How this Sheffield professor has spent a lifetime uncovering the past making amazing discoveries including a 4000-year-old beer cup, Ancient Greek tombs and Roman urns

What started as a childhood hobby became a passion and then a career as thousands of years of history from all over the globe have been discovered at the fingertips of one man, who for generations has been been passionate about uncovering more about the people who lived before us and realising through the ages are still very much the same.

By Lucy Ball
Friday, 28th August 2020, 10:15 am
Professor Keith Branigan has been awarded the Landscape Archaeology Medal for his work through the decades
Professor Keith Branigan has been awarded the Landscape Archaeology Medal for his work through the decades

This summer Professor Keith Branigan, who worked at the University of Sheffield for almost three decades, was the recipient of the prestigious Landscape Archaeology Medal for his distinguished and varied career with many notable achievements in the study of Roman Britain and the prehistory of the Aegean and joins just seven others who have been given this top honour.

The 80-year-old said: "It was very out of the blue,

"Having retired from the university in 2005 I wasn't expecting it at all but it is so nice to know that the work I have done is still considered important and I'm pleased I have been remembered and to have this recognition."

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His medal has not been presented to him due to the current pandemic but Keith hopes to be able to have it soon.

Keith can pinpoint when his love of archaeology began - more than 70 ago - when he was reading a series of illustrated history of Britain books and was hooked on prehistoric Britain and in particular Roman Britain.

His love was further confirmed when watching Animal, Vegetable, Mineral on the television, an archaeological programme in the 1950s.

"I knew then what I wanted to do and have been one of the very lucky ones who has gone to work doing something he loves everyday," said Keith.

He studied ancient history and archaeology at the University of Birmingham, then did his doctorate which took him to Crete.This was the first intensive field survey undertaken in Crete, and the first to employ a soil scientist. Keith became particularly involved in trying to establish the relationship between the landscapes of the living and the dead and discovered old tombs and burial grounds.

Keith then spent ten years working in Bristol and it was there he found the remains of a Roman boy and that discovery on the site will stay with him forever.

He said: "We found urns of cremated remains but with bones that hadn't been cremated so we were able to identify it was a young boy about four or five. Inside his urn was a prehistoric arrowhead so a further 2000 years older than him along with some other triangle stones which looked very similar.

"These must have been important to him and he must have played with them regularly for them to be placed in his urn but there was no way he could have know just how old the arrow head was but picked it up and started playing with it anyway.

"So in one site we got a glimpse not just to life 2000 years ago but also life from 4000 years ago which was amazing."

In 1976 he took up his post at Sheffield and was part of a 15 year expedition in the Outer Hebrides where they worked to understand the impact of humans on the Hebridean landscape, and equally the impact of the Hebridean landscape and environment on human settlers.

The grandad-of-five said: "Sometimes it the small discoveries that can tell you more than big discoveries.

"One of my true highlight of my whole career was up in the Outer Hebrides, we moved a stone and found a fully intact pottery beaker used for drinking beer out of which was 4500 years old still just as beautiful as the day it was made. To find something that old and in pristine condition is almost unheard of and told us so much about the craftsmen of the time and how people socialised."In a black house, a house where the occupants were so poor they could only afford two very small windows at the front of the house so everything else is in darkness or black, a thimble was found dropped between two paving flags.

Keith said: "The house we were working on we had the census records so we knew who lived there; it was a woman with her daughter and son in law and you could just imagine her sitting outside sewing with her thimble when she dropped it.

"These people were really poor so I can imagine her being very upset at the loss of the thimble which would have cost her a lot of money.

"Archaeology is living history you can touch and at that moment I felt very connected to the people of the past."

Keith has developed a love for the far flung Scottish isles having walked every inch of the landscape and tried to return every other year. His work has also led him to study the history of the people who were all evicted in the mid 1800s and has made contact with those who fled to Canada and tried to help them trace their family trees.

During his varied career Keith has also worked in Thailand and Jerusalem digging up the past with colleagues and friends.

He added: "I think there will always be a need to know more about where we came from and people will always be discovering more pieces of the puzzle of our past."

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