Harold John Edward Peake

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Harold John Edward Peake, 1867-1946

Harold John Edward Peake, President of the Royal Anthropological Institute 1926-8, was the son of the Rev. John Peake, Vicar of Ellesmere. He was born on 29 September, 1867, and died on 22 September, 1946. He belonged to the British tradition of scholarship without professional commitments, and he gave his life to intellectual and public work, finding his reward in the gathering of like-minded friends around his home and his museum at Newbury and the Royal Anthropological Institute, for which he was still drafting research plans as he lay dying. He was deeply as well as broadly a humanist, who held that the appeal to authority was failing and that the motto ‘ We seek the truth ’ must supersede all the rival claims to the possession of the truth. He saw with unusual clarity that ritual endures while its explanations change from time to time. He also felt deeply that our mental activity and physical make-up are linked.

Having taken up training in estate management at Leicester, he gained an insight into problems of land use and land tenure and their accompaniments in social organization, with the attendant evolution of means of communication. One of his first papers was on the subject of ‘Roads’ in a collection entitled Memorials of Old Leicestershire.

In 1897 he married Miss Charlotte Bayliff and they went around the world. A stay on a ranch in British Columbia gave him an understanding of many features of the life of herdsmen, and especially migratory cattlemen, ancient and modern. Japan and China, again, imbued him with a feeling of the parochialism of those who try to discuss civilization as an outgrowth exclusively from ancient Palestine, Greece, and Rome. He felt that these three were themselves the products of a long evolution not so isolated from, or independent of, that of Egyptian, Sumerian, Iranian, Indian, and Chinese tradition as some writers appeared to think.

He was a faithful member of the British Association for the Advancement of Science and presided over its anthropological section in 1922, seeing in it an opportunity for spreading the idea of humanist research among amateurs. In partnership especially with the late Mr. G. A. Garfitt he developed organized work on early metallurgy based largely on spectroscopic and chemical analysis of minute borings of ancient implements. This work has led to much increased knowledge of early sources of metallic ores, technical processes, and lines of trade, and in 1945 he urged that the work, which had lapsed during the war, should be taken up by the Royal Anthropological Institute. A Committee, with Miss Lamb and Mr. Coghlan as its officers, was formed; it gave him great satisfaction to know that the work was going forward. As late as July, 1946, he drafted another scheme for the investigation of early grain cultivation and he discussed this with his friend Professor Stuart Piggott the day before his death in spite of extreme physical exhaustion.

He also held for over 25 years the fellowship of the Society of Antiquaries, serving on its Council 1928—30. But these scientific interests were, in his view, important, in local as well as in national life. He formed a Citizens’ Association (non-political) at Newbury, Berks, and became Hon. Curator of the Newbury Museum, chairman of the governors of Newbury Grammar School, chairman and afterwards president of Newbury General Hospital and of the Newbury District Nursing Association, as well as of the Newbury and District Field Club, which under his leadership undertook excavations and investigations of many kinds. The museum had unique features. To help visitors to realize themselves as products of evolution he had a sequence of exhibits leading on to a mirror with the inscription homo sapiens. A long series of cases against the walls was divided into equal vertical sections, one for each century from 3000 B.C. to A.D. 2000, while earlier periods were represented, necessarily on a different time scale yet with indications of the length of the various phases. His success is indicated by the remark of a Newbury schoolboy who, when asked about the coming of the Romans to Britain, replied that that was comparatively recent.

Among Peake’s most successful organizations for research was the catalogue of British Bronze Implements, Weapons, and Ornaments. It grew in the course of time to nearly 20,000 cards with measured drawings, accurate data and bibliography on each, and it has been used for distributional studies which have given many clues to human relations in past time. It illustrates Peake’s special faculty for seeing archaeological objects as something more than material to be classified and dated. The nomad cattlemen of the Pontic steppe of antiquity were in his mind live people with problems to solve, and he might match them, with due reserve, with his rancher friends of British Columbia. It was always ‘Life and its Manifestations’ that held his interest and he had a particular affection for the ideal of the horseman who rides straight, shoots straight, and speaks straight. It is characteristic of Peake that an old friend cannot recall his association at any time with sect or party, a remarkable fact for the leader of life, in many aspects, in a rural area.

Peake, like the late Lord Abercromby, was one of the pioneers of the study of Britain’s prehistoric relations with Europe, and he diligently collected and studied pots and potsherds from Britain, Europe, and Asia. He thought that some of the very early pots of western Europe and Britain owed something of their form to earlier skin-vessels, the scrota of domestic animals being, in his view, specially significant. He found and wrote about the use of the scrotum as a bag among modern pastoralists.

Beaker pottery interested him very particularly, and he hesitated to accept the idea of its origin in the Iberian interior in a culture otherwise poorly equipped. He thought, on the other hand, that it might have been modified from pots of somewhat similar shape made by peoples who could paint their earthenware, i.e. he looked for an east European origin and was inclined to think of the spread of the type to the west and its adoption by coastwise migrants moving between the Iberian peninsula and Brittany. He, however, fully agreed with the general view that beakers in Sicily and probably those of Italy had spread thither from Spain. Early Indian pottery and its relations with Mesopotamia, Iran; and Turkestan also interested him, and for many years he had expected evidence of early civilization in Iran and its borders and of its diffusion thence. He therefore dissented when Elliot Smith and Perry, in his view, overemphasized Egyptian origins. Diffusion of Culture seemed to him, as to the older workers, a far more complex matter than the advocates of diffusion from Egypt allowed; at the same time, he attached the greatest importance to the study of early Egypt.

From the very beginning of what was to become the Nazi view of early history, Peake was an uncompromising opponent. He tended to see the language groups of the Aryan family as regional differentiations from a common basis which, he thought, was likely to have spread from the Pontic steppe in the early Bronze Age. His views were therefore in some measure akin to those that have been developed by Professor Gordon Childe, and he greatly admired the studies of Sophus Müller.

The study of early wheat (Emmer) and of its spread from S.W. Asia led him to discuss its probable hybridization with Dinkel or Einkorn as a possible origin of the bread wheats, and he urged to the last the need for study of impressions of grain on the insides of pots. The little plough, scratching the surface of soil in warm lands to keep it in fine tilth, was, in his view, less effective in cooler lands in which, with less evaporation, nutritive salts tend rather to sink in the soil. Here a great agricultural advance was made possible when iron could be used for arming a large ploughshare fitted to turn up the deeper soil. And he used to emphasize that with the big plough there came also the iron axe, increasing men’s powers of clearing forest.

Observing, reflecting, suggesting, often with subtle wit, were leading features of Peake’s intellectual activity. He would always try to conjure up a picture of the life of a people whose implements, pots, or monuments were under discussion. And he saw most vividly the continuity between prehistory and the present day. To him ‘Iberians,’ and so on, were not peoples who had vanished. They were constituents of present-day populations, and he often suggested that pre-Neolithic elements survive in considerable numbers amongst us. He had a vision of the evolutionary stream running through time and of the need for understanding its past course as a guide to the future. He helped many a younger worker and he, with Mrs. Peake while she lived, made Westbrook House, Boxford, near Newbury, a centre of light and of interest in anthropology, archaeology, folklore, drama, music, gardens, in fact almost everything that can unite, instead of dividing, men. He valued greatly the award of the Huxley Memorial Medal by the Royal Anthropological Institute in 1940, as a recognition of his long continued, indeed never failing, suggestions for interpretations of human affairs, past, present, even sometimes future, through evolutionary research, with a mind too objective to entertain dogmatic prejudice and a wit that played around every topic to the delight of his friends.

Among his many publications one may mention a long series of articles in the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute and in MAN, contributions to the Victoria County History of Berkshire, The English Village (1922), The Bronze Age and the Celtic World (1922), his presidential addresses ‘The Beginnings of Civilization’ (J.R.A.I. 1927), ‘The Introduction of Civilization into Britain’ (ibid. 1928), his Huxley Lecture ‘The Study of Prehistoric Times’ (ibid. 1940), Origins of Agriculture (1926), The Flood (1930) and Early Steps in Human Progress (1933), addresses to the Newbury Field Club, and the series of Corridors of Time, in the preparation of which he was the senior partner. The tenth and last-planned volume of the series was held up by the war of 1939-45 and paper shortage, but he lived long enough to discuss a revision completed in August, 1946, and awaiting publication when restrictions are lessened.

It was characteristic of Westbrook House that its staff remained unchanged for over 45 years. Miss Mary Wilson contributed most interestingly to dramatic and to archaeological effort, and Miss Annie Plumb saw that the household machinery kept on its steady un-hasting way.    


This obituary first appeared as: Fleure, H. J.. 1947. ‘Harold John Edward Peake, 1867-1946’. Man Vol. 47, pp. 48-50. Reproduced with permission.


To cite this article:

FLEURE, H. J.. 1947. ‘Harold John Edward Peake, 1867-1946’. Man Vol. 47, pp. 48-50. (available on-line: http://www.therai.org.uk/archives-and-manuscripts/obituaries/harold-john-edward-peake).