaeology. With my journo hat on, I was curious why someone so much a part of Britain’s postwar archaeological – and arts – culture was now so overlooked. She was certainly not on our Arch and Anth undergraduate reading lists at Oxford. Sometime in early 1996, I read a book by Jacquetta’s close friend, Diana Collins, “Time and the Priestleys: the Story of a Friendship” and contacted Diana, asking if I could talk with her about Jacquetta. Even better, she invited me to see Jacquetta’s house in Chipping Campden, which had been sold after her recent death in March, 1996. In the process of cataloguing Jacquetta’s books before they were scattered, I came across fragments of her writing. In particular, a few pages in a binder. They were all there is of a book about old age she had started to write. I found this incredibly moving, and realised that the archaeological analogy started there, in that dusty study in the summer of 1996. Her son, Nicolas, agreed that I should be her biographer, and after three days and nights in the house with the books, I left with three car-loads of papers, manuscripts, letters, and other material which was due to be collected by the council. The carloads wnded up in my rooms at Queen’s College, Oxford. I had just recently started my doctorate and this was another massive project. My agent at the time suggested there would be great interest in Jacquetta, so I wrote a pitch and she circulated it to the major publishing houses. But no one was interested. There were at least four biographies of Priestley out by then, and one of Christopher Hawkes, but Jacquetta was a non-starter. I felt a responsibility to the material, and to those who had entrusted me championing Jacquetta. So the long process began…

I see it now as akin to a long archaeological project. No-one really bats an eyelid at excavations over 20 years, with sites returned to, and re-evaluated. So that is what I am offering up now. I must add that the idea that I have been touting a biography around to publishers and agents for two decades is not accurate. The idea of Jacquetta Hawkes as a biography subject has been the sticking point. There was little point getting stuck into the writing without an editor to steer it. I was advised by one agent to wait seven years before trying again. Trade publishers thought she was too academic a name; academic publishers thought she was too popular. The closest I got was a niche publisher a decade ago, but print-on-demand was not, I thought, the way to best promote someone who was, apparently, not well-known enough to warrant a biography. I wrote what might be regarded as an interim report, an online biography, hosted at Stanford’s Humanitieslab by kind invitation of Professor Michael Shanks.

And as the years went by, I kept on promoting her. And finally, she started to appear in other people’s books. The most prominent is the work of Robert Macfarlane, whose passionate enthusiasm for A Land made me feel I was not, after all, completely crazy.

Publishing technology today means that the word can get out rather better. Jacquetta’s archive is being used by other writers, artists, and archaoelogists. It would be simple to write the biography as an e-book. But that said, I felt Jacquetta deserved a traditional book, a hard back, with a dust-jacket. She, after all, had little time for computers.

But, crucially, I have not sat on the material; what I saved has been accessible for more than a decade in Special Collections at the University of Bradford, together with other papers donated by Nicolas Hawkes. So after all this time, the onus is less on me to promote her, as her many contemporary fans, and critics, will now be joining me.

If it is now a little daunting to return to the fieldwork, complete the excavation, and re-fill the trench – my trench at least, as others will return to the dig – I regard the last 20 years of process as a unique vantage point from which to observe a wave of change in archaeological thinking, one which has seen Jacquetta’s writing overlooked, then celebrated once more.


A new blog for Jacquetta Hawkes – on her birthday


The archaeologist, poet, and author, Jessie Jacquetta Hopkins was born in Cambridge on August 5th, 1910. It seemed an appropriate date to launch a new blogsite – Excavating Jacquetta Hawkes – in the run up to publication of her authorised biography next year.

As the introductory page suggests, this will be a place for processing the process of the 20 year project. During that time archaeology has undergone changes, in the UK especially, which make Jacquetta’s take on the personal past more fashionable and appreciated. From being long-overlooked, her work is being read by a new generation of past appreciators, hungry for what might be called Jacquettanalia. My posts here will be a mix of descriptions – about locations, people, things – thoughts, and updates. At Bradford University, where Jacquetta’s papers are housed, the Special Collections librarian, Alison Cullingford, has opened up a world of related artifacts in a thoughtful and beautiful looking blog This one, I hope, will complement that, and flesh out the process of telling a story about a life. An archaeologist’s tale, written by an archaeologist.

It is also an intersection where my own lives meet. I am also a news journalist and describe myself as a creative archaeologist, who uses the tools of both trades in the process. I have long regarded this biography, which was a form of rescue dig, as a literary excavation.

And I’ve always regarded archaeology is a form of language, it is why I studied it, as a dyslexic non-linguist trying to find new ways to engage. It was while grasping for examples of this poetic past, I came across Jacquetta’s love letter to the landscape of Britain, A Land. Much more on that later.

But this is a day to raise a glass, and a trowel – it is, after all, the season – to the life and extraordinary work of Jacquetta Hawkes.