In memoriam: Gale Sieveking 1925-2007

Gale Sieveking was an archaeologist who worked in Malaya from the 1950s and onwards. He is best known for his excavation of Gua Cha in Kelantan, where over 30 humain remains have been found, buried in two distinct time frames, the Hoabinhian and the Neolithic. This tribute was published in the Newsletter of the Society of Antiquarians in London. Special thanks to Dr Ian Glover for this bit of news.

Memories of Gale Sieveking (1925–2007)

The call, in the last issue of Salon, for further reminiscences concerning our late Fellow Gale Sieveking produced a fruitful bounty of information. Since Gale played such an important part in the development of archaeology as a discipline and in our understanding of prehistory, these valuable insights into his life and work are worth recording in full.

Our Fellow Ann Sieveking has generously provided a copy of the address that she gave at her late husband’s funeral. We are also very grateful to our Fellows Juliet Clutton-Brock, Michael Thompson, Michael Kerney and Phil Harding for their accounts of the lasting impression that Gale made on them, and to Professor Rory Mortimore, now Head of Civil Engineering and Geology at the University of Brighton, who provides an account of Gale’s ability to build multi-disciplinary teams around the study of flints and prehistoric technology.

Ann Sieveking writes: ‘Gale was born on 26 August 1925 at Cagnes-sur-Mer, in the Alpes Maritimes. Having been born in France he was entitled, at the age of seventeen, to choose between French and British nationality, but in 1942 there was little liberty to do so and, with certain regrets, he relinquished his French nationality.

‘On leaving school, he joined the Fleet Air Arm, trained in flying in Canada, swam in the sea of Colombo and sat in an outlook post on top of a fort in Malta. Gale once related that his flying duties were curtailed when, on a training flight, he neglected to lower the undercarriage of his craft through a small oversight.

‘As soon as he was able to do so, he went up to King’s College, Cambridge. A grateful but insolvent Government financed ex-service personnel for two years of a three-year degree. For the first part of the tripos, Gale read history, but he was captivated by archaeology and in his final year he studied prehistory.

‘He then embarked on a PhD, but he left this unfinished since he had married, was in need of an income and had been offered a post as Deputy Director of Museums in Malaya. In 1953, Malaya was in the midst of the state of emergency declared by the British colonial government in 1948 as a response to Communist insurgency. Opportunities for travelling and exploring were limited, but Gale still managed to open three new regional museums – in Malacca, Seremban and Kuala Kangsa – and he excavated sites of all periods wherever it was possible to do so.

‘The first of these was a seventeenth-century Portuguese fort in Johore Lama, facing Singapore across the Straits; another was an early Indian trading post in the mangrove swamps near Taiping, and a third, again in Johore, was the rescue of a collection of Chinese porcelain – one cannot say “excavation”, as the finder had put his pickaxe through the hoard when extending his vegetable patch. This had been buried for safety in a wooden box and included a number of blue and white Ming dynasty bowls of imperial quality, though how they came to be abandoned there remains a mystery.

‘Perhaps of most interest to Gale was his excavation of Gua Cha, a habitation site in a rock shelter on the Nengiri river in Kelantan. Gua Cha had been found in 1935 by H D Noon, but Noon had not survived the war. Working with our Fellow Michael Tweedie, then of the Raffles Museum, Singapore, Gale’s was the first systematic excavation of Gua Cha, where he found a slaughtering station for wild boar, along with human burials of both Mesolithic and Neolithic date, the latter with jadeite bracelets, polished stone axes and pottery bowls containing a supply of small animals, presumably for sustenance in the next world.

‘The site was in an isolated part of the jungle, but a police post had been established here to round up the indigenous people of this part of the peninsula who were suspected of supporting the insurgents with food and intelligence. Attired in jungle green, Gale and Ann Sieveking, along with Michael Tweedie and a number of museum staff, worked under military escort, and were kept supplied by parachute drops with food and – marvellously – paperback thrillers to read. When the dig was finished, all returned to civilisation down the Nengiri river on bamboo rafts; the human cargo survived the hazards better than did some of the finds.

‘After three years in Malaya, four Sievekings returned to England. Gale joined the British Museum, where he stayed for the rest of his professional career. Gale’s first research project was an analysis of Grand Pressigny flint, a beautiful honey-coloured stone found in east-central France and mined, worked and traded in the Neolithic. Grand Pressigny flint was unusual in being identifiable by its colour; at this date most flints were considered indistinguishable one from another. Gale was one of a group of researchers who established that flint from different localities could be identified by their trace elements. This analysis made it possible to map the distribution of flints from different mines; for example, axes from Grimes Graves were identified and shown to be distributed widely in England and in France, while French flint travelled in the opposite direction.

‘For the British Museum, Gale dug at High Lodge, near Mildenhall, in Suffolk, a site that vexes geologists and archaeologists since the chronological order of the flint tools discovered in the gravel and brickearth deposits apparently contradicts the geological succession. In this confrontation, the archaeologists have given way. A flake industry, usually accepted as of later date, has been acknowledged as uniquely early here, existing before the level with the handaxes. Gale dug further early sites, in the Thames valley at Ebbsfleet and Northfleet and at Creffield Road, Acton, and then, with a change in date, he reopened the Neolithic flint mines at Grimes Graves, in Norfolk.

‘In the later seasons here, he was joined by our Fellow Ian Longworth who, looking for traces of habitation, worked above ground while Gale worked both below and above. Much of Gale’s surface work was experimental. How fast could a hole be dug in the chalk; how much flint was wasted in the production of a single stone axe; and how far would a scatter of waste flakes extend beyond the location of the flint worker?

‘For Gale, prehistory was a total occupation, and he was fortunate in that, in his professional career, he was employed to do what interested him. If asked what hobbies he had, he looked uncomprehending. He was not practical, as was alarmingly demonstrated by his dangerous dealings with lawn mowers and London double decker buses.

‘I remember one Christmas Gale was given yet another gadget – a gas-powered wine bottle opener in the form of a hypodermic which was pushed through the cork, emitted a small amount of gas and pushed the cork out with a satisfying plop. Gale had the Christmas wine chilling in a large bathtub of ice and he tried out his new toy on one bottle; instead of a plop there was a loud bang. The cork was still firmly lodged in the neck of the bottle but the rest of the bottle had exploded, showering the kitchen with ice, wine, broken glass, blood and injured pride. Apparently Gale’s mistake was to use the device on a bottle of unconventional shape.

‘Gale had many interests: music, painting, buildings, travelling abroad – particularly in France – and good company. And in good company one was always aware of what an absolutely charming man he was. He always demonstrated an enormous interest in you and what you were about, whilst at the same time being fascinating in his interest in so many things. Perhaps it was this pleasure in so many things that prompted one of his Cambridge friends to comment that one always enjoyed oneself in his company, and indeed this was so.’

Juliet Clutton-Brock writes: ‘Gale will be sadly missed as an archaeologist of spirit and a loyal friend. Gale was an undergraduate at Cambridge during the crucial time when archaeology was in transition from an amateur occupation for treasure hunting to the practice of serious scientific research. The great names of this period – Graham Clark, Charles McBurney, Gordon Childe and Frederick Zeuner – had a determining and controlling influence on students who wished to join them in this endeavour, and they did not suffer fools gladly. Gale was one of the lucky few who was trained in prehistory on Clark’s excavations at Star Carr in the early 1950s, and it surely influenced his approach to prehistory and its interpretation for the rest of his career.

‘I was lucky to be given the opportunity, as an archaeozoologist, to work with Gale on the animal remains from his 1970s excavations at Grime’s Graves. Gale became a friend and colleague who was always supportive and always full of new ideas for how to approach the study of prehistoric remains. For me, these were the very large collection of antler picks from the flint mines as well as the skeleton of a dog, excavated so carefully that the remains of its last meal, tiny bones from a pig’s foot, were still with it, and the skull of an aged mare who had lost most of her teeth. Gale was an “ideas man”, but with a disciplined approach, and such people are sorely needed in any field of research.’

Michael Thompson writes: ‘Gale was at King’s College, Cambridge, when I met him as research student. We were both at Graham Clark’s famous early mesolithic excavation at Star Carr from 1949 to 1952. He had a spell under Harper Kelley at the Musée de l’Homme and I joined him on an excavation of a neolithic site in France, while he visited me in Portugal when I was engaged on material from the Tagus middens at Mugem.’

Michael Kerney writes: ‘Gale and I joined forces for an expedition to Thailand from 1 December 1965 to 31 March 1966. Our project had two aims: one was to locate sites in the limestone massifs in the country’s north and north-eastern provinces with Palaeolithic and earlier remains, sealed by stalagmite deposits, and thus datable using protactinium-thorium-uranium isotopic methods; the other was to investigate the relationship between the bronze age in Thailand and contemporary cultures in Yunnan.

‘Gale organised the digs superbly well. It was typical of him that he planned everything on a lavish scale. I remember that at one site he had a traditional bamboo hut built as a base. He was dissatisfied by the proposal made by the village builder, which he thought a bit mean, and so he rather airily increased the dimensions. I think that even he was taken by surprise at the result. Certainly it was a most impressive structure – abandoned, of course, to the forest when we left.

‘Also typical was his fascination with historical oddities of all kinds, as when we encountered a tribesman still using a tower musket, stamped with the cipher of George IV, for which he made his own bullets. Photographs were taken and an animated conversation was conducted through an interpreter.’

Phil Harding writes: ‘From 1972 to 1976, Sieveking undertook a major project of work with Ian Longworth to re-examine the important Neolithic flint mines at Grimes Graves, Norfolk. While Longworth concentrated on the rich Bronze Age deposits, Sieveking focused his attentions on the so-called “primitive” pits of the west fields, the flaking floor workshops in between them and the deep mines. He also sought to exploit the strengths of the British Museum Laboratory which allowed him to initiate challenging projects to resolve other outstanding questions at the site.

‘Typical of a man who had employed a bulldozer to shear off a large part of High Lodge hill to reach the important Lower Palaeolithic site beneath, Sieveking thought big. Vast area excavations up to 30 metres square were stripped by hand in the west fields using young offenders from North Sea Camp, Boston in Lincolnshire, before field archaeologists were introduced to excavate the deposits. He argued that excavations of this size were necessary to understand the distribution of mining pits in this part of the site.

‘But by far the most impressive and perhaps most enduring aspect of this programme was the re-excavation of mine shafts that had been investigated in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This approach allowed easy access to underground gallery systems to gather new data while removing the need to excavate undisturbed shafts. Again gaining access to many of these shafts was itself an ambitious challenge but, with the aid of heavy machinery, Sieveking systematically re-emptied many of the early excavations. This enabled miners from the Dutch Workgroup to use their expertise as miners to re-examine, record and re-interpret the complex underground mining system and extract antler samples for radiocarbon dating.

‘Sieveking was keen to harness their appreciation of Neolithic mining techniques and their practical skills as miners. He equipped them with antler picks to collect accurate figures that could be used to calculate work rates for the underground operations. The excavation of the deep mines culminated in the re-excavation of a shaft first emptied by Canon Greenwell in the late nineteenth century. This shaft, now capped off, remains open to this day to bear witness to the mining skills of the Neolithic miners.

‘Sieveking’s methods to resolve outstanding questions at the site were not restricted to excavation. He employed what, for the time, were ambitious multi-disciplinary programmes including geophysics, to trace the extent of mining. Extensive programmes of radiocarbon dating using freshly acquired samples from the mines, phosphate analysis to locate settlement associated with the mining, trace element analysis to study the composition of flint as a means of understanding trade distributions of flint axes were all undertaken by the Scientific Laboratory of the British Museum under Sieveking’s initiation. Some of these programmes enjoyed limited success at the time due to the technology then available; subsequent improvements in technology have proved their value.

‘His desire to understand activity at the site also extended to the use of experimentation. He actively involved a skilled flint knapper to study how the position of the knapper influenced the distribution of flaking waste. From this he hoped to speculate on the number and distribution of knappers on a flaking floor. The results of this project provided results that were invaluable not only to Grimes Graves but to countless other sites. They offered an experimental approach that has been replicated many times since.’

Professor Rory Mortimore writes: ‘I first met Gale Sieveking when he asked me to help in the evaluation of the Grimes Graves flint mines, Brandon, Norfolk, in 1976. It was typical of Gale to seek expertise outside the traditional field of archaeology. He saw the need for archaeological investigations to become more scientific and multidisciplinary. He brought the Felder brothers and their relations over from the Netherlands to help with the Grimes Graves excavations because of their expertise as traditional pick-and-shovel coal miners and for their experience in opening the Rijckholt St Geertruid Neolithic Flint Mines near Maastricht in Limburg. I had only just started out on my career as an engineering geologist and was working on the A26 Lewes Road Tunnel as part of my PhD. In association with Sir William Halcrow & Partners, the engineers for the Lewes project, we applied the rock-mass classification system that had only just been developed by the Norwegian Geotechnical Institute to assess the support requirements for this “open-face” tunnel. Somehow Gale had heard about this work and wanted to see if such systems could be applied to the Neolithic flint mines at Grimes Graves. From then on, and for several years into the mid-1980s, the classic Gale greeting of “Dear Boy” became a familiar part of life.

‘Having persuaded me and many others to present the Grimes Graves results at the Third 1979 Maastricht Flint Symposium, Gale then took on the task of making the “Flint Symposium” truly international and scientific. He got the agreement of the Maastricht Committee in 1979 to take the symposium out of the Netherlands to England for its fourth meeting in 1983. It was his drive, enthusiasm and vision that drew in a wide range of disciplines to focus on every aspect – geological and archaeological – of that extraordinary raw material, flint. I became the organising secretary for the Fourth Symposium, held at the Falmer Campus of Brighton Polytechnic, and saw at first hand the effort that Gale put in and the “politics” that had to be overcome to make a success of every aspect.

‘He got the excavations in the Sussex Downs at the Harrow Hill Flint Mines organised and arranged for the work to be carried out by the Maastricht Flint Mining Team, led by the Felder family. These excavations became the centrepiece of the Fourth Symposium. Gale pulled together an International Committee as well as a smaller and more manageable Organising Committee that led to future Flint Symposia being taken to France, Spain and Poland. The International Committee meetings were held at the Society of Antiquaries, Burlington House, London. Other field studies were also carried out in the South Downs to investigate where flint artefacts might have become buried by soil forming and other geomorphological processes. Pits were excavated in valley bottoms and along valley sides to try and find evidence to date the formation of the dry valleys. Flint-bearing horizons in the chalk of the South Downs that Neolithic flint miners had sought were also investigated. These field studies then formed part of the Symposium presentations and field programme in 1983. In addition, a memorable post-symposium field trip from Beachy Head (Sussex) to the Norfolk coast and on to Flamborough Head in Yorkshire was organised. All involved were international experts in their particular subjects.

‘The publication of the Fourth International Flint Symposium proceedings (in two volumes by Cambridge University Press in 1986) stands as a monument to Gale’s efforts and contains many seminal papers.

‘Stories about Gale abound. His heart was always in the right place and once you had made friends he was a loyal ally for life. He was not, however, above upsetting some people and sometimes appeared arrogant and pompous. But this was down to his old-fashioned English upper-crust bearing and was not a true reflection of his character. There were hilarious moments at the International Committee Meetings at the Society of Antiquaries in London. Chairing the meeting, a slightly pompous Gale leaned back on two legs of an incredibly valuable chair, presented to the Society by a former monarch, and suddenly disappeared in a cloud of dust. The chair had disintegrated! Our European colleagues sitting around a magnificent table in this ancient room were unsure how to react! We quickly helped Gale to his feet and brought over another chair for him to continue the meeting. All went well until, again leaning back on two legs, the second chair disintegrated and all the committee could see was a film of dust in the place where Gale had been. This time the committee could not contain their laughter!

‘The lasting memory of Gale is of a man with great enthusiasm for his subject and a drive to take it forward and whose contribution was not in the number of articles published but rather as a facilitator and motivator, bringing experts together to solve archaeological problems – someone who was an immensely loyal friend with an equally strong passion for his family.’

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