thinking about archaeology

Percival Turnbull RIP

Val Turnbull 1972.jpg

Archaeologist Percival Turnbull has died from a sudden stroke, a great shock to his friends and colleagues. He had been a partner in The Brigantia Archaeological Practice in Barnard Castle since 1995, and was, as Tony King says, a stalwart of archaeology in northern England. Val, Tony and I were fellow undergrads at the Institute of Archaeology, UCL. I took the photo above in the Guildhall Museum (Percival stands with a 19th century wheelwright’s bellows) in 1972, when we were sent out across London in pairs with a Gandolfi camera during our photography training. In good antiquarian style Percival’s face is blurred in a very long exposure.

Maev Kennedy has it spot on in her post: “RIP Percival Turnbull, a gentleman, a scholar, a cynic, a big brain and a razor sharp wit”. He was his own man, a very bright mind navigating modernity and antiquity with an open, questioning mind. Maev quoted him in 2009 in the Guardian, in a nice piece reviewing the state of British archaeology in depressed times (Percival’s default mode, one might sometimes have thought). “Percival Turnbull”, she wrote, “is philosophical and borderline optimistic. ‘I do think that we’ve lost as well as gained: lost much of the community of purpose that united us as archaeologists; the extraordinary special local knowledge and other expertise which had been built up in many places; the sheer fun of it all. On the other hand, I don’t expect ever again to spend an evening washing string so that it could be re-used’.”

His wit was always there. In 2012 I credited him with the best joke about the Richard III dig, expressed in a letter to the Guardian at a time when people were questioning who the skeleton really was. “The identification of bones found in Leicester as those of Richard III (Report, 13 September)”, he wrote simply, “may be supported by the telling absence of any trace of a horse.”

There is a good story from 2008. Outside his local pub because of the smoking ban, he was puffing on his pipe when the landlord opened a door beside him. He promptly spotted a fragment of medieval cross slab grave cover in the wall. As ever, his mind alert.

4 responses

  1. Berta

    Thank you, Mike, for this lovely tribute to my brother. Nothing will ever be the same again.

    August 22, 2016 at 9:08 pm

  2. Berta Heffernan (Turnbull)

    Percival’s funeral will be held on Monday 5th September at 11 o’clock. Friends please gather at St. Mary’s Church, Barnard Castle.
    Rather than sending flowers, donations would be welcomed at Amnesty International.

    August 26, 2016 at 2:31 pm

  3. Andrew Foster

    Sad news. Nice to see a photo of Val looking much as I remember him from our Dukeries school days.

    September 16, 2016 at 5:54 pm

    • Berta Heffernan

      Thank you, Andrew – he never really changed!!

      September 16, 2016 at 8:11 pm

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