Acceptance Speech – Rome, 18.11.2004


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.

Mr. President,

Your Excellencies,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

To be the recipient of the 2004 Balzan Prize for Prehistoric Archaeology, here in the Accademia dei Lincei, is a great honour and one for which I am deeply grateful. It is an honour which has meaning for me in several different ways.

In the first place, there is gratitude for the recognition which the Balzan Prize Committee has accorded to the subject of Prehistoric Archaeology by its selection of this as one of the academic fields for the 2004 Balzan Prize. For the techniques of archaeology have been developing in recent years to the extent that it is just beginning to be possible to sketch a broad outline of the origins of humankind, from those remote ancestral apes of several million years ago, through our more proximate hominid ancestors to the emergence of our own species, Homo sapiens sapiens, in Africa more than 100,000 years ago and to its subsequent dispersals. The study of prehistory can go on to tell the story of the sedentary revolution and the origins of food production some 10,000 years ago, apparently through processes working independently in different parts of the world, and then to the rich and varying trajectories of development leading in different ways to different kinds of complex society and different civilisations, and to the inception of literacy in several places. If you seek to ask: ‘What is it to be human?’, then prehistoric archaeology can begin to provide you with the outline of an answer, although there is still much that we do not know or do not understand about the origins and nature of the human condition. It is gratifying that, by its choice of subject, the Balzan Prize Committee has recognised this.

My own interest in the subject was greatly kindled when, at the age of 12, I first had the pleasure of visiting Italy with my parents, and we visited Cerveteri and then Tarquinia and discovered (from our point of view) the Etruscans. Some years later, as an undergraduate at Cambridge, reading Natural Sciences, I had the pleasure of following a summer course in Etruscology at the Università per Stranieri in Perugia, at which that distinguished archaeologist, and subsequently winner of the 1984 Balzan Prize for Altertumswissenschaften or Sciences of Antiquity, Professor Massimo Pallottino, was one of the teachers. When I changed to Archaeology in Cambridge my own researches took me to Greece to investigate the emergence of civilisation in the Aegean, and so it was a great pleasure to see Professor Pallottino again in these very rooms at the Accademia dei Lincei in January 1993 where I had been invited to deliver a paper on ‘The Roots of Ethnicity’.

Prehistoric archaeology today has an increasing engagement with neighbouring disciplines in the sciences as well as the humanities. It has been my own good fortune to collaborate profitably with some first-class scholars in those disciplines to investigate such topics as the reconstruction of prehistoric trade routes by characterisation analysis, the impact of the radiocarbon revolution on European prehistory, the controversial origins of the Indo-European language family, and the application of molecular genetics to the reconstruction of demographic history. Recently I have been concerned with the development of what has been termed cognitive archaeology, a subject which I believe has an eventful future. But archaeology also has a political dimension, and recently membership of the upper house of the British parliament has allowed me to encourage legislation to protect the cultural heritage and to work against the continuing destruction of that heritage through the looting of ancient sites to provide antiquities for the private collector, the unethical museum director and the unscrupulous dealer. Here it is public opinion and the press which have crucial roles to play.

So it gives me additional pleasure today to receive this prize, named to commemorate a great champion of a free and independent press, Eugenio Balzan; to do so here in the Eternal City, so central to European and world history, and in the rooms of the Lincei, one of the very earliest societies in the world for the promotion of scientific and interdisciplinary research. It is a great encouragement to the study of Prehistoric Archaeology and so, I hope, to furthering our shared understanding of the human condition.

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