Death of an Archaeologist

As too often, I owe apologies for a late post. I spent much of Sunday driving and since then it’s been busy. But the task is eased and, at the same time, made heavier, by being diverted from my plan to recount the fun bits of the last time I went to the International Congress on Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo, what could have been a very long post, by some very unfortunate news, which was the death of the Scottish archaeologist Oliver O’Grady.

Oliver O'Grady on an archaeological dig in East Lomond

Oliver O’Grady on an archaeological dig in East Lomond, from an obituary in the Courier, linked through

My discovery of this was one of those terrible things Google can do to you with auto-suggestions. This summer I am reckoning, since we can’t go abroad, to embark on a Scots road-trip of Pictish theme, and consequently I was searching up a list of sites that included the erstwhile Pictish palace at Forteviot. It is quite hard to find out what there is to see at the site from the Internet, and so I put into Google the name of the man who had led the dig, Oliver O’Grady, and Google suggested “… archaeologist death”. And this turned out to be true and left me quite shocked and dismayed, mainly because he was only 39, but also because everyone else who knew him is clearly at least as shocked and dismayed; this has surprised everyone.

I think Dr O’Grady would himself have been surprised to know he’d get an obituary on my blog; we met only twice, and it was a long time ago. The first time was my second International Medieval Congress (not the same as the International Congress on Medieval Studies), at Leeds in 2006. At that point I had just finished my doctorate and was at last in temporarily secure work in the Fitzwilliam Museum, but despite being employed numismatically and doctorally qualified as a Catalanist charter geek, I had not (still have not) dropped my old interest in Pictland and so when I saw a Scotland session with a paper called ‘Assemblies in Medieval Scotland: landscape and the performance of memory’ I went along. Dr O’Grady, who at this point would have been 25 and presumably not yet Dr, was the first speaker, and the memory of him has just stuck with me, partly of course because like myself he was a long-haired bearded guy wearing black jeans and a black t-shirt, but unlike me he was actually showing it whereas I was hiding in conference garb. Still, obviously one of the black-clad brethren I’ve sometimes been thankful to be recognised by. I also remember him being quite nervous and rumbly and having been at the beginning of what turned out to be the long-running Forteviot project. We talked briefly afterwards but he was kind of carried off by his colleagues. Thereafter, his name came up here and there and it became clear he was doing big things (like discovering ‘the birth certificate of Scotland’). I know I ran into him again once more but I cannot work out from my notes and conference programmes where it was. So I can only say that I got a very good impression of the guy from that first paper and have always remembered him. I would have liked to talk to him about his sites and try out my plural Pictland idea on someone who’d got a better idea than most about what the centralisation of that kingdom looked like on the ground.

Given that I can say so little, therefore, and that from so long ago, I have to use words of others, borrowed from that article in The Courier that gave me the bad news:

“Falkland Stewardship Trust chairman Joe Fitzpatrick said there was ‘shock and disbelief’ around the centre following news that Oliver – a close collaborator and one of Scotland’s leading archaeologists – had died. ‘Oliver was a friend and colleague who impressed everyone who had the pleasure of working with him,’ said Mr Fitzpatrick. ‘He led the three archaeological excavations on East Lomond in 2014, 17 and 19 and his warmth, openness and encouragement were appreciated by all our excavation volunteers and staff. No one’s “theory” was dismissed and his patient explanations were educative and informative. He loved being able to engage and involve community members in archaeological discovery…”

And there’s more there, from more people, and I’m sure there is still more over the social web, but it’s obviously not much comfort for them, his family, the field or anyone really. I fear we lost another of the good ones.

One response to “Death of an Archaeologist

  1. Our plesance heir is all vane glory,
    This fals warld is bot transitory,
    The flesche is brukle, the Fend is sle;
    Timor mortis conturbat me.

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