Alan Carter (1944-1988)

Photograph of Alan Carter, 1944 to 1988.

Alan Carter, 1944 to 1988. © P. Laxton.

On 31 October 2002 the Editorial Committee of East Anglian Archaeology hosted a reception in the Keep of Norwich Castle Museum to celebrate its publication of the one hundredth volume in its series of Archaeological Reports and, since this volume comprised the final excavation reports from the Norwich Survey team, also to celebrate the life and work of the late Alan Carter. This occasion brought together representatives from the Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex County Councils and the University of East Anglia as well as members of the County Units, most of the team which worked under Alan's leadership from 1971 until his untimely death in 1988, together with his wife and family members. The reception was therefore built round two short addresses given by Hassell Smith (a former Director of the Centre of East Anglian Studies) and Adrian Olivier, (Head of Archaeological Policy, English Heritage). What follows is a slightly expanded version of Hassell Smith's address.

A few words about the genesis of the Norwich survey will serve as context for Alan's work. To the best of my knowledge it grew out of a chance conversation which took place in Earlham Lodge (then the senior common room at UEA) between myself and Peter Lasko, founding Dean of the School of Art History and Music. Having recently been appointed to direct the Centre of East Anglian Studies, I was anxious to launch a research project which would involve members of the University, citizens of Norwich and Norfolk, and others from further afield. Lasko talked to me about Martin Biddle's then current study of the origins and development of Winchester, a scheme which combined the artefactual and topographical resources of archaeologists with the documentary sources of historians. Why not, he said, try something similar for Norwich which, after all, had for many centuries been the second city of England?

Lasko's enthusiasm and creativity moved the conversation ever onward. When lunch had ended, in our mind's eye at least, we had the man, we had the plan and we had the money too. The man was already excavating in Norfolk - a young archaeologist named Alan Carter who had worked with Biddle at Winchester and was then completing a programme of excavations at King's Lynn. For funding we thought that we should approach the City Council and the then Ministry of Public Building and Works (yes, it was that long ago!), and that we should ask the University if it would fund the director's salary. And of course, central to the entire scheme, it was necessary that it should be a joint venture with the archaeology department at the Castle Museum.

On all sides there was enthusiasm and goodwill. In providing the 'ways and means' the key players were the Town Clerk (Gordon Tilsley), the Lord Mayor elect (Raymond Frostick), the chairman of the University's Grants and Fellowships Committee (the late James McFarlane) and the Head of Archaeology at the Castle Museum (Barbara Green).

By June 1971 the University had awarded Alan a two-year research fellowship, the City Council had promised an initial grant of £1,000 for excavation costs, Francis Cheetham and his staff had agreed to devote as much of their resources as possible to support the project and we left Alan to tap the financial resources of the Ministry of Public Building and Works - a commission which he executed with great expedition and in his inimitable way.

And so it was that in 1971 he set out to study the origins and physical development of Norwich; to show what that, in turn, told us about the city's economic and social life from its origins to the early nineteenth century; and to do so through the integrated work of archaeologists, historians and architects. This was no mean undertaking on a short-term annual grant of barely £3,000; the more so when we remember that interdisciplinary studies were in their infancy at this time. Be that as it may, such was Alan's commitment and leadership that by 1977 the University had appointed him to a lectureship in the Centre of East Anglian Studies, the Survey had an annual income in excess of £60,000 and it employed the equivalent of at least eleven full-time assistants, together with a field-archaeologist specially designated by the Castle Museum, complete with all the back-up this entailed. Thus we can talk more realistically of at least twelve full-time assistants and an income of nearer £80,000.

How, then, did Alan achieve this transformation? There is no doubt that he had an attractive topic; that he was swimming with the tide in so far as urban archaeology was academically fashionable and had caught the popular imagination through such notable excavations as those at Winchester and York. Post-war British towns were being rediscovered as a result of what was revealed both through bomb damage and, even more, through exciting excavations facilitated by these bomb- damaged sites. This tide flowed even faster in Norwich thanks to the publication in 1964 of Barbara Green's and Rachael Young's stimulating study: Norwich -The Growth of a City: A Brief History of the City. But it is Alan the man, the right man in the right place, who was able to capitalise on this situation, and whom I wish to recollect tonight. First and foremost he was an able archaeologist who was highly regarded by his peers. Although he wrote comparatively little, he lectured widely both locally and within academic circles.

His best article, 'The Anglo-Saxon Origins of Norwich: The Problems and Approaches' (Anglo-Saxon England, 1978, pp. 175- 204) suggests that his interests lay primarily in methodology; and, sadly, it is perhaps true that his piercing mind became so obsessed with problems of interpretation that the latter paralysed his facility to chance his arm with the written word.  His multifaceted personality provided him with all the qualities needed for leadership: an element of charisma; an indomitable will, with energy to match it, which meant that when at his best he could move mountains; great sociability combined with a wicked sense of humour, which made him an excellent companion; a useful dose of low- cunning and a measure of contempt for too much authority which usually ensured that he got his own way.

I can only illustrate these qualities briefly. Some were apparent in his ability to raise money. Besides the financial resources provided by the City Council and what soon became the Department of the Environment, Alan attracted substantial grants from the Wolfson foundation, the British Academy and the Alderman Norman Foundation as well as persuading ten or more local firms each to subscribe sums of up to £300 annually. In pursuit of this funding required by his team he pushed the bounds of creative accounting to their limits. Indeed, when all else failed he just FOUND money. As when he appeared one day with £500 in five-pound notes which, so he claimed, had been given to him in Norwich market by an old lady who, in admiration of the work done by the Norwich Survey, had raised this cash by making and selling marmalade!

Equally idiosyncratic were his methods of recruiting a series of able and dedicated assistants. He seemed to do this by a process of what we now call networking. I have no recollection of any job adverts, application forms or referees reports. Generally speaking new members of his team just appeared and he would introduce them somewhat sheepishly and rather casually:

'Oh, by the way, Hassell, this is Mary Karshner; she's just joining us from America’.

Much of the cohesiveness he created and the dedication he elicited from his team stemmed from his natural inclination to create a sociable atmosphere. He it was who instituted the marvellous series of Christmas parties for which the Centre of East Anglian Studies became famous. In the summer he would organise an annual cricket match between the Centre and the Castle Museum -a match which after much merriment and a degree of cheating Alan always declared to have been 'drawn'. Such activities received the supreme accolade from the University estates officer who was heard to declare CEAS to be 'the best club in Norwich. ' With equal facility he would organise a trip to the latest club he had discovered or to a Sunday afternoon chamber- concert in a remote Suffolk church.

Alan the maverick is best exemplified by the occasion when some hippies encamped on the farm occupied by the University's School of Development Studies, then located on the Watton Road opposite the BUPA hospital. To monitor and control this situation the police established their headquarters in the forecourt of Earlham Hall (then home to CEAS) only to receive a written and formal complaint from Alan that their activities were distracting his team and seriously impairing its work. To illustrate his energy and dedication one statistic must suffice. In one of his annual statements to the Survey Committee he reported that he had given over fifty talks to local societies and to schools in Norwich and Norfolk.

I conclude with a few words about Alan' s achievements. Did he accomplish what he set out to do? I think that until this evening one would have had to say that the jury was out. But with the publication of this handsome volume, presenting the final set of excavation reports, we can agree that this difficult and ambitious project has been brought to a successful conclusion. How Alan would have relished this occasion and how sad we are that he is not with us to participate in it. His work laid much of the foundation and methodology on which archaeologists and historians continue to build, and it began the ongoing re-appraisal of Norwich's early development. His team excavated almost 40 sites and has now reported on them all; it has computerised and made accessible for general use the great series of early fourteenth-century Norwich property deeds; and it has surveyed and extensively recorded all pre-nineteenth century buildings within the city walls.

This achievement has, however, been a close-run thing. With Alan's untimely death in 1988, the grants ceased and his team dispersed when only one of the planned three volumes of Survey Reports had been published. The remaining two volumes have been completed and seen through the press by former members of his team working in their spare time (if one can speak any more of such) and during their midnight hours. Their efforts stand as an enduring testimony to their loyalty to Alan as well as a measure of their commitment to an important academic project. To them all we owe a great debt, and on your behalf I express my thanks to the late Sue Margeson, Malcolm Atkin and Dave Evans.

This achievement was also a close-run thing in that for several years no money could be raised to support the transcription and analysis of the city records -a daunting task but one which was a crucial component of the entire scheme. Eventually Alan's acumen and tenacity produced a substantial grant from the Wolfson Foundation which enabled the late Helen Sutermeister and her team of volunteers to complete this element of the multi-disciplinary scheme.

Not only has the Norwich Survey been completed, but also it has stimulated a series of satellite publications. Some are popular pamphlets such as Shops and Shopkeepers in Norwich (Ursula Priestley and Aleyn Fenner), The Norwich Guildhall (Helen Sutermeister and Ian Dunn), The Norwich Blackfriars (Helen Sutermeister), Life on a Medieval Street (Malcolm Atkin and Sue Margeson). Others are at the cutting edge of historical scholarship: Eighteen Centuries of Pottery from Norwich (Sarah Jennings). Norwich Households: Medieval and Post-Medieval Finds from the Norwich Survey Excavations (Sue Margeson). Men of Property: An Analysis of Norwich Enrolled Deeds, 1285-1311 (Serena Kelly, Elizabeth Rutledge and Margot Tillyard). 'Immigration and Population Growth in Early Fourteenth-Century Norwich', (Elizabeth Rutledge, Urban History 1988).

There have been other dividends too. On a personal note, two important outcomes of the Norwich Survey have been the undergraduate and graduate degree courses in Landscape History and Archaeology which Alan and I launched jointly in 1976 and which, since Alan's death and my retirement, have flourished under Tom Williamson's leadership. These courses have prepared many students for a range of environmental and heritage jobs, not least in the archaeology department of this Museum.

For the future there remains the need and the challenge to produce an overarching account of this city's development, based upon the work of Alan, of his team and of countless others who are still sifting the manuscripts and the soil. Several attempts to persuade the Committee of the Victoria County History to tackle this task have failed. In any event the nineteenth-century concept of a definitive history is no longer tenable, but on the positive side I can tell you that scholars are addressing this issue with a collection of essays on the history of Norwich which will be published in 2004/5 (edited by Richard Wilson and Carole Rawcliffe).

Hassell Smith

Published as:

Smith, H., 2003. 'Alan Carter', The Annual, The Bulletin of the Norfolk Archaeological and Historical Research Group 12.

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