Donald Atkinson (1886-1963)

Donald Atkinson, who died in 1963, is best known in Gloucestershire for his contributions to the early days of rescue archaeology in Cirencester, after his appointment as Honorary Curator of the Corinium Museum. Sometime Professor of Ancient History in the University of Manchester, he began as one of Haverfield's disciples, along with such as Bushe-Fox, Newbold, Cheesman and Collingwood. His period of greatest activity in the study of Roman Britain was in the 1920s and 30s. Atkinson received no Festschrift or any other kind of dedicatory volume while alive and no obituary and bibliography in any national journal after his death. Yet his work, in the field, published, on committees and for various museums was and still is important, useful and wide-ranging. This bibliography, which I began in the year of the centenary of his birth, is offered in appreciation of Donald Atkinson's contribution to the study and understanding of Roman Britain. For personal remembrances see M.V. Taylor and Richard Reece in the Annual Report of the Cirencester Archaeological and Historical Society for 1963.

Born in Birmingham in 1886, Atkinson went up to Brasenose College, Oxford from King Edward's School. He graduated in Classics in 1909 and went as a classical master to Stamford Grammar School. While there, he supervised excavations, with H.G. Evelyn White, for Haverfield at North Leigh Roman villa, Oxfordshire in 1910 and 1911. He took part in the excavations overseen by Haverfield on the Roman site at Corbridge, Northumberland, before the Great War and also assisted another of Haverfield's disciples, J.P. Bushe-Fox, at Wroxeter in the summers of 1912 to 1914.

By this time Atkinson had left Lincolnshire for the British School at Rome. He held a Pelham Studentship in 1912-13, endowed in memory of H.E Pelham (Camden Professor of Ancient History, 1899-1907) for Oxford students pursuing higher studies at the School. While in Italy he was able to make a full study of the hoard of Samian from Pompeii, the publication of which is always referred to when any first-century Samian is discussed. In 1913 he was appointed Research Fellow in Roman Archaeology and Lecturer in Classics at University College Reading. Apart from his own excavations at Adel and Lowbury Hill and his participation at Corbridge, Slack and Wroxeter, Atkinson was visiting France and Germany at about this time to look at Continental collections of Samian.

As to military service during the First World War, in 1917 the letters R.G.A. (Royal Garrison Artillery) are appended to his name when mentioned along with Lieutenants Newbold and Bushe-Fox.  Atkinson served in a heavy battery of the R.G.A. from 1916 to 1918, initially as a signaller and later as an officer.

In 1919 Atkinson was appointed to a new Readership in Ancient History at the then Victoria University, after the retirement of Professor James Tait, Professor of Ancient and Medieval History from 1902 to 1919. From the days of Tait and T.R Tout, the Manchester history school taught its undergraduates the outlines of both Ancient and European history - Atkinson’s lectures ran from the Hittites through to the barbarian invasions of the mid third century A.D. While at Manchester, Atkinson excavated at several Romano-British sites from 1921-35, including Wroxeter, Ribchester fort and Caistor by Norwich (Caistor St Edmund, NHER 9786), often putting his students to work for him alongside the paid labourers (although one former student, the late Professor Chaloner, told me that he much preferred the latter). Aside from archaeology, he published while at Manchester studies of the British fleet, the Roman governors of Britain and work in the early history of Christianity. From the early 1930s Atkinson had an Assistant Lecturer, Miss K.M. Chrimes, who specialised in ancient Greek History.

He became the first occupant of the chair of Ancient History in 1929, the same year that he was elected F.S.A. His Manchester M.A. was given him then, so that he could satisfy regulations and serve on Senate, impossible without a Manchester degree! Atkinson became the senior professor in the Department, one of three with E.R Jacob (Medieval History, 1929-44) and L.B. Namier (Modem History, 1931-53). ‘Roman Britain’ and ‘The Age of Augustus’ were the courses Atkinson offered as special subjects. He retired to Oxfordshire in 1951, being succeeded by the late Professor R.E. Smith. By then there were two Lecturers in Ancient History, Cosmo Rodewald and the late Vincent Desborough, so that Atkinson had successfully built up his subject in step with the development of the University.

In 1917 Haverfield offered the following, rather back-handed tribute to Atkinson as a student of Roman pottery: ‘He has probably a better knowledge of the dating of Samian ware as found in this country than any other scholar who is available, and I do not doubt that, so far as is reasonably possible, he has exhausted the matter.’ Atkinson's standing resulted from his full publication of the Pompeii samian, still today a major reference-work for the dating of South Gaulish Samian. However, he did not then produce a great many Samian reports for other excavators, indeed he wrote on the material for no one other than himself until his time at the Corinium Museum. He did however publish a short general account of Arretine and Samian in a journal, The Vasculum, largely devoted to natural history.

His experience with coarse pottery, especially the assemblages from Wroxeter and Caistor by Norwich, did lead to him reporting and commenting on material from other sites in the 1920s and 30s. For Caistor by Norwich (NHER 9786, including the kilns) and, to a lesser extent, Wroxeter, the Roman pottery is organised into a good form-series, ahead of contemporary practice, although detailed work on chronology is eschewed and Atkinson often erred on the early side in his dating. Atkinson’s other major pottery publication appeared in 1942, in the report on his Wroxeter excavations. Chapter XI dealt with the Samian and mortaria dumped and sealed in the gutter outside the Forum after a fire in at least the front portion of that building, a dated group of the Antonine period. The original dating of the destruction to the decade A.D. 155-65 has been slightly modified by more recent work.

Aside from his participation in the Corbridge and Wroxeter excavations, Atkinson’s first excavation was as a result of efforts by Professor Haverfield to remedy the overgrown and ruinous condition of North Leigh Roman villa. After an appeal for funds in 1908, new excavations on the north-west and south-west wings were carried out by Atkinson and H.G. Evelyn White in 1910 and 1911. Owing to the War, no further work ensued, and a report never appeared. Next came some small-scale trenching in 1913 at Adel, West Yorkshire. More ambitious was his work for University College Reading at Lowbury Hill, Berkshire, in 1913-14 as part of ‘a general scheme of work for investigation and study of local history’. The half-acre site was exhaustively trenched, and published in a detailed monograph, which included five distribution plans of the findspots of the pottery, coins, late Roman coins (after A.D. 360) and small finds, as well as an introduction by Haverfield which dwells especially on the contribution of ‘our newer university institutions’ to the study of Roman Britain.  In 1914, Atkinson with Professor W.B. Anderson of Manchester completed the work of Thomas May and G.L. Cheeseman in the principia at Ribchester.  After moving to Manchester, he did further work there throughout the 1920s for the Manchester branch of the Classical Association, examining the defences, central area and an extramural bath house.  None of this was published in detail.

For 1921 and 1922 Atkinson was also digging at Kinderton, Middlewich, Cheshire to test W.T. Watkin’s conjecture that here was the site of the Condate of the Antonine Itinerary. The results from small-scale excavation were inconclusive and the sites were never published.  Further trial excavations were carried out at Pentre, with M.V: Taylor, for the Classical Association and the Flintshire Historical Society, in 1923, finding the remains of lead smelting.

In the same year, Atkinson was completing the excavation of the Gayton Thorpe Roman villa (NHER 3743) for the Norfolk and Norwich Archaeological Society and beginning work at Wroxeter, on the north-east defences. Atkinson then directed the excavation of the forum and basilica at Wroxeter from 1924-27 for the Birmingham and the Shropshire archaeological societies. This was in the northern part of the field excavated in 1912-14, and was planned as a continuation of that work. The long delay in publishing the Wroxeter report (it appeared in 1942) brought criticism, robust and direct, from the President of the Society of Antiquaries, Sir Frederic Kenyon, in an Anniversary Address and the low standards, even for the time, of recording technique also drew fire from another of the Kenyon family. lan Richmond, while acknowledging the shortcomings of the sections, wrote a more balanced review.

Atkinson assisted his old colleague Bushe-Fox in his excavations at Richborough in the late 1920s. At the same time he had returned to work on his own account in Norfolk. The famous aerial photograph taken in 1928 of the Roman town of Caistor by Norwich prompted Atkinson’s last major campaign of excavations, from 1929 to 1935 (except 1932) again for the Norfolk and Norwich Archaeological Society. Six seasons of excavations uncovered the forum and basilica, the baths, one insula of the town (with two houses and two Romano-Celtic temples), a house and three pottery kilns in the northern part of the town and the South Gate. In addition, some work was done in the Anglo-Saxon cemetery to the east of the town. There was no generous private patron for the work at Caistor, as Sir Charles Hyde had supported the Wroxeter excavations, so publication of the excavations was not to be possible as a single report. The South Gate and the house in Insula VII remain unpublished in detail and the report on the forum and baths only came out in 1971, with acerbic comments on the quality of the site records. Atkinson’s final excavations involved him searching in 1950 in the bomb-damaged area of Beaufort Street and Ivy Street, Manchester for the northern defences of the Roman fort. These were eventually found further north, but Atkinson’s work did uncover traces of buildings. Until very recently, this unpublished excavation had been the only work on the interior of the Manchester fort. Less easy to record now is Atkinson’s assistance to others working in the field of Roman Britain. One example has been recently published: clearance in 1926 of a quarter of a mile of Roman road north of the site of Little Chester, Derby brought on a visit by Atkinson, whose letter of advice to the Borough Surveyor was printed in a local paper.

After his retirement from the Manchester chair, he became Honorary Curator of the Corinium Museum, succeeding Lady (Aileen) Fox.  Before the War, Atkinson had been honorary curator of Rowley’s House Museum in Shrewsbury, supervising the new display of Roman antiquities from Wroxeter. The post-war redisplay of the Cirencester collections having been completed by his predecessor, Atkinson (supported by a full-time custodian) was able to organise the reserve and Samian collections of the Museum and to clean and catalogue the Roman coins, some 8,000 of them. While at the museum, he was a founder committee-member, in 1955, of the still flourishing Cirencester and District Archaeological and Historical Society. Rescue archaeology in Cirencester became established during Atkinson’s time at the museum, first of all through a series of government-funded excavations and then the inception in 1959 of the Cirencester Excavation Committee to organise a programme of annual excavations. Atkinson played a part in all these developments, from fund-raising to post-excavation, and served on the Excavation Committee from the start. He was succeeded after his death by lan Richmond, at the same time as the custodian was upgraded to curator and the role of honorary curator scaled down.

Here it may be mentioned that he was a founder-member of the Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies in 1910 and served four times on its Council, the last from 1952. He does not seem to have rendered similar service to the Classical Association, but his excavations at Ribchester and elsewhere in the North West saw him sitting on the Excavation Committee of the Manchester and District Branch of the Association. He was the representative of his university on the Chester Excavation Committee in the 1930s.

Atkinson was married in 1932 to Kathleen Chrimes, who went on to University College Leicester in the late 1940s after having been relegated, on her marriage, to an annually renewable post of special lecturer, the University having a rule that a wife could not hold a regular appointment in her husband’s department. She became Professor of Ancient History at Queen’s University Belfast before her death in 1979. A bequest from her formed the Donald Atkinson Fund of the Roman Society.

Publication of excavations seems to have been a difficult and time-consuming task for this lone worker - contrast the fates of the Caistor and the well-organised Wroxeter excavations - and the periods when no publications appeared can lead us to forgetting Atkinson’s achievement in retaining a high place for Ancient History in the changing world of a modern university. The service he rendered by his detailed publication of the dated Flavian and Antonine groups of samian from Pompeii and Wroxeter cannot be underestimated and these publications will ensure that his name will be remembered. Perhaps part of the reason for the neglect of Atkinson is that the meticulous publication of his finds and the careful attention to parallels and comparison were never matched by a very high level of excavation technique. Though active in the 1920s and 1930s, he remained aloof from the subsequent developments in vertical recording and stratigraphic analysis.

Quite some time has elapsed between the years when Atkinson was active and the writing of this account. Most of those who knew my subject then are now dead and as a consequence this account does not pretend to be exhaustive, especially for his Oxford and Reading years.

Colin Wallace.

Published as:

Wallace, C., 1994. 'Donald Atkinson', Transactions of the Bristol and Gloucestershire Archaeological Society CXII, 167-176.


Further Reading

Atkinson, D., 1929. ‘The Roman villa at Gayton Thorpe’, Norfolk Archaeology 23, 166-209. (NHER 3743)

Atkinson, D., 1931. ‘Caistor Excavations, 1929’, Norfolk Archaeology 24, 93-139. (NHER 9786)

Atkinson, D., 1932. ‘Three Caistor Pottery Kilns’, Journal of Roman Studies 22, 35-46. (NHER 9786)

Atkinson, D., 1938. ‘Roman pottery from Caistor-next-Norwich’, Norfolk Archaeology 26, 197-230. (NHER 9786).

Darling, M.J., 1987. ‘The Caistor-by-Norwich ‘Massacre’ Reconsidered’, Britannia XVIII, 263-272.

Frere, S.S. 1971. ‘The Forum and Baths at Caistor by Norwich’, Britannia II, 1-26.

Frere, S.S. 2005.  The south gate and defences of Venta Icenorum: Professor Atkinson’s excavations, 1930 and 1934’, Britannia XXXVI, 311-328. 

Norfolk County Council logo Heritage Lottery Fund logo

Powered by HBSMR-web and the HBSMR Gateway from exeGesIS SDM Ltd, and mojoPortal CMS
© 2007 - 2024 Norfolk Historic Environment Service