The real Peggy Piggot

International Women’s Day (IWD) is a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women. Following the release of Netflix’s ‘The Dig’ earlier this year, it seems fitting to celebrate an archaeologist from the story of Sutton Hoo, that some have argued may have been misrepresented in the film – esteemed female archaeologist Cecily Margaret Guido (Peggy Piggot). ULAS archaeologist Georgia Day finds out more…

Peggy Piggott (left) pictured examining pieces from an archaeological dig before she joined the Sutton Hoo excavation in 1939. She is played in a new Netflix drama by Lily James (right). Image: School of Archaeology, University of Oxford / Netflix / Hampshire Live.

Born in 1912, the year after the first IWD gathering, Cecily Margaret Guido (née Preston) was born in Beckenham, Kent. Her family home was situated in West Wickham on the line of a Roman road, however, after her father drowned when she was eight her mother re-married and Peggy was brought up by an aunt. Peggy displayed an interest in archaeology during her formative years, with a particular interest in Roman coins. As a young woman she met and excavated with Mortimer Wheeler and his wife, Tessa Verney Wheeler, spending her 21st birthday on site and excavating the Roman town of Verulamium. Peggy was especially fond of Tessa, dedicating her glass beads monograph to her memory. She graduated from the University of Cambridge in 1934 with her first degree, then called a ‘diploma for women’. She went on to study archaeology at the Institute of Archaeology in London, where she was awarded a postgraduate diploma in Western European Prehistory. It was during her time studying for her postgraduate diploma that she met her first husband, Stuart Piggott.

Peggy Piggott when she was aged 23 examining objects from an excavation with archaeologist E. Cecil Curwen. Image: School of Archaeology, University of Oxford.

Peggy began her professional career by working on the British early Iron Age, writing up the rescue excavation of an Early Iron Age site at Southcote, Berkshire, which appeared in the Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society in 1937, and publishing the pottery from Iron Age Theale the following year. She worked on The Prehistoric Society’s first research excavation at Little Woodbury, Wiltshire in 1938-39, alongside Gerhard Bersu. In 1939 she also published work on the Early Iron Age site at Langton Matravers, Dorset, which greatly enhanced knowledge of a period that at that time had only just begun to be understood.

It was also during 1939 that Peggy worked as a skilled excavator on the Anglo-Saxon boat burial at Sutton Hoo alongside Charles Phillips. Unlike her portrayal on ‘The Dig’, Peggy was already an experienced archaeologist at this time and, heavily involved in this high profile excavation. She had directed her first excavation two years previously, at the Middle Bronze Age barrow and urnfield cemetery at Latch Farm, Hampshire, providing a significant contribution to the gazetteer of cremation urns known for the period with the publication of her work.

Peggy Piggott (left) directed the excavation of the Bronze Age urnfield cemetery at Latch Farm near Christchurch in 1937. Image: The Christchurch Times, 2/10/1937

In the years following her time working at Sutton Hoo she produced an average of two publications each year for notable regional societies and often for the national journal, Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society.  She published works on several important Bronze Age monuments including Enclosures in Wiltshire, stone circles in Dorset and barrows in Hampshire and Wiltshire. By the end of the war Peggy focused her work on understanding prehistoric linear earthwork sites in Hampshire and to producing a detailed study of the Grim’s Ditch earthwork complex (Wiltshire). In the late 1940’s she focused on the Late Bronze Age period and began producing specialist artefact reports, most notably a report on a Late Bronze Age metalwork hoard from Blackrock, Sussex. Peggy was awarded funding by the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland to test the model of Iron Age settlement development in southern Scotland in response to a Council for British Archaeology policy statement regarding the misleading nature of settlement classification from surface remains. She tested and refined the CBA model over a period of three years during three excavations and, provided a relative chronological framework for later prehistoric settlement in southern Scotland.

Peggy became one of the most important British prehistorians during the late 1940’s and early 50’s, excavating six hill forts during this time and her work on these is considered some of her most influential. Her work on Hownam Rings in 1948 became the type-site for hillfort development and her ‘Hownam Paradigm’ remains valid today. Another piece of her work to become a modern standard is the reconstruction drawing of the Hayhope roundhouse. Peggy was elected Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries in London in 1944, at age 32, on the strength of her contribution to British prehistory. Two years later she also became Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland.

During the 1950’s Peggy began working on recording the positions of finds on plans and considering ritual deposits, laying the foundation for modern settlement studies through her excavation strategy and work on hillforts and roundhouses. During this period she published on a number of English sites including the hilltop site of Carl Wark (Sheffield), the Dorchester-on-Thames Neolithic complex and an Iron Age barrow burial (Hampshire), alongside continuing her fieldwork in Scotland. She then worked on what has been argued to be her most technically skilled excavation, the crannog site of Milton Lock (Dumfried and Galloway) with its’ well preserved timber roundhouse.

In 1954 Peggy produced one of her final field reports for British Prehistory, a note on cermics from a dun on Tiree, during the year that her relationship with Stuart Piggot ended. She subsequently moved to Sicily and reverted to her maiden name, which appears on a translation she and her second husband made of Bernabo Brea’s ‘Sicily Before Greeks’. Over the following two decades she produced four guidebooks on Italian archaeology, alongside reviews of notable Italian archaeological works for the British journal Antiquity.

She returned to archaeology during the 1970’s, researching glass beads and subsequently publishing her first volume on ancient British glass beads in 1978. This first volume was dedicated to the prehistoric and Roman periods, after which she started work on a second Anglo-Saxon volume. In 1981 she co-founded the Bead Study Trust and the Guido Fund for Research on Beads. She went on to produce dozens of specialist reports on beads for sites throughout Britain and both her published volumes remain primary references for works on these topics.

Cecily Margaret Guido (1912-1994). Image: Wikipedia.

Throughout her life and career Peggy worked on a large number of sites and, produced reports and publications that not only laid the foundations for modern interpretations of archaeology, but are still used as primary resources and examples of the standard of work that we should all strive to produce. While her portrayal in the recent film adaptation of Sutton Hoo is one of a young, inexperienced and bumbling woman, her reality was far greater. Her work is celebrated across the globe, and has influenced modern day archaeology and archaeologists, more than many know.

Hello, I’m Georgia! I have worked in the archaeology sector for the last five years, in post-ex, fieldwork and consultancy and I am currently employed as an archaeological assistant with ULAS.

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