Archaeologist Jacquetta Hawkes

A Populariser of Archaeloogy



  Jacquetta Hawkes in Ireland 1939



The elevated site of Harristown Passage Tomb is located on the east side of a sandstone hill known as “Carrick a Dhirra” which is about 1.5km north of the picturesque fishing village of Dunmore East.

Although only 131 metres (430 feet high), the hill affords a magnificent view of Tramore Bay, with the jagged outline of the Comeragh Mountains in the background. On the very far horizon, notable landmarks such as  the summits of Slievenamon, Tory Hill, Brandon and Mount Leinster may be seen.

The Harristown tomb is probably the most impressive of a group of Waterford passage-tombs which bear much similarity to those found on the Scilly Isles off the coast of Cornwall in south-west England.


It was to here, in the summer of 1939, that British Archaeologist Jacquetta Hawkes arrived to carry out an extensive excavation of the hill top site.

Jacquetta Hawkes  was a respected archaeologist. Born in England in 1910, she was the daughter of Noble Prize-winning scientist, Sir Frederick Gowland Hopkins. She attended Newnham college in Cambridge and it was there that she met her first husband, Christopher Hawkes, a working archeologist.

Since her childhood, Jaquetta had a keen interest in archaeology and soon she began to accompany her husband on digs. It wasn't long before her talents soon became evident with her insightful and humanistic interpretation of evidence found, coupled with her eloquent style of writing.

She had a great passion for the past. She was also a writer of poems, plays and articles, a film-maker, broadcaster and peace campaigner. Her best-known work is probably "A Land" (1951), which fuses archaeology, literature, geology and art to explore Britain's past and present.

In her early archaeological career, she took special notice of a pattern of goddess-worship at Neolithic sites. Over time, she began to focus on the social and cultural role divisions resulting from gender, and questioned the belief that men had always been the dominant members of a community, while women were presumed to have merely played a secondary role.

Hawkes also explored the fabulous legacy of the Minoan civilization on the Greek island of Crete, where she found overwhelming evidence of a society in which women clearly played a leading role. Through a remarkable series of books including ‘Dawn of the Gods’, as well as newspaper and magazine articles, lectures, radio and TV interviews, Hawkes demonstrated the existence of early gender-egalitarian cultures and primordial goddess-worship to the public, in ways that simply could not be ignored.

Although her work was controversial at the time, and was occasionally dismissed as "feminist fantasy", Jacquetta Hawkes remained committed to her theories and was always outspoken. Over time, new discoveries began to substantiate her theories, and fortunately she lived long enough to receive some of the recognition and honors that she deserved.

Jacquetta and her husband also carried out excavations on their own. Jacquetta was alone in the Channel Islands and wrote her first book, ‘The Archaeology of Jersey’ which was published in 1939. In 1938 her son Nicolas was born and in the following year Jacquetta was supervising her own excavation in Ireland.


The Hawkes excavation of Harristown was carried out in the summer of 1939 under the government's Unemployment Relief scheme, administered by the Office of Works in co-operation with the National Museum of Ireland.

Before excavation, the site was much overgrown by gorse and rough grass, but the general plan could easily be distinguished. It could be seen that there was a long and relatively narrow chamber, very nearly parallel-sided but with a slight increase in width towards the inner, western end, and with the side walls reinforced by lower blocks almost completely buried. The entrance, with a low sill stone visible, opened eastward directly on to a ring of standing stones (diameter 9 metres) that enclosed the remains of the mound. It was difficult to judge how much of this mound survived, for although naked rock outcropped immediately to the north, the chamber uprights were well buried and the chamber itself evidently contained some depth of soil.

Finds dating from the period when the tomb was first built and used were few. In the chamber there were cremated bones, perhaps representing two individuals, accompanied by an axe amulet and a pebble of similar shape, while both in and around the chamber lay quantities of burnt sticks, presumed to be the remains of funeral fires. Other finds included food vessels, a pigmy cup, bronze blade, stone bead, a razor and bone pins.

Hawkes was convinced that no pottery or other grave goods had been pillaged from the tomb, and that the amulet and pebble were the only non-perishable objects to have been buried. The sanctity of the site gained recognition in later days when Bronze Age folk inserted the cremated remains of their dead both inside and outside the peristalith.


An interesting story to come out of the Harristown excavation and which Jacquetta later told a friend goes as follows;  “The evening after the above finds she was late at the dig, and all her workmen had gone home; she carefully covered the urns, and secured the tomb. But as she bicycled back to the hotel she was met to her surprise by a long procession of people making their way up to the tomb. This she discovered was because rumour had spread that a magical hare, the guardian of the tomb, had been disturbed, and that a crock had been discovered which, on the stroke of midnight, would prove to be full of golden coins - the mythical `Crock of Gold'.”



Harristown Passage Tomb


On completion of the Harristown dig, Hawkes returned to England and during the Second World War became a civil servant. In 1941 she was appointed Assistant Principal of the Post-War Reconstruction Secretariat. She moved to the Ministry of Education, became an established Principal and Secretary of the UK National Committee for Unesco, which post she held until 1949.

Following divorce from her husband Christopher, she married J.B Priestley, the English novelist, playwright and broadcaster in 1953. After Priestley's death in 1984, Jacquetta moved to Littlecote in Chipping Camden, Gloucestershire. Her final published book was ‘The Shell Guide to British Archaeology’ in 1986. She died in March 1996 aged 85. Her ashes are buried next to Priestley’s, at Hubberholme in the Yorkshire Dales.

In 2003, the University of Bradford, in England acquired Jacquetta’s Archive which captures her life, ideas, personality, style, friends and family in so much rich detail. 

It is an incredible record of her life, including diaries, letters, photographs, notebooks and drafts of books, poems, plays and articles, from her school reports and nature diaries to her last writings and obituaries. It vividly illustrates how Jacquetta developed as an archaeologist, journalist and poet, and covers her active engagement with controversial causes and her fascinating social and personal life.



Photo of J. Hawkes courtesy of the Jacquetta Hawkes Archive, Special Collections, University of Bradford.

Jacquetta Hawkes Archive



Article first published January 2012







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