Colin Renfrew


2004 Balzan Prize for Prehistoric Archaeology

Andrew Colin Renfrew, Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn, is one of the most eminent personalities in the world of archaeology today. He is among the promoters of outstanding innovations in processual archaeology, author of a series of brilliant works on central themes in European and world prehistory that are marked by great interpretative acumen and have had a revolutionary impact. He has had, through his great intellectual depth and balanced critical vision, an almost unequalled influence in the world of Western archaeology, displaying an extraordinary capacity in organizing studies, promoting theoretical debate and raising awareness of the ethical aspects of the profession of archaeologist.

Colin Renfrew was born in Stockton-on-Tees and studied at the University of Cambridge, where he later became Disney Professor of Archaeology and founder and director of the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research. A member of various academies in Europe, he has been a Fellow of the British Academy since 1981 and was created a life peer in 1991. He holds honorary degrees from the universities of Sheffield, Athens, Southampton, Edinburgh and Liverpool, and has received numerous important international awards and prizes, including the Latsis Prize of the European Science Foundation. His excavations have been carried out not only in Great Britain, but more importantly in Greece from Saliagos to Sitagroi, Phylakopi, Markiani and Keros. He is among the most eminent personalities in the world of archaeology, and his research is marked by two exceptional characteristics: on the one hand, a powerful impact and influence on British, European and world archaeology that is unequalled among the scholars of his generation, both in terms of theoretical elaboration and brilliant concrete applications; on the other, critical ability and highly developed sensitivity to the demands of the discipline of archaeology. This is not considered from a point of view limited to one or more geographical areas, or one or more periods, but open to a conception that might be defined as universal. As a leading figure in the so-called “New Archaeology” in Britain, which is now commonly referred to as “processual archaeology”, he has been one of the most penetrating innovators in the field. Most of his works have become classics because of their extremely clear-sighted, precise contributions on broad themes approached with great perceptiveness and always sustained by a balanced preliminary critique of previous works, an exhaustive presentation of the methodological criteria adopted and a survey of future avenues of research.

His major works include: The Emergence of Civilisation. The Cyclades and the Aegean in the Third Millennium B.C. (1972); Before Civilisation: The Radiocarbon Revolution and Prehistoric Europe (1973: translated into Japanese, French, Spanish, Italian); Problems in European Prehistory (1979); Approaches to Social Archaeology (1984); Archaeology and Language. The Puzzle of Indo-European Origins (1987: translated into Italian, French, Spanish, Swedish, Norwegian, Japanese); Archaeology. Theories, Methods, and Practice (with P. Bahn: 1991: translated into Greek, Italian, Polish, Spanish); The Roots of Ethnicity: Archaeology, Genetics and the Origins of Europe (1993); Loot, Legitimacy and Ownership: The Ethical Crisis of Archaeology (2000), and the very recent Figuring it out: The Parallel Visions of Artists and Archaeologists (2003).
His contributions to the revival of European archaeology and Western archaeology in general have been unique and rigorous, but without the excesses of parallel American trends. A personality of great intellectual depth, balanced judgment and great influence in the field, he has, since the 1970s successfully applied the theory of systems in his brilliant analysis of the civilisations of the Cyclades of the third millennium B.C. Moreover, in his numerous writings on cultural change, which have always adopted a social perspective, he has been particularly effective in replacing the traditional classificatory method by an interpretative and explanatory approach. His acute chronological analyses have also had a great impact. Since the 1970s, scientific methods based on carbon-14 dating have made it possible to free important aspects and phases of European prehistory – especially in the Bronze Age – from the traditionally recognized precedence and influence of the great urban civilizations of the ancient Orient.

In the 1980s, Colin Renfrew pioneered more innovations in archaeological theory, with special attention to social archaeology and cognitive archaeology. He published a brilliant study on the problem of Indo-European origins, in which he established relationships between phases of economic development, technological innovation, social structure and demographic processes. The book re-opened the debate on an extraordinary, fascinating subject: the localization of the nucleus of the Indo-Europeans in eastern Anatolia, against the weight of traditional opinion, and the achievement of Indo-Europeans in agriculture and Neolithic sedentarization. Propounding a new view of the relationship between linguistics and archaeology, Colin Renfrew has suggested revolutionary solutions for the Indo-European problem. His most recent book on the parallel procedures of artists and archaeologists – an unusual subject for a professional archaeologist – is a study of great finesse, offering new points of view and unexpected reflections. The essential theme of the relationship between archaeology and the physical sciences, present ever since his initial research on obsidian in Anatolia, was later established on firm institutional grounds as well as on the level of the organization of research through the foundation of a laboratory of genetic research at the McDonald Institute. The Institute has always dealt with themes of great importance for prehistorical and historical research, like the population of the Pacific Ocean and the genetic prehistory of the domestication of the horse.

The fundamental integration of archaeology, paleoclimatology and genetics is the foundation upon which he guides research. As the author, with P. Bahn, of a successful manual of archaeology as a global discipline that reveals the open, universal vision that is inherent in it, Colin Renfrew has recently dedicated himself, on a political level as well, to the extremely important struggle against the sacking of archaeological sites, founding a centre devoted to this very serious problem for the cultural heritage of mankind. The centre has put a great deal of pressure on the government of the United Kingdom to sign the 1970 unesco Convention. Colin Renfrew has been a stimulating and unflagging driving force behind the theoretical debate on the function and methods of archaeology. He has also recently turned his attention to the study of the distinctive perspectives and traditions which the great extra-European civilisations, like China and India, employ when reflecting upon their own past.