Today we learned of the death at the weekend of our friend and colleague, ceramic specialist Nigel Macpherson Grant.
Nigel’s engagement with Thanet’s archaeology ran long and deep, from his early years at the Powell-Cotton Museum, excavations at Lord of the Manor from the 1970’s and many years sharing the expertise on archaeological ceramics he built up in Thanet and Canterbury.
In later years Nigel’s invaluable contribution to the Trust for Thanet Archaeology was to organise the ceramic material in our archaeological collection at the Antoinette Centre into an exeptional learning resource, giving depth to the information that can be gained from material stored.
With his knowledge and vision the Trusts ceramic collection was honed into a learning tool, with the best material reserved for special collections and teaching packs and even the humblest body sherd repurposed for inclusion into home learning packs and broader teaching resources.
The Ceramic Thanet project was born from this resource, to provide outreach events and opportunities to see and understand developments in ceramic technology over the span of prehistory and historic periods.
Nigel was determined that his role was to pave the way for future regional ceramic studies by organising an archive of exemplary material and passing on his knowledge of reading that material.
For Nigel studying ceramics was a gateway to the ancient past, a way to feel and experience the hands of the craftpeople that formed them. With an unfamiliar sherd in his hands he would say ‘I know you’ and wait for that past meeting to return to him.
Nigel’s mind can now engage with the ancient potters in the talking-halls of whatever our destined-ancestral-realm may be, learning of their benches, wheels and potters lore.
Those of us that remain in the physical world have the legacy of the order he brought to the Trusts Ceramic Thanet Learning resource, so we can try to gain some degree of his understanding of the material he came to know with familiarity and friendship.
The task will never be finished.
Nigel was a major contributor to the Trust’s VM_365 project, where a daily post on Thanet’s archaeology was made every day for a year.
Follow the link to the Prehistoric Pottery index for VM_365 to browse Nigel’s unique contribution to the study of archaeology in Thanet:
You will find links below to comments and appreciations of Nigel’s life collected from his large community of friend and colleagues. Each one describing encounters and engagements with this unique character. Each is filed under a category for the general nature of the encounter, or perhaps Nigel would have it, encounter related category.
To contribute a record of an encounter with Nigel, or a piece of his writing that you found useful of interesting email: email@example.com
Please use one of the following general titles; In his own words (for quotations from himself), Friend, Mentor, Intellect (he was never really an academic as such), Magus. We will link the texts as PDF documents below, under the titles. We will also combine the comments at intervals into one file and in due course we aim to edit and produce a book of tributes from these comments.
In his own words
The first link is to a piece Nigel wrote for the Isle of Thanet Archaeological Society Bulletin in his capacity as president of IOTAS. The piece is about his motivation for doing archaeology. A typical multi layered and complex piece of writing which sets the tone for much of his wider ranging dscussions on ceramics and archaeology in general:
Why do I not, at the age of 73, sit back, wiggle my toes and twiddle my thumbs? Well, I do a bit these days – I like my breathing spaces! There is, for me though, a pleasure in my drawing work and analysis – and when I get a new batch of pottery from someone, it’s a bit like Christmas or birthdays…
A self explanatory title to record all those moments of fun.
Seems like we were so young when I met Nigel 48 years ago, an event that I can, strangely, still remember, because that meeting started an enduring, valuable friendship which we maintained even as our lives took their own courses. In those early days he already had significant archaeological knowledge and understood its value, but was also an avid reader, keen to entertain and share new ideas. Together we explored experimental approaches to work and travelled, visiting a range of ancient sites, to experience for ourselves a living sense of history. Even in those days, his characteristic sandals and roll ups were omni-present through wind, rain and, yes, snow, whether in the mountains of Scotland or the bottom of a soggy ditch at a dig! (The denim jacket came after the sheepskin gilet!) His depth of interests and commitment to his subject, blended with an impish humour made him a very special soul right to the end. Connecting with Nigel help set a course for my own life so I have much to thank him for, as I am sure many others do too! I feel privileged to have had him as a friend, and will miss him greatly.
Vanessa and John Ray
Nigel first contacted me in the late 1960s, when he was working at Quex, asking me to go on a dig with him at Stonar and, of course we have both had a lot of contact with him over the years since then. It was good to see his article in the May IOTAS Bulletin and we always rather admired him for being the individual he was.
One special memory comes to mind, when we were digging at St. Stephens around 1999 Vanessa picked some blackberries there and made jam with them. She gave Nigel a pot and you’d have thought she’d given him the best present ever!
One other memory Vanessa just mentioned was again back to the St. Stephens site. There were any number of rubbish pits on the site some of which contained masses of broken shards of pottery. Vanessa was given the job of excavated one such pit and later joined by two young ladies studying for an archaeology degree at Kent University. They quickly established how much better they were than Vanessa who was a mere amateur and kept quoting ‘Macpherson-Grant’ with every shard uncovered. They had obviously read the book but had no idea of who Nigel was so as he was nearby Vanessa called across to him ‘Nigel would you come and talk to these two girls who keep quoting you’. Nigel happily came over to two very ‘open-mouthed’ young ladies who were lost for words which caused Vanessa much amusement.
I first met “Nig the Dig” in about 1975 in the old blue caravan at Lord of the Manor and well remember having far ranging off the wall conversation about History and other things , the smell of his roll-your-own ” special Baccy” still lingers in my nostrils. There was no box that could contain his searching intellect and I look back on the friendship we had with pleasure. A gentle man whose company is something we shall all miss.
I first met Nigel back in the long, hot summer of 1976 when, during my two weeks holiday from work, I volunteered at the first Lord of the Manor dig. On my first day Nigel directed me to a section of ditch and introduced me to another first-timer – David Perkins. We scratched away for an hour or so under the blazing sun which reflected back into our faces off the white chalk. It was hard on wrists and knees but we stuck at it and slowly our finds tray filled up with some interesting bits and pieces. We were feeling very pleased with our efforts. Nigel came over and peered at the tray. He picked pieces up one by one and one by one they were thrown over his shoulder. He apologised in his gentle manner, his soft voice lessening the blow that our section really wasn’t very interesting. Our paths crossed on and off over the years, but he was always the same. I remember him arriving on our doorstep one very snowy day in the late 1990s still in his sandals! When we told our daughter about his death (she was a member of the local YAC in the 1990s and had met him), she remembered the sandals clearly. In act it was the sandals and hat that helped me recognise him in a queue in Turner Contemporary about a year ago. The last time I met Nigel was towards the end of March this year, in Margate, looking just the same, if a little greyer, than back in 1976. Nigel was a gentleman and if his hat had been easier to doff, I’m sure he would have always raised it to a lady.
Nigel was one of those unassuming people whose outward appearance belied their intellect. I didn’t have as much contact with him as many of you have done, but he would always engage and share knowledge at whatever level was required. We all know that his contribution to the archaeology of Kent and beyond, both published and by the spoken word was outstanding. We have lost a lost a true professor of our craft. Where ever he has gone to, may he take a well earned rest.
I first met Nigel back in 2014 after contacting him about some prehistoric sherds found in the cliff falls near Reculver. I knew of Nigel’s work from CAT and that he was extremely well respected in the archaeological world – as a ceramic enthusiast myself I think it’s fair to say I was a bit of a secret super-fan of his! Surprisingly, he invited me to meet up at his flat to look over the finds, finally I had met someone who understood my passion for pottery and was more than willing to share his knowledge and expertise. I still remember him first asking me why “pottery turned me on” without the slightest smirk on his face! It was at this point I not only gained a mentor but a dear friend, we spent many days pondering over a new assemblage with a coffee in one hand and a custard cream in the other. Every few months we would meet up at his (once he even came to Canterbury!) and would both bring the latest finds to the table, I would then take him over to Parkers Diner cafe for his favourite feast – it wasn’t only pottery that gave a ‘twinkle’ to his eye! We messaged most weeks about all sorts of pottery related topics, helping me ID some of the stranger sherds, or simply to tell me of the latest psychedelic film he had got his hands on. Nigel’s passion, knowledge and dedication to the world of archaeological ceramics was (and is) completely unprecedented, to say he will be missed both as a mentor and a friend is a complete understatement. Nigel’s love and expertise was not only of the highest calibre but sometimes ‘other worldly’, he used to say that each sherd could tell a story of our ancestors and in some way “was alive and had it’s own individual soul”. They would literally talk to him, I can see him now glaring at a battered sherd with his duplex while tapping it with his finger nail… “I know you!!” he would say! And Nigel, it was a pleasure to know you my friend. I’ll continue to do whatever I can to keep your gigantuous legacy alive. You taught me so much and through your publications, the many letters & reports you sent me, and of course our last ‘lessons’ of drawing techniques, I will carry on learning and keeping that passion alive. I can almost here him now, with that infamous Scottish accent he would put on when I got a ceramic ID correct – “Ai laddy, I think ya have it there…”. RIP NMG x
I met Nigel for the first time just 18 months ago on what I expected to be a brief day of data collection for my PhD research. I took a selection of pottery along with me for him to peruse whilst I recorded his selection and he exclaimed it was ‘the greatest gift I could have brought him!’ Within minutes, we had bonded over our love of tiny sherds and Nigel immediately took me under his wing and became both a wonderful mentor, but also a very dear friend to me. As I write this, next to me sits a handwritten letter Nigel recently sent to me, telling me of his thoughts about a particularly intriguing handful of pottery sherds we had discussed back in July 2019 that had been playing on his mind. Very few people have such passion about something that they will return to a brief conversation months later wanting to delve deeper. Nigel and I shared a view that even the tiniest, grottiest fragments of pottery which others may cast aside have their individual charm and place in connecting us to our Ancestors’. I will always be indebted to Nigel for his kindness and never-ending support and guidance; nothing was too much trouble for him. My PhD would not be possible without Nigel’s great legacy and contribution to Kentish Archaeology and I hope that my thesis about his favourite subject, Kentish pottery, will be my small way to pay tribute to him. Nigel and his gentle charisma will be greatly missed by all of us.
This section records Nigel’s contribution to intellectual development:
Nigel was indeed an amazing person, his contribution to archaeology was just incredible and the whole archaeological community will really miss him. Even though I was never well enough to work with him as much as I would have liked, I feel so privileged to have been able to work with him a little. We were indeed blessed to have known him. A friend as well as a mentor, so patient and knowledgeable, he taught me so much. The words that come to mind are gentle, knowledgeable, patient, kind, sense of humour, what must have been his favourite word ‘twinkle’ and of course the sandals and the hat. All of these apply to Nigel, and many more. His contribution to archaeology was just incredible and the whole archaeology community will really miss him.
In 2010 Nigel befriended some amateurs who had found potsherds on the muddy edges of the Thames estuary, mostly Iron Age material but also some Roman. I was one of these novices. We have since benefitted massively from Nigel’s willingness to share his vast knowledge andenthusiasm for ceramics and Kentish archaeology in general. More recently he has been helping to produce a report resulting from a foreshore archaeology project, to be illustrated by some of his excellent drawings and to be submitted later this year for publication. Mentor, magus and friend. Thank you Nigel for everything,we could not have done it without you.
Nigel was one of the first people I worked with at the Trust for Thanet Archaeology and he taught me so much about all sorts of artefacts and technical skills which I was able to use in my studies. I received helpful career advice from Nigel as well, he was a very kind mentor and I will always remember his great sense of humour and his colourful hat. Although I did not know him for a long time, I feel privileged to have met him and I am so grateful to be able to write this message.
Under this title we can collect appreciations of Nigel’s intellectual contribution to Ceramic studies and archaeology.
Vera and Trevor Gibbons
Reading the tribute to Nigel in the Isle of Thanet News [June16 2020] illustrated with Timandra’s beautiful images of Nigel in more recent times. The photo of Nigel, Timandra and Snoopy the dog at Lord of the Manor in1976, immediately brought back memories of meeting a tall, curly haired teenager in the mid1960s at the Powell Cotton Museum who was assisting Antoinette Powell-Cotton with her archaeology of Minnis Bay. We were helping ‘Tony’P-C with measuring and drawing artefacts of the Belgic wells. However we occasionally found ourselves assisting in excavating the Mediaeval pits with Nigel under ‘Tony’P-C’s guidance.
The only real memory we have of Nigel, all those years ago, is driving him home to his grandmother’s cottage on the outskirts of Sandwich near Richborough Castle.
Early on he was intrigued by the pottery samples from the Neolthic period found at extreme low tides, not only pottery sherds but the scattering of flint activity. [Even trying his hand at knapping to replicate the process!]. The result of this early research at the age of 21 was the article he successfully managed to get published in Archaeologia Cantiana [Vol.84 1969 ‘Two Neolithic Bowls from Birchington’]
From 1969 to 1971 he turned his interest to the Mediaeval pits, new discoveries were being made by ‘Tony’P-C and Nigel along the foreshore of Minnis Bay to the west. Nigel was seriously studying archaeology by this time and the Med pits of Minnis Bay became his main research, reassessing the individual pits and wells and re-indexing all the artefacts. He was in discussion with experts of the time to produce an informed analysis. He produced many drawings of artefacts to illustrate a set of draft documents being considered for publication.
40 years later, coinciding with Nigel being involved at PCM to advise on the archaeology collections of the museum, we had returned as volunteers to decipher ‘Tony’P-C’s field books and indexing. In 2015 we were introduced to a tall man in his late 60s wearing a colourful beanie hat. Embarrassment all round trying to recognise each other! A few anecdotes of times past soon brought recognition.
A year or so later he paid several visits with Paul Hart to Powell-Cotton Museum to give us expert advice on the work we were doing. His enthusiasm and willingness to explain in detail the importance of the Minnis Bay sherds and finite dating and manufacture was amazing to behold….starting with the full finger tap and snip, of course, to give confirmation.
He was so gentle and compassionate, it was a delight as we sat outside eating our lunches whilst he smoked, to share with him our memories of the late 60s and early 70s. We had hoped to meet up again with Nigel this year to discuss his Mediaeval pits, however we have all his notes and intend, as part of the Mediaeval catalogue we are compiling, to add an appendix to Nigel’s early work.
Once again thank you Nigel for adding credence to our catalogue entries. We are proud to have watched you perform and been able to publish the material as part of the museums ‘Access to Information’ that you endorsed.
Little did I know that when I met Nigel MacPherson-Grant, to talk about my dissertation on Thanet’s Bronze Age Beakers, he would become such an inspiration to me. The passion that exuded from him always made it a pleasure to be in his company; each time we met I came away with a sense of being on a high – the infectious Nigel magic. He welcomed me with open arms, and was always happy to take the time to share his remarkable knowledge with me – particularly that of Beaker ceramics and artefact drawing. Without his input and generosity of information my dissertation would not have been so much of a success – I am eternally grateful. It truly was an honour and a privilege to have known him. Thank you Nigel, you were remarkable.
Nigel was a brilliant man who contributed an enormous amount. He has established a whole discipline and put together a massive body of information that all of us working in archaeology in Kent have benefitted from. He was also a very kind man and such fun to talk to (nothing was ever off limits, especially polychrome Mid Iron Age ware!). What will we do without him? Seriously. I’m so sad.
I first came across N Mc G way, way back, must have been about 1979. I became old, grumpy and crippled HE didn’t change, really annoying. A bit greyer, but that was all (admittedly it I hadn’t seen him for the last two years or so). A really nice bloke (at least he was with me). He was mad mind, especially at the time of the full moon, back in the 80s or it may have been the 90s he went and lived on top of an Irish mountain. His knowledge was incredible and he would actually explain things about pottery to me. Because I know nothing about pottery, or any other artefact come to that, I didn’t just ask him to date the pot sherds I gave him, I also asked him to bag up the different types of sherd separately into date/type. Some of that bagged material has gone to the Faversham Society for their archive and another load should have gone, years ago, to Tenterden Museum (my apologies), it will eventually arrive. Other stuff … who knows where that will go, but it should go somewhere as part of a (?county wide?) memorial to N Mc G. He is usually thought of as a prehistoric and early medieval pottery specialist, but his knowledge of post-medieval pottery was also out of this world. With all the material I asked him to look at I don’t think he was ever stumped. I always told him he under charged. He charged for all his knowledge by the quarter hour! I keep saying I need to live until I am 105 to get stuff written down, with Nigel if he had lived until he was 125 it still would not have been long enough for him to share all his knowledge with us.
Stringless John’s Happy Memories of Nigel Macpherson-Grant
1971, Northdown School, Cliftonville. On the adjoining St Anthony’s School, an arrowhead had been found (information from teacher Brenda Hill). On this new building site I picked up a potsherd but di not realise what it was. Luckily my ‘eureka’ moment came when reading (in Jessup’s ‘Archaeology of Kent’) that ancient pottery was ‘bound with grit’. Speedily back to the site, I found curious red lumps in the soil section by the car park. Taking them up to Brian Philp, he noticed stick impressions in the burnt clay (from a wattle and daub structure). Nigel came over from Quex to do an exploratory dig (with enthusiastic backing from headmaster Alan Profitt). A grid of squares and trenches revealed a complete clay loomweight and fragments of a second. Nigel did not proceed further, but Mr Profitt dug another square later on, finding large brown flint flakes which fit together. A tranché arrowhead also emerged, plus a barbed example nearby.
1971, Dumpton Gap, Roger Malcolm’s Housing estate. Pending Tim Champion’s dig on part of the site, Nigel was monitoring the sewer trenches. Two deep Iron Age pits had been sliced, one had been used for the storage of clay.
1971, Stonar. Nigel was recording this scheduled medieval site in advance of gravel digging. I joined him just twice, finding sherds of green ‘Saintonge’ ware and a mortar of mendip marble.
1970’s (‘St. Nicholas at Wade’?) While lodging in Bromley, my landlord sold me a ‘Roman Urn’, allegedly ploughed up ‘near St. Nicholas’ during the war. Nigel acquired this plough marked urn.
1985, Cobbs Brewery, Margate. Iron Age pottery had been found (during McCarthy and Stone’s flats development). Nigel showed me that some of the sherds had faint traces of a geometric design. A real revelation.
1998, Police Offices, Fort Hill, Margate. David Perkins’ brief dig on the remainder of the Cobb site was continued by Harold Tipton and myself, any finds passing to the Trust for Thanet Archaeology. A wide circular pit (with access ramp flanked by a pair of post holes) yielded part of an Iron Age Urn with curvilinear decoration. Nigel was delighted.
2002, Trinity Square, Margate. By chance I joined Nigel at SWAT’s dig on the west half of the square. I found the articulated spine of a large hound (?). In one deep pit Nigel excavated a male skeleton surrounded by animal bones. He identified a sliver of worked flint as part of a leaf shaped arrow head.
2012, Lord of the Manor Ramsgate. Nigel led this IOTAS project (revisiting his work of the 1970’s). He called me ‘Stringless John’ because my sections were cut by eye (no stringline). There had already been a ‘star find’ of an arrow head (by a beginner). On the final day, Nigle noticed the edge of a worked flint just visible in my section. Overjoyed he extracted a flint knife.
2020 Nigel wanted to draw a decorated pot fragment that I hold from the Cobbs site. Sadly this will not be fulfilled by Nigel. Hopefully his example will inspire others to follow in his footsteps.
Nigel was one of those characters who makes you wish you had known him years earlier. He came into my life late on but the impact was immediate and the first impression is probably the lasting one. Tall, quietly spoken but with authority, silver haired and sandals, always sandals.
He kindly wrote an article on, what else, pottery for my first edition of the Society magazine Earthworm Winter 2011 in a style that was quite new to me – almost other worldy – but it made the pottery appear almost alive. Nigel engendered an interest in pottery in me that continues. He wrote a longer account on the Lord of the Manor dig for the Spring 2013 edition and his second pottery article “Every Pot has a Story to Tell” for the Winter 2013 issue. The Society rooms have a long composite picture of a pottery display (from Tivoli) he did in 2016 which is a good memorial to a gifted but unassuming man.
This is the title to record a little of the Nigel magic we all encountered.
My first encounter with the Nigel was when I was volunteering on my first archaeological excavation, at the site of the Asda superstore in Broadstairs in 1999 (having helped out a little on the evaluation the previous year). I well remember this tall, striking, Gandalf-like figure, who one day suddenly appeared alongside the Trust for Thanet Archaeology’s Director Dave Perkins, wandered easily around the site, Dave handing him pottery fresh from the ground, which the mysterious stranger must have communed with, for somehow, magically, he would tell us its date. His work done, he disappeared, probably with a puff of smoke. I was thoroughly inspired and though having had no interest or appreciation of pottery up to that point, it spurred a great desire to know more and to learn how this magical skill was achieved. In the following years I was fortunate to have the opportunity to get to know Nigel, someone who I considered to be one of the living legends of Thanet and Kent archaeology (though he certainly wouldn’t have liked me saying so!).
Most of [the Historical Research Group of Sittingbourne], have only known Nigel from about 2015. But every time we showed Nigel our medieval pottery from Bredhurst it was as if we had laid sweets in front of a young lad and he would flit from one exciting piece to another, re-arranging the pieces and enjoying the excitement of discovering each piece, oblivious of the world around him, just for a minute. Nigel would always correct us if we called him a ‘pottery expert’, insisting he was a pottery ‘specialist’. Whatever Nigel thought he should be called, a rose by another other name is still a rose…we will miss our pottery specialist!
Nigel and I had many wide-ranging discussions. Sometimes we spoke in depth about archaeology and his particular field of ceramics. More often than not this was returned to after a series of long digressions, lasting months or years.
I like to think Nigel and I originally connected over a shared passion for archaeological illustration. Nigel’s ceramic illustrations were exquisite. And produced as if by magic. In order to produce a half decent drawing I have a plush office chair, large drawing board and a light costing 200 quid. Not to mention the expensive pens and of course the permatrace in case I make a frequent mistake. Nigel did not need any of this. He used to draw standing up (quite a feat for such a tall man), using basic materials and natural daylight. I have in front of me some sketches that Nigel sent of Kentish Collared Urns, as he was keen to build a drawn archive of prehistoric pottery from Thanet. They are beautiful, the attention to detail is outstanding and I will treasure them. It was a pleasure to spend time with Nigel looking at Kentish prehistoric pottery. Those occasions were all too few. I liked Nigel’s analogy that each new batch of pottery was ‘a bit like Christmas or birthdays’. The tiniest featureless crumb of pottery (so often the curse of the pottery analyst who is trying to come up with a spot date), was an opportunity for Nigel to shake hands with the potter, and to marvel and offer respect to our rich heritage. It was also fun coming up with unconventional descriptions to describe the texture of pottery. A stunning collection of Collared Urns could have a ‘cottage cheese’ consistency (my description). Nigel preferred a ‘coarse swollen muesli-type, although ‘as muesli can be a bit flat and laminate cottage cheese might be preferable’. Nigel’s observations and attention to detail even extended to the humble cereal. He was a unique gentle giant, who has left a great legacy. There was so much more he wanted to achieve, and it is hoped his legacy will continue. He will be missed.
Nigel and I had many archaeological sit-downs and discussions over the years about various sites and pots, debates that went on for months, even years…but the memories that will endure are the numerous trips to Cliftonville…the many happy hours shared, talking archaeology, philosophy, politics, sorting life’s problems, often in the cafe, usually over sausage and chips, and always with good humour. Nigel was much more than the go-to guy for pottery; he was one of those rare individuals who, through his values and attitudes, served as an example. He was an inspiration who influenced my thinking, both personally and professionally, far more than he probably realised and, most importantly, he was my friend.