Guy Knocker (-1971)

Photograph of Group Captain Knocker (on far right) with a group of excavators.

Group Captain Knocker (on far right) with a group of excavators.

Guy Knocker, even when he was among us, was too often dismissed as a figure of the past. This is quite unjust, for he was typical of no age; he enriched the bare, hygienic sections of pre-War prehistorians and by trial and error made what was then an almost unbroken, Old English, field his own. He had no chance of labour-intensive practice in 'areas'; it was unthinkable and unaskable. Usually he had a very small body of ordinary labourers, a gift for getting the best out of them, and a site-assistant only allowed him when he was away! He had been a regular officer, largely with administrative duties; his home and some at least of his service were in Wessex. But I cannot find that he was particularly bred up in the Crawford-Keiller ambiance, or especially concerned with air-photos. He learned, as always, by keeping his wide eyes open and asking questions. He had a quick grasp of terrain and normally made straight for the target, and when its shape was measurable seized a base-line on anything immobile. The wrong way round, one may say, but economical for a man tackling a large site almost single-handed. He made quick, and excellent sketches both of plans and objects, and all his writings were to the point - courteous, elegant, unpolluted by technical jargon, sometimes as lively as his eyebrows.

Thus equipped, deterred by nothing and ready to invent methods, soon after he had left the RAF in 1947 he chose the very contrary of retirement and found a patron in the great Chief Inspector, Brian O'Neil, whose confidence, as long as he lived, was complete. There was much to learn but he was ready to learn quickly, and even O'Neil could not carry a case for labour and equipment in terms of more than a very few hundred pounds, while unequivocally pleading that Thetford was among the most significant sites of this generation. The time was as short as the money, but Guy's tact and diplomacy helped them to go far. The first, but not uninterrupted stages at Thetford occupied him from early in 1948 to the end of 1949. These were admirably summarised in two 'interims' in the Archaeological News Letter (Knocker and Hughes 1950a and b), and more briefly in Archaeological Journal (Dunning 1949). This was not procrastination, but Knocker had other tasks at this period: two rather similar Saxon cemeteries, Snell's Corner, Horndean, and Portsdown, both duly published (Knocker 1956b and Corney et al. 1967) and another at Illington, near East Harling (Green, Myres and Milligan forthcoming). He was to return to cemeteries again, at Framlingham (Knocker 1956a) for instance, in his last major work at Thetford, in 1957-8, at Red Castle with its associated church. Before enumerating some of his other sites, we should remember that he remained throughout a Temporary Assistant Inspector, until not far short of 1960 when, by a prodigy of non-recruitment, he was made permanent but not established. He had almost had enough, and retired finally at the end of March 1960, though publications appeared later, Red Castle in 1967. He still made trips to Iceland and Greenland, which were part of his almost mystical devotion to Viking lore. He had not inconsiderable acquaintance with Old English literature which, rather than field-studies, may have been the deepest spring of his enthusiasm. He died on 29 September 1971.

In the 1950's he entered the more accustomed field of later medieval fortified sites, less treacherous and controversial than the Saxon field, and I consider that his success was unqualified. The Mount at Princes Risborough (Pavry and Knocker 1953-60) is admirably straight, and so are the excavations at two ringworks at Berden, Essex (Knocker 1958). He did a little on the town banks at Cricklade, near his home, but in 1954 at Chertsey Abbey, a vast area, robbed, built over and then stripped again, surely a case for a grand area excavation or none, he pitted his bold skills, but has left a difficult legacy. I hope that these skills have been justly vindicated in the primary excavation at Thetford. They deserve it for all their limitations; they still shine in my memories of that heroic age, when I played a very small part in them. For all those who worked for and with him, not least the late Dr. Calvin Wells, and especially those who returned his courtesy and respect, his gratitude and friendship were unfailing.

Stuart Rigold, June 1980.

Published as:

Rigold, S., 1984. 'An Appreciation of the late Group Captain G.M. Knocker', East Anglian Archaeology 22, xi.

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