Tuesday, June 16, 2020


Aubrey Burl, who has died aged 93, was an unusual archaeologist for our times. The enthusiast’s megalithic expert, he combined the advantages of experience as a university lecturer and excavator, a redundancy package and a literary fluency to build an independent career as a successful writer. He published around 30 books about prehistoric standing stones of north-west Europe. In his 70s he turned to subjects of historical mystery, launching his last book – on Shakespeare’s “Dark Lady”, who he identified as the self-centred wife of John Florio – at the age of 88.

Megaliths are one of the distinguishing features of prehistoric Britain and Ireland – Burl listed around 1,300 stone circles alone. Long attracting public interest, they were often ignored by professional archaeologists, sniffy about mystics and sceptical that standing stones had much to tell about the past. Burl found a balanced path between academic indifference and naive obsession, no more so than in his discussions of ley lines and archaeoastronomy, bringing rare archaeological sense when the latter discipline most needed it. His writing appealed to many archaeologists but also to fans of the pot-smoking John Michell or the unbounded enthusiast Julian Cope – no mean feat.

In 1970, the year Burl obtained his MA at Leicester University with a thesis on stone circles, he became principal lecturer in archaeology at Kingston upon Hull College of Education. There for a little over a decade, he continued to research neolithic and bronze age ritual monuments. He directed five excavations, at stone circles in Northumberland, Moray, Aberdeenshire and the Isle of Arran, and he established a reputation as a readable and informed writer, producing some of his key books.

The first of these, The Stone Circles of the British Isles (1976), launched an enduring partnership with Yale University Press. Prehistoric Avebury (1979) was a fond analysis that mixed antiquarian and his personal observations of the then little-researched monuments in north Wiltshire. He wrote Rings of Stone (1979) to accompany photographs by Edward Piper, and Megalithic Rings (1980) for detailed surveys – many of which he had a part in – by the Thoms, father and son, who had contrived a “megalithic yard”, supposedly an ancient unit of measurement.

Finally, Rites of the Gods (1981) set out his distinctive vision of prehistoric Britain as a place of primitive religion and bleak living (“There is little sense of time or change,” complained one academic reviewer. “The approach is literary, not analytical”). He also fitted in lecturing, guiding and broadcasting, though, as a quiet man who preferred the company of friends and enthusiasts over a pint of beer or a glass of Laphroaig to the limelight of cameras, he was not destined to become a television personality.

Born in London, Aubrey was the son of Harry Burl, an engineer, and his wife, Lily (nee Wright). Called up in 1944, he joined the Royal Navy, where he became a sub-lieutenant. After studying at the University of London, he taught history and archaeology at Leicester University before moving to Hull. He was a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London and an honorary fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland.

He married first Olwen Hughes, a teacher and artist, with whom he had a son, Christopher; then Margaret O’Neil, a lecturer, with whom he had a son, Geoffrey; and finally Judith Lawson, an administrator at the University of Birmingham. She survives him.

• Harry Aubrey Woodruff Burl, writer and archaeologist, born 24 September 1926; died 8 April 2020


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