Obituary: Nancy Sandars, archaeologist, intelligence officer

Born: 29 June 1914, Little Tew, Oxfordshire. Died: 20 November 2015, Little Tew, aged 101.

Nancy Sandars
Nancy Sandars

Nancy Sandars was a pacifist who became a wartime dispatch rider and conducted secret intelligence work during the Second World War, before carving out an unlikely career as an archaeologist, having nearly lost her eyesight as a child.

As an amateur archaeologist in the high Victorian mould, privately educated and financially independent, she went on to become an expert on pre-historic and ancient cultures of Europe and the Middle East, publishing a number of influential books. The professional standard of her work eventually got her elected to fellowship of the British Academy in 1984, aged 70.

Born at the Manor House, Little Tew, Oxfordshire, in 1914, Nancy Katharine Sandars was daughter of Lt-Col Edward Sandars CMG, a retired Second Boer War campaigner and Gertrude (née Phipps), who joined the Voluntary Aid Detachment, during the First World War. Nancy had siblings eight years her senior, Betty and Hugh, who were twins; Hugh died at the age of eight and her mother died in 1932 when she was 17.

Initially educated at home by a governess, Nancy later attended Wychwood School for Girls in Oxford, however, her schooling was interrupted by tuberculosis which affected her eyes and prevented her from reading. After several years and treatment in Switzerland, she returned home to finish her education privately in Oxford and London. Thereafter, her parents offered her a choice of pursuits, hunting, which was popular in Oxfordshire, or foreign travel; she chose the latter.

During the 1930s, she travelled extensively with friends throughout an ever-changing and turbulent Western Europe taking in Italy, France, Germany, Austria, Malta and Spain. While in Germany where her sister was studying, she was introduced to Karl Ebert, who was the conductor of music in Darmstadt before being forced to leave Germany and carry on his work at Glynbourne. Sandars’ 1934 visit to Austria coincided with the February uprising of the Social Democrats, which was ruthlessly crushed by the army, resulting in over a thousand dead. She was joined by her mother in Vienna and as soon as they could escape, they went to Budapest and then returned home. The uprising was quickly followed by the Anschluss, the annexing of Austria by Nazi Germany. In 1936, she travelled to Spain and witnessed the unfolding troubles just before the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War.

Upon her return to England, while visiting her sister at Oxford University, Nancy was introduced to the revered archaeologist Dame Kathleen Kenyon, who encouraged her to take up archaeology, which she did under the guidance of Mortimer Wheeler. In 1939 she joined Kenyon’s excavation of the ramparts of an Iron Age hillfort at The Wrekin in Shropshire.

Her intention to later join Mortimer on a dig in Normandy was curtailed with the outbreak of the Second World War. Instead, she responded to an urgent ‘SOS’ telegram from Kenyon to help pack-up artefacts at the Institute of Archaeology in London, and move them to safety in anticipation of bombing raids. Sandars recalled Kenyon instructing her to “throw fragile pots down some stairs into the hands of another helper below” and that she must have been accurate as “there were no casualties”.

Influenced by memories of the Great War and the likes of poet Wilfred Owen, Sandars had strong pacifist convictions and spent the early months of the war nursing at local hospitals. Her feelings changed, however, with the fall of France in June 1940 and the start of the Blitz. Joining the Mechanised Transport Corps, which provided women drivers for government departments and ambulances, she served as a motorcycle dispatch rider based in Reading.

In 1942, she joined the WRNS and, shortly after, her fluency in German led to secondment to the “Y” section of the Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park, analysing enemy radio messages along the south coast of England.

Based at listening posts in Looe in Cornwall, Lyme Regis and then to Abbotscliffe, a bleak house on the high cliff between Dover and Folkestone, which “shook like a ship in strong winds”, she listened in on radio transmissions from German S-boats and aircraft and became familiar with Luftwaffe slang, such as, “Ich habe Bauchweh” (“I have stomach ache”), indicated the aircraft had been damaged and limping home. Her name was later added to the Bletchley Park Roll of Honour.

Demobbed and without formal qualifications, Sandars took and passed the ‘London Matric’, which enabled her, in 1947, to enrol for a diploma in prehistory under Gordon Childe at the Institute of Archaeology, London University, who had a somewhat idiosyncratic teaching style that she found inspiring and enjoyed. After a year at the British School in Athens, she went up to St Hugh’s College, Oxford, where she took a BLitt in Archaeology. Her degree thesis was published as her first book, ‘Bronze Age Cultures in France’ (1957).

Sandars travelled extensively during the 1950s to excavation sites in Greece, including Athens and Crete, Italy (Sicily and Sardinia), Turkey (Ankara and Kurdish villages) and Yugoslavia, where she attended a conference in Belgrade.

Between the 1960s and 1980s, with the aid of a number of bursaries, Sandars continued her series of journeys in Europe, the Middle East and even communist Eastern Europe, researching archaeology and art, publishing a number of books that became authoritative works on prehistoric art and civilisation, including her translation of ‘The Epic of Gilgamesh’ (1960, 1981), one of the earliest discovered literary works, dated at about 1,500 years before Homer, making it the oldest epic poem in world literature; it sold over 1 million copies.

She undertook the enormous task of writing ‘Prehistoric Art in Europe’, (1967) published for the ‘Pelican History of Art’ series; revised in 1985. Another notable work was ‘The Sea-Peoples: Warriors of the ancient Mediterranean’ (1978, revised 1985).

After her travels with Stuart Piggot, the Abercrombie Professor of Archaeology at Edinburgh, behind the Iron Curtain in Bulgaria and Romania where there had been speculation of spectacular finds, she later said, “We found little except a few names.

“Communism reigned and the rule was that the head man of the museum was a communist and his assistants would be archaeologists.”

Upon her return to London, she was invited to the Foreign Office for a debrief.

Her sojourn at the British Institute of Persian Studies in Tehran, in 1966, was very enjoyable from her accounts of the Caspian Sea and northern mountains.

On a dig near Lake Sevan in Armenia, she and fellow archaeologists enjoyed a picnic of “cognac and Armenian champagne” among excavated tombs.

In later life, she wrote poetry, publishing a collection entitled ‘Grandmother’s Steps’ (2001), although she never married nor had children.

Sandars died at the family home where she had lived with her sister, who died in 1995, aged 88.

Martin Childs