By Beverley Ballin Smith FSA Scot
Meeting John Hedges, the archaeologist, for the first time was like coming into contact with a human dynamo on high octane fuel. He established the North of Scotland Archaeological Services, NoSAS, in 1977, which was one of the first archaeological units in Scotland, and rented Binscarth House for the organisation’s offices and main accommodation from the Lord Lieutenant, Colonel Macrae. John lived life to the full on Orkney and was often to be seen wearing a well-worn Barbour jacket, corduroy trousers, Shetland jumper, and driving an old Land Rover. He was distinguished by his shock of unruly hair, his southern English accent, and his unparalleled enthusiasm for archaeology.
John was first and foremost a field archaeologist, researcher and writer, and later a publisher. His interest in archaeology probably started at grammar school in Ramsgate in Kent, but he studied social anthropology as an undergraduate at the New University of Ulster, Coleraine. He caught the archaeology bug, like lots of us did, by spending his summer vacations ‘digging’ in Greece and then Orkney. From Ulster he went to Sheffield University for his MA and then to Southampton for his MPhil, researching prehistoric and Dark Age textiles. John was a high achiever who also followed archaeological courses whilst undertaking his post-graduate research. He came to Orkney for the first time in 1972, working as a supervisor with Colin Renfrew at Quanterness, and returned to work at Liddle burnt mound, South Ronaldsay, the following year.
It was at this time that John moved to Orkney to live in Berry Hill, a traditional but derelict ‘but and ben’ in South Ronaldsay. Over the next few years John continued to excavate at Liddle, Quoyscottie and Beaquoy in Orkney and Tougs in Shetland. At the same time he became good friends with Ronnie and Morgan Simison and took a strong interest in Ronnie’s work at the Tomb of the Eagles, excavating there himself in 1977. These were important years for John, and it was also an important time for Orkney’s archaeology, as few earlier researchers had taken an interest in funerary and other monuments of the Bronze Age. Some of this work was undertaken for the Orkney Heritage Society, and came early in the growing realisation of the importance and value of Orkney’s archaeology. John had also begun the ‘Cumulative Survey of Orkney Field Monuments’ from the ‘Berry Hill Institute’. He “assumed the previously non-existing role of a resident archaeologist in the north of Scotland, dealing particularly with Orkney and Shetland”, whist working as a freelance archaeologist from his base in Orkney.
The setting up of what became the sizeable organisation of NoSAS came next, and bigger ‘rescue’ projects funded by the Scottish Development Department, were undertaken at Saevar Howe, Birsay, and Bu Broch near Stromness dug in five weeks! Following the successful excavation of Bu, John also started the excavation of Howe Broch, and directed it for two years, applying techniques learnt from his previous learning and experience. He was particularly keen on the use of photogrammetry; but on the significant slopes of the broch mound this was not an easy operation to accomplish; the use of a photographic tower and Harris matrices, and most importantly of all – the writing up of each season’s work during the winter at Binscarth House.
While running NoSAS – not always an easy task – directing on site, writing up his earlier projects, John also started new endeavours such as the reappraisal and interpretation of structures and finds at the Broch of Gurness, researched Orkney’s brochs in general, completed his MPhil and wrote up the excavation of Isbister. By the end of 1980 John suffered a severe burn-out. He had accomplished a huge amount of work in a very short space of time and it had taken its toll on his health. John left Orkney moving first to Edinburgh and later to Oxford to complete the write-up of his Orkney projects. Between 1980 and 1990 he published copiously on all of his Orkney excavations, a massive achievement, including the acclaimed Tomb of the Eagles: A Window on Stone Age Tribal Britain.
After an absence of 28 years he returned to Orkney in 2008 to celebrate Ronnie Simison’s MBE award, and to initiate another archaeological project – the recording of the archaeological sites of South Parish, South Ronaldsay, latterly with local archaeologist Barry Constantine. John had been diagnosed with memory issues and by 2010 it was noticeable. Although he and Barry continued working together until 2017, John’s illness prevented his further involvement.
I last saw John at his care home in 2019. We talked about his time on Orkney and what he had accomplished. He humbly said ‘Did I do all that?’ We must not under-estimate his achievements: they have massively influenced the understanding of aspects of Orkney’s archaeology.
Printed in The Orcadian newspaper 28 January 2021
I am very grateful to Barry Constantine for additional information on John.
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