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Department of Archaeology

Chris Tilley

Chris Tilley (1955-2024): a tribute to a founding member of modern archaeology

The Department of Archaeology is saddened to report the death of Professor Chris Tilley who, alongside his peers in a “remarkable generation of thinkers”, influenced modern approaches to archaeology. 

Chris first came to Cambridge to complete an undergraduate degree in Archaeology and Anthropology in 1977 at Peterhouse. He was then awarded a PhD in 1983 where he was part of the remarkable generation of archaeologists at Peterhouse and Cambridge at that time, drawn by Grahame Clark, David Clarke, and Ian Hodder. With Hodder, Michael Shanks and others, Chris Tilley was one of the founding thinkers of post-processual archaeology (a movement which emphasises the subjective nature of archaeology). 

Chris then took up post as a Junior Research Fellow at Trinity Hall. After working at University College London for many years, he retired as Emeritus Professor in 2022.

“Chris was of tremendous importance for the development of post-processual archaeology in the UK and he was a central figure in the theoretical milieu that developed in Cambridge during the 1980s. He leaves a lasting legacy both in his own work and in his profound influence on the next generations.” Dr Tamsin O’Connell, Head of Department of Archaeology

Many archaeologists will know Chris Tilley's work through his writings on phenomenology (viewing archaeological landscapes through sensory experiences), beginning with the classic work "A Phenomenology of Landscape" (1994) which first provoked many archaeologists to think about how ancient people may have experienced landscapes and architecture in the past. Although at times controversial, this concept has entered many areas of archaeological thinking, from material culture studies to GIS methodologies for studying viewshed and power.

However, his work went beyond this to encompass substantial, wide-ranging contributions including Marxist critique of basic archaeological concepts (Social Theory and Archaeology, with Michael Shanks), prehistory (An Ethnography of the Neolithic), material culture theory (Metaphor and Material Culture), and reflexive methodology (acknowledging that the investigator's own experience and context shapes the research process), as in his experimental fieldwork on Bodmin Moor, Cornwall, with Barbara Bender and Sue Hamilton. Throughout his work, one encounters deep learning, acute critical thought, the fearlessness to go wherever an idea leads, and both intellectual seriousness and an occasional puckish sense of play.

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Image credit: 
Trinity Hall Archives