A celebration for the archaeologist who broke new ground on ancient Scotland

The life’s work of an archaeologist who transformed the understanding of ancient Scotland will be celebrated this spring.

By Alison Campsie
Monday, 24th January 2022, 4:55 am

Dr Anna Ritchie, 78, from Edinburgh, is highly regarded for her work on both the Neolithic and Pictish era, with several breakthrough excavations to her name.

Her achievements will be marked with a conference in her honour in March, with the event organised by The Scottish Society for Northern Studies (SSNS) and the Pictish Arts Society (PAS).

Dr Ritchie said she was “speechless” when she learned of the event.

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Archaeologist Dr Anna Ritchie at work at the Knap of Howar, Orkney, in the early 1970s. Picture: Contributed

“I am really awed by the fact that people think me worthy of it,” she said.

Dr Ritchie made her name in the 1970s with two excavations in Orkney. The first, in 1971, identified the first known Pictish settlement in Scotland at Buckquoy and the second, just two years later at the Knap of Howar on Papa Westray, discovered houses older than those found at Skara Brae.

Dr Ritchie said: “I have been incredibly lucky. My first two major excavations produced some really good evidence.

"It set me on a dual path looking at two very different periods. I was also lucky that I married another archaeologist who understood the need to be away from home. He was very good at looking after the children.”

Dr Anna Ritchie recently at work in the archives of Historic Environment Scotland. PIC : Contributed.

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Dr Ritchie and her husband Graham, who passed away in 2005, would sometimes excavate together.

Starting out as a student in the 1960s, Dr Ritchie, who became the first female president of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland in 1990, said it was then quite unusual for women to be out in the field.

She said: “I wouldn’t say as many women got as far then as they do now. I was the first of only two female presidents of the society. It’s not really as good as it could be in our profession, although there are more female professors.”

Dr Ritchie was 11 when she first got interested in archaeology, with a fascination with ruined castles and Egyptology giving away to university studies in Cardiff and Edinburgh.

Scotland became a place of riches for the young archaeologist.

"The landscape of Scotland is so wonderful and littered with outstanding well-preserved sites, it’s hard not to feel enthusiastic about it,” Dr Ritchie said.

She said archaeology was “a bug that just gets you”, adding she got huge rewards sharing her passion with students and readers of her many books and guides.

Dr Ritchie said: “One of my most vivid memories of my career didn’t take place in my field, but in my kitchen when I was washing the finds from Buckquoy when some Ogham letters appeared on a spindle whorl. It was just so exciting.”

The archaeologist continues researching the Pictish era, with a fragment of slab stone found at Cairn o’ Mount near Fettercairn of particular interest.

She said: “The stone was placed on an important route way from Deeside into northern Angus. It would have stuck out of the snow to help people find their way down from Northern Pictland.”

The stone was originally found in 1964, but for Dr Ritchie, its story is far from complete.

Common Ground, a conference in honour of Dr Anna Ritchie, will be held online on March 5 and 6. For information, visit www.ssns.org

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