Professor Leslie Alcock

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PROFESSOR LESLIE ALCOCK OBE BA MA FRSE FRHistS Arthurian expert who excavated a possible Camelot

Born: 24 April, 1925, in Manchester. Died: 6 June, 2006, aged 81.

Professor Leslie Alcock was the Arthurian scholar who proved the pre-eminent expert on South Cadbury Hill in Devon, and archaeological evidence of the same period on Dumbarton Rock. He established Glasgow University's first department of archaeology.

A commanding figure whose air of authority never left him, Alcock possessed charm and a natural friendliness that allowed him to move easily across any social scale. He loved debate, and was as much at home in discussion after hours with a simple extra-mural evening class at Glasgow University as he was with Sir Mortimer Wheeler.

He knew only too well that the legend of King Arthur was a rock upon which reputations has foundered, and while he immersed himself in Dark Age Britain, he was careful to strike strict balance between Arthurian lore - on which he was an expert - and actual archaeological evidence, upon which he based his findings.

South Cadbury, a high point in the rolling hills of north Devon, gained an association with the fabled King Arthur through two Tudor antiquarians, John Leland and William Camden.

For four years from 1966, Alcock directed excavations there, making a series of astonishing discoveries through the labour of hundreds of volunteers, the results of which were so vast that the dig was not fully published until 1995.

The needs to create infrastructure and a headquarters for the dig was so pressing that time was saved on excavating a way through outer earth dyke by using a JCB digger, even though use of it meant that possible valuable archaeological evidence would be lost. The more conservatively minded wing of archaeology heaped opprobrium on Alcock, but he was both brave enough to take such action at the time, and to show slides of the digger at lectures afterwards.

In the area nicknamed "Arthur's Palace", Alcock and his team discovered the foundations of a timber hall half the size of a football penalty area, walls defined by post-holes cut in the bedrock.

Most important of all was the discovery that the surrounding rampart had been massively rebuilt in Arthurian times. Within the structure were shards of pottery from the eastern Mediterranean, including fine red bowls and amphorae, indicating extensive trade links.

There was nothing with Arthur's name on it, but what Alcock and his team found suggested that a leader with considerable resources at his command had taken possession of the vacant hill fort and refortified it on a colossal scale. During the dig Alcock welcomed several press visits, the media alerted by the Arthurian connection.

Alcock's discoveries changed the way he viewed the concept of Arthur. Originally inclined to believe that Arthur was a historical figure - a view he propounded in his scholarly but immensely popular Arthur's Britain of 1971 - he later distanced himself from the book, becoming convinced that there was no good evidence that Arthur ever existed. But he did maintain that if Arthur had lived anywhere, then Cadbury Castle was the most likely spot.

Educated at Manchester Grammar School and Brasenose College, Oxford, Alcock used his wartime service as a captain with the Ghurkas in India, becoming fluent in Urdu and Punjabi.

He loved India and returned there as assistant to Sir Mortimer Wheeler to excavate a Bronze Age site in the Indus valley. In academia, he took up an assistant lectureship at University College, Cardiff, in 1953, and was appointed to the chair of archaeology there 20 years later, but the same year gained a personal professorship at Glasgow University.

Leslie Alcock made his name in the early 1950s directing a dig on Dinas Powys, near Cardiff, a hill fort site yielding evidence of wooden structures, metalwork, jewellery, glass and imported pottery dating from 400-600AD. His report published in 1963 demonstrated that the period traditionally described as the "Dark Ages" could be made accessible through archaeology.

While Alcock rose in celebrity through the supposed Arthurian connections of South Cadbury, his real concern was the whole range of Celtic British history from around the 1000 years to 700AD. To this end, he excavated the ancient Brythonic stronghold of Dumbarton Rock, a place he much preferred in its Old Welsh title of Al Clwyd.

He loved his migration to Scotland as much as he revered his wife, Elizabeth, and together with their family they settled in a Glasgow West End terraced house opposite the BBC and near the university, from which he indulged his other interests of hill walking and climbing. His work established Glasgow University as a leading centre for the study of archaeology, and he took justified pride that some of his students later occupied important positions in academia and on archaeology and heritage bodies.

Honoured with an OBE in 1991, he was predeceased by his wife Elizabeth (ne Blair), and is survived by their son and daughter.