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.


13 thoughts on “Percival Turnbull RIP

  1. 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.

      1. Thank you, Charles, that’s good to hear. I think of him every day, sad and sweet memories x

  2. So sad to hear this news! I was sending Val an email to apologize for not connecting on a recent trip to Britain; but when the email was returned, I googled and discovered that he had died over a year ago. I met Val as a teenager on the Dragonby dig, and corresponded with him for many years – in those days when people did such things as write letters. Mike’s photo is exactly as I remember him: the angelic face with a halo of blond curls! Although we hadn’t been in touch recently, I will always remember him with great fondness. My very sincere condolences to all his family.

    1. Thank you, Victoria
      Val, my brother, sent me a message not long before he died, saying that he would always remember hitch-hiking to Dragonby, setting the course for the rest of his life. It’s his birthday today, but I think of him every day. It’s lovely to hear from someone who knew Val in the Dragonby days, a time that has almost mystical qualities in my memory of my brother x

  3. So very sorry to hear the sad news about Percival; a few years ago I met him in his Barnard Castle office to train him onto Oasis; it remains one of my fondest memories of many training days, lit up by his humour & timeless knowledge.

      1. I was at the Institute but in 1983-86 so sorry our paths didn’t cross then; love that photo on Mike’s blog!

  4. Remember Val from the Dukeries where we were in 1S, 2S etc through 6th form. Remember Berta too. Hope you are well. Archeology sounds just the sort of thing I could Imagine Val doing.Sad to see my old classmates starting to pass away.

    1. Hello, Steve
      I remember you well as one of Val’s school friends- he never strayed from archaeology, never tired of it, and died without warning without even thinking of retiring.
      Thank you for your kind words,

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