Kenneth Steer

KENNETH STEER CBE, CB, MA, PhD Archaeologist and scholar

Born: 12 November, 1913, in Rotherham. Died: 20 February, 2007, in Cheltenham, aged 93.

SHORTLY after becoming secretary of the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland in 1935, Angus Graham was strongly advised by an eminent predecessor "to get some more education into this thing".

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Consequently, one of his first tasks was to inject new rigour and structure into the commission's operations, and the appointment of the young Kenneth Steer to an assistant archaeologist post some three years later might be seen as a vital element of this reconstruction. It was also the wisest of choices and an excellent investment for the country as a whole, since the duty laid upon the commission, then as now, was no less than preserving and deepening the memory of Scotland's past by seeking out and recording its ancient monuments and historic buildings.

To address this demanding task, Steer brought an impressive array of inherited and acquired skills. The son of a headmaster and educated at Wath Grammar School, he read history at the University of Durham and then held a research fellowship there; the topic of his doctoral research was The Archaeology of Roman Co Durham, for which in 1938 he was awarded the degree of PhD. Directly thereafter, his early days in the Royal Commission introduced him to the field archaeology of Roxburghshire and the wealth of upstanding remains that reveal prehistoric and early medieval activity on the dry grass moors of the Southern Uplands; his experience of excavation, previously on Roman sites in northern England, was now extended to native settlements.

The outbreak of war severely dislocated the work of the Commission. Steer was first transferred to the Scottish Office and then in 1941 was commissioned into the army. Like many academics, he was assigned to intelligence duties, acquiring in the process a useful range of investigative skills - applicable (and later rewardingly applied) to archaeological problems; foremost among these was aerial-photograph interpretation. In the course of the war, Steer rose to the rank of major, saw action in many theatres, most conspicuously in the landings at Anzio in Italy, and was twice mentioned in dispatches. In 1945-46 he acted as monuments, fine arts and archives officer in North Rhine Region.

On returning to archaeological duties with the commission, the survey of Roxburghshire continued, now greatly amplified by two main sources: firstly, the information derived from intensive scrutiny of RAF post-war aerial photography, on which could be recognised for the first time the fugitive traces of prehistoric timber houses and enclosing palisades; and secondly, the programmes of excavation carried out on selected multi-period settlements by Professor Stuart and Mrs C M Piggott.

The uniformly enthusiastic reception of the resulting publication (The Inventory of Roxburghshire, 1956) provided ample proof that the commission was once more on the right track , and when Steer was himself appointed secretary, in 1957, the mechanisms set in motion by Angus Graham continued to be put to excellent use. Indeed, in the decade after the war to the steady progress through the counties of Selkirkshire and Stirlingshire, there had already been added the far-ranging emergency survey of monuments in marginal lands throughout Scotland. Under Steer's direction, the widening of scope and deepening of expertise became more evident, with the acquisition of more field staff and additions to drawing-office personnel, but there was also a growing presumption of the need to harmonise the diverse arms of the national heritage effort. The most conspicuous example of this, and the innovation which had the most significant impact on the commission's future trajectory, was the transfer to its care of the staff and collections of the Scottish National Buildings Record in 1966; from this amalgamation of the resources of the two bodies was formed the intensive archive which gave birth to the now pre-eminently important National Monuments Record of Scotland.

It was remarkable that in the midst of all this activity, Steer maintained a high profile in the world of Roman archaeology. Over the years he not only played a leading part in preparing the Roman sections of the inventories of Roxburgh, Selkirk, Stirling and Peebles, but in each of these counties directed productive excavations of selected military installations.

At the other end of the scale, he took very seriously his secretarial responsibilities for ensuring that all members of field staff acquired and developed the array of skills appropriate to their post, in particular, the ability to write site-reports that were models of concision, clarity, and, if possible, of elegance. His own command of written (or spoken) English was as masterly as it appeared effortless, and, without being told, his colleagues knew that the elegance that he sought subsisted largely in the clarity of the thought behind the words.

The last decade with the commission could be characterised as one of almost continuous change and expansion, which set a pattern that was further developed by his successors. In particular, the need to address the various threats menacing the country's monuments led to the establishment of rapid-response units, of which the Threatened Buildings Survey, the Afforestable Land Survey, and the initiation of a national aerial survey programme were but the most conspicuous examples. At the same time, the inventory survey programme continued to advance through the sinuous territory of Argyll, two of its eventual seven volumes having been issued under Steer's editorship by his retiral in 1978. Before that, in 1976, he had joined with JWM Bannerman in writing The Late Medieval Monumental Sculpture of the West Highlands, a topic which, though it fell to him as part of the traditional perquisites of the secretary - writing the inventory articles on "bells, wells, roads, bridges, etc" - was felt by some to complete the circle of his academic interests, which had started with Roman monumental sculpture.

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Steer's scholarship was widely recognised and signalised. He was a corresponding member of the German Archaeological Institute; in 1963 he was invited to give the Horsley Memorial Lecture in the University of Durham; he was the Rhind Lecturer of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland in 1968; and he was president of that society in 1972-75. His most significant and enduring honour, however, must surely be the wealth of Scottish monuments that are now recorded for posterity.

Kenneth Steer's first wife, Rona Mitchell, died in 1983. His second wife, Eileen Nelson, also predeceased him. He is survived by a daughter.

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