The Retiring Professor
On 29th November 2013, I felt honoured to be invited to the retirement celebrations for Professor Richard Bradley at the University of Reading. The Prehistoric Society organised a day in his honour and presented him with the Europa Prize last year. Moreover, the ‘Bradleschrift’ – Image, Memory and Monumentality in his honour was published last summer. As one of Richard’s former students, I contributed a chapter. Yet despite these events and outputs last year, Richard was only to retire this year, aged 67, allowing him to contribute to his department’s REF submission. Only on this day did the University where Richard worked for over four decades celebrate his career in archaeology and honour this famous and much-loved archaeologist.
Champagne was on tap and there was a display of pictures of Richard down through the years. It was great to see many familiar faces: graduates of Reading and the ‘great and good’ from neighbouring institutions. Perhaps the furthest travelled (all the way from Russia) to attend the event was my old supervisor, looking younger and happier than ever, Dr Heinrich Härke.There were speeches. Professor Roberta Gilchrist (Head of School) introduced the event, noting how Richard had taught at Reading for 42 years and recognising his many publications and successes as an academic. She made the point that Richard’s work had inspired so many students. Professor Mike Fulford then spoke about Richard as a long-standing colleague from the birth of the Department of Archaeology and his ability to inspire and attract students and colleagues to come to Reading. Professor Chris Gosden (Oxford University) spoke next, recognising the lucidity and sensibility of Richard’s work, and the holistic character of his research. Richard’s work shows the importance of the imagination when forging interpretations of the prehistoric past. Each speaker wove anecdotes and allusions to Richard’s personality and behaviour into their talks. The Vice-Chancellor of the University of Reading – Sir David Bird thanked Richard for his service, his research and for his support for his colleagues.
Richard spoke himself. Whilst an entertaining and expert speaker, this kind of event was not is cup of tea for someone who his extremely humble, if not retiring. Still, Richard observed how the clearing out of his office was equivalent to an archaeological excavation and a tricky one that revealed fragments of a career. For example, he noted how he ‘excavated’ a fine collection of receipts from c. 1977 for Mars Bars and petrol.
Richard and his wife Catherine received two gifts to say goodbye from his academic institution. A piece of modern sculpture created especially, and two pieces of music by Richard’s favourite composer, played a string quartet.
The RB Army
Perhaps an inevitable dimension missing from the talks was the voices of students past and present. But many were there to wish Richard all the very best for the future. It was noted by Roberta and Mike how Richard inspired students, but the scale and focus of this inspiration was not articulated, perhaps because it is incredibly difficult to describe and define, and perhaps it needed a current or recent student of Richard’s to say it.
But I did hear this on the way out, from one of Richard’s newest graduated PhD students. As we both strode rapidly to get the bus into town, she told me how she saw herself and the many, many other students supervised by Richard. She was part of the RB Army. One hardly associates Richard with any military associations or pretentions, so this label is perfectly poised description to my mind and cannot be misconstrued as a ‘cult following’ in a pretentious way.
The RB Army are not a doctrinal camp of highly trained theorists, or a rabble of crazed diggers: they are a bit of both and so much more. The RB Army share a strong bond, even if they are stationed in far-flung postings. They remain high on morale, high on humour and always have the utmost respect, many kind words and fierce enthusiasm, for their glorious leader. They have seen plenty of active service and have a long list of ‘battle honours’. They may lack a coherent uniform and regimental badge and they march in different directions, but they have become a force to be reckoned within British and European prehistory but also much farther afield.
I was never in the RB Army proper, but I am a long-standing auxiliary. I say this because I participated in fieldwork with Richard for one season. We co-edited World Archaeology together. Subsequently, Richard served for a while on my advisory panel and then, after a hiatus, became my internal examiner. My inspiration from Richard came from the ideas in this work, not the precise data that he applied them to. I also was inspired by his style of writing and argumentation, as well as the example and gentle guidance he provided. I also enjoyed the many hilarious lengthy anecdotes and conspiratorial asides, usually over coffee in Reading or Oxford.
So, for me, implicit in his retirement celebrations, and tangible through the bums on seats, was the impact Richard had on his students.
So is this saying goodbye to Richard as a working archaeologist? On the way out the door to get my train back to North Wales, I had a moment to shake the great man’s hand for a second time that evening.
“What are your plans for retirement then Richard: publishing a new book every few weeks?”, I asked with a friendly smile. I hoped he would understand from the smile that I was teasing but also was challenging him to deny it. My guess wasn’t far off; he didn’t deny it.
“Backlog” he said.