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Thurstan Shaw was the last surviving member of a generation of pioneering archaeologists who began their careers in the British colonies in Africa and laid a foundation for the scientific study of the African past. He was posted from 1937–1944 to Achimota College, Gold Coast Colony (later, Ghana), and from 1960–1974, he taught at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria. In both places, Shaw's approach to building archaeological infrastructure was straightforward and remarkably effective: meticulous excavation and recording to establish key sites and sequences, public outreach through lectures and publications, and conscientious attention to building institutional and intellectual capacity. His efforts led to the establishment of Departments of Archaeology at both Legon and Ibadan, and he created the West African Archaeological Newsletter (1964–70), and its successor, the West African Journal of Archaeology. Three of the sites he excavated—Bosumpra Cave, Iwo Eleru, and Igbo Ukwu—remain enduringly influential due to his first-rate excavation procedures and extraordinarily detailed excavation reports and monographs. During his time in Africa, Shaw set a standard of professional practice that many admired and few would match.
Born in 1914 in Plymouth, and educated in Tiverton, Devon, Shaw was the son of an Anglican minister. Boyhood encounters with African clergymen who visited his father sparked his initial interest in Africa. Shaw went up to Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge in 1933, three years after he had begun participating in archaeological excavations at Hembury Fort under the direction of Dorothy Liddell, from whom he learned modern excavation techniques alongside Mary Nicol (later, Leakey). His peers at Cambridge included Desmond Clark and Bernard Fagg. Graduating in 1936 with a first-class degree in Archaeology and Anthropology, Shaw accepted a teaching post at Achimota College, where he arrived in 1937. In addition to teaching and overseeing the Anthropology Museum, Shaw was concerned to identify sites with potential to reveal significant archaeological sequences. He proposed the concept of a 'Guinea Neolithic' complex for the assemblage of pottery, microliths, and faceted and polished stone celts he uncovered at Bosumpra Cave in 1940. Two years later, he trenched a 7m-high midden (Dawu) dating to the historic period and initiated the systematic study of locally made African smoking pipes as chronological indicators. The excavation reports for both sites followed the characteristically detailed format that Shaw favoured, providing a wealth of information on artefact provenience and typological descriptions, accompanied by pages of drawings and photographs. On the basis of these and other published works, Cambridge awarded Shaw his Ph.D. in 1968.
After his wife was invalided home in 1944, Shaw returned to Cambridge, where he worked at the Institute of Education for 15 years. His return to teaching in Africa at the University of Ibadan was preceded by an invitation to excavate at Igbo Ukwu in south-eastern Nigeria. The stunning finds in 1959–60 included a variety of bronzes of 'Fabergé-like virtuosity' and a burial adorned with over 100 000 glass and carnelian beads and a copper crown. Dated to the end of the first millennium AD, the Igbo Ukwu bronzework and pottery showed few stylistic similarities to the later Ife and Benin material. The tradition's origins and development remain obscure. Shaw was keenly aware of the extraordinary nature of these discoveries and took great care to document the excavations and the primary data in a two-volume monograph with over 500 plates published in 1970. A shorter, general account of the excavations (Unearthing Igbo Ukwu) followed in 1977, which brought the discoveries to a wider readership. They continue to fascinate and amaze. In 1972, the traditional title of Onu N'ekwulu Ora Igboukwu (the voice that speaks for Igbo Ukwu) was conferred on Shaw. That same year, his accomplishments were recognised by appointment as CBE. He was honoured again by the Igbo people in 1989 with the chiefly title Onuna Ekwulu Nri and Onyafuonka of Igboland, a truly extraordinary honour that reflects the high esteem in which he was held.
As Professor of Archaeology at Ibadan, Shaw recruited talented Nigerians and Europeans to the archaeology section of the Institute of African Studies, which led in 1970 to the creation of a new, well-equipped Department of Archaeology that soon became one of the best centres for archaeological research and training in Africa. He gave lectures and radio broadcasts on Nigerian prehistory and edited the newly created West African Journal of Archaeology. He pursued his quest for key sites to excavate, settling on Iwo Eleru rockshelter for its potential to illuminate the prehistory of human occupation in the forest zone. With a date sequence covering much of the Holocene (11 000–3500 uncal BP), and extensive monographic publication, Iwo Eleru remains one of the most important and informative Late Stone Age sites in West Africa. The human skeleton found in the earliest level shows an interesting mix of modern and archaic traits and continues to figure in discussions of the evolution of anatomically modern humans in Africa.
Shaw retired to Cambridge in 1974, but remained active in publishing and professional service. His splendid overview of Nigerian archaeology for Thames & Hudson appeared in 1978, and he served as President of the Prehistoric Society from 1986–1990. He was an outspoken opponent of apartheid and an active participant in the first World Archaeological Congress in 1986. An important and influential volume of African archaeology papers from that conference was jointly edited by Shaw and published in 1993. He received the Gold Medal of the Society of Antiquaries in 1990 and was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 1991. The death of his wife, Ione, in 1992 marked the end of his scholarly writing, and he donated his academic library to the Institute of Archaeology at UCL. In 2004, he married Pamela Jane Smith, a historian of archaeology, who is his literary executrix.
Throughout his retirement, he continued to welcome friends and colleagues to his home outside Cambridge and maintained a remarkable network of relationships. All who knew him cherished his warmth, encouragement, and kindness.
The following tribute to Thurstan Shaw is from Caleb Adebayo Folorunso, Professor of Archeology and Anthropology at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria:
"Erin wooooooo Erin ko le dide." The Elephant has fallen the Elephant cannot rise up. The Iroko tree has fallen. Roll the drums out, let the trumpets sound. Let the streets of Cambridge and the campus of University of Ibadan and indeed the whole community of World Archaeology hear, Professor Thurstan Shaw, the founding Head of Department of Archaeology at University of Ibadan, has answered the call of the ancestors and he has joined the ancestors. Peter Ucko is playing host, Bassey has received a guest, Ekpo Eyo has embraced, John Alexander has shook hands, Desmond Clark, Ray Inskeep, Mary Leakey, Louis Leakey, Glynn Isaac, A.J.H. Goodwin and Frank Willett have joined the welcoming team. It was a glorious exit as Pamela Jane bids Thurstan farewell and the host of the archaeology ancestors gathered to welcome Thurstan to eternity. Thurstan passed on to eternity in the morning of Friday 8 March 2013 at the ripe age of almost 99 years old in Cambridge. "Ajanaku to mi igbo kiji kiji, okunrin ogun, ore ile awon alawo dudu, oko Pamela Jane, ti o ba de orun ki o se orun ire, ma je okun, ma je ekolo, ohun ti won ba nje ni orun ni ko ba won je, sun re o". The great man the shakes the forest, the man of war, friend of the African continent, when you get to heaven enjoy heaven, don't eat worms, whatever they eat in heaven that you shall eat, sleep well.