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Aston, Michael Antony [Mick]free

(1946–2013)
  • Christopher Dyer

Michael Antony Aston (1946–2013)

by Mark Thomas, 2000

Aston, Michael Antony [Mick] (1946–2013), geographer and archaeologist, was born on 1 July 1946 at 112 Birch Road, Oldbury, Worcestershire, the son of Harold Henry Aston, a joiner's toolmaker, and his wife, Gladys, née Bagnall. Oldbury belonged to the industrial Black Country (on the border between Staffordshire and Worcestershire), and Aston retained its distinctive accent. He left his artisan background behind when he attended Oldbury Grammar School, and then read geography at Birmingham University, continuing after graduation in 1967 for three years of doctoral research on medieval water management.

Aston was a confident, outgoing, inquisitive student, and established links with five scholars who would have a strong influence on his subsequent career. Harry Thorpe, his supervisor, was a distinguished historical geographer with a strong sense of local topography; Philip Rahtz, an archaeologist, encouraged younger scholars to investigate a broad spectrum of medieval sites; Philip Barker, an excavator of legendary skill, promoted adult education; Trevor Rowley, then a lecturer in education, advocated a ‘landscape history’ approach initiated by W. G. Hoskins; and C. J. (James) Bond, a contemporary of Aston in geography, shared his passion for medieval sites visible as earthworks. Combining these disciplines and enthusiasms, Aston played a leading role in the development of ‘landscape archaeology’. This meant that he applied archaeological methods to understanding past landscapes, a field of study pioneered by economic historians and historical geographers. These enquiries did not belong to an intellectual élite, but formed an interdisciplinary project which set out to engage the general public, who learned about the history of their familiar surroundings of roads and streets, fields and woods, houses and settlements. They were encouraged to record the evidence and find out for themselves.

In 1970 Aston took up a post as field officer at the Oxford City and County Museum, in Woodstock, and in 1974 he moved to become county archaeologist in Somerset for another four years. In both counties he spent much time in the field, discovering and recording sites of all periods, but most of them medieval. He also taught in evening classes, and in 1979 became a full-time adult education tutor at the University of Oxford's external studies department. After a year he joined the Bristol University extramural department. He researched energetically in Somerset and Gloucestershire. His own teaching was successful, and he skilfully recruited experts from afar to teach in classes and events that he organized.

Aston's publications derived from his teaching, and were aimed at a general readership. Rowley was his co-author for Landscape Archaeology (1974), and The Landscape of Towns (1976) was written with Bond. His most successful book, Interpreting the Landscape (1985), was appreciated by both academic and general readers, as was Monasteries in the Landscape (1993). He contributed to numerous books in the 1980s on medieval settlement and landscapes, mainly in the south-west. In the 1990s, when the financial basis of adult education was eroded, he transferred to the archaeology department at Bristol and was promoted to a chair in 1996, from which he retired after an episode of ill health, in 2004.

Aston's research was based in the 1970s and 1980s on a combination of small-scale studies, often involving aerial photographs and surveys of landscapes, which were designed to throw light on such large questions as the continuities between the prehistoric, Roman, and medieval periods, or the influence on the landscape of powerful individuals and institutions. His work rose above the description that often characterizes landscape studies, and he was aware of theory and novelties of approach. He saw the value of a coherent long-term investigation of a village and its territory, like that pursued at Wharram Percy in Yorkshire, and in 1989 with many collaborators he embarked on a ten-year programme of fieldwork at Shapwick in Somerset, which brought together archaeology, architecture, history, environmental science, place names, and other relevant disciplines. The results were published in two large books co-authored with Chris Gerrard in 2007 and 2013 (The Shapwick Project, Somerset: a Rural Landscape Explored, and Interpreting the English Village: Landscape and Community at Shapwick, Somerset), which presented evidence for occupation of the same piece of land from prehistoric times, and the creation of a planned system of estates and villages at the end of the first millennium.

Between 1994 and 2012 Aston was also heavily involved in a series of popular television programmes called Time Team. He had experimented with various formats for presenting archaeology on television, which tended to take the form of conversations on site between Aston and invited specialists. The new series broke with the tradition of experts presenting their authoritative interpretations, and instead showed a group of researchers debating the evidence emerging from a three-day excavation, and, as in a scientific seminar, testing hypotheses and changing them in light of the results. The programmes were criticized by some professionals, because they could be misleading, glib, and sensational, and encouraged a cult of personality focused on Aston himself. But the series also succeeded in raising public awareness of archaeology and in enthusing young people; as Aston reminded critics, the series extended the mission of adult education to a very large audience. He became dissatisfied with its eventual decline into vulgarization, and ceased to appear so prominently in the later programmes. After his illness in 2003 he concentrated more on his mainstream research into monastic and village landscapes.

The Mick Aston familiar to television viewers was much the same as the figure encountered in seminar rooms and lecture halls, and on site visits. He could be extrovert and flamboyant, but was also thoughtful, sceptical, and critical of orthodoxy. He was valued for his contribution to seminars, and it was always stimulating to show him a landscape or a site, as he invariably saw aspects that others had missed. His conversation was mainly concerned with academic matters, though he had interests in music and gardening. His marriage ended in divorce; subsequently he and Carinne Allinson (his partner from the early 1980s to the early 1990s) had a son, James, and he was a good stepfather to her daughter, Kathryn. In later years he shared his life with another landscape expert, Teresa Hall. He died suddenly of a brain haemorrhage at his home, Farthings, Hill Road, Sandford, Somerset, on 24 June 2013; his funeral was held on 12 July.

Sources

  • M. Aston, Mick's archaeology (2000)
  • A. Selkirk, ‘Once upon a Time Team’, Current Archaeology, 200 (2005), 372–7
  • ‘Professor Mick Aston, 1946–2013’, University of Bristol website, 25 June 2013, www.bristol.ac.uk/news/2013/9518.html, 6 Sept 2016
  • Daily Telegraph (26 June 2013)
  • The Guardian (26 June 2013)
  • The Independent (26 June 2013)
  • ‘Mick Aston, 1946–2013’, Building History website, www.buildinghistory.org/mickaston/, 6 Sept 2016
  • C. Gerrard, ‘Appreciation’, Antiquity website, antiquity.ac.uk/tributes/aston.html, 6 Sept 2016
  • H. Geake and others, ‘Remembering Mick Aston: the man who brought the past to the present’, The Posthole website, www.theposthole.org/read/article/215, 6 Sept 2016 [department of archaeology, University of York]
  • WW (2013)
  • personal knowledge (2017)
  • private information (2017)
  • b. cert.
  • d. cert.

Archives

Film

  • BFI NFTVA, light entertainment footage

Likenesses

  • M. Thomas, photograph, 2000, REX / Shutterstock [see illus.]
  • photograph, 2006 (with Tony Robinson), European Pressphoto Agency / Alamy
  • H. John, photograph, 2008, REX / Shutterstock
  • J. Gibson, photograph, 2012, Alamy
  • obituary photographs
(1849–)