Former Laureates

Sir Grahame Clark


The 1990 Erasmus Prize was dedicated to Archaeology, more specifically to prehistory.
Grahame Clark (1907-1995) was associated with Cambridge University throughout his professional career. He produced influential publications which provide surveys of various prehistoric periods and regions. Throughout the years he gradually developed the concept of ‘World Prehistory’ (World Prehistory - an Outline). He formed the basis for the archaeological theory that gained much credence in the world of archaeology in the 1960s. Professor Clark's excavations, particularly at the Mesolithic site Star Carr, set the standard for the use of various auxiliary sciences. His research in the Fenlands of East Anglia was of major importance. From 1935 to 1970, he was editor-in-chief of the eminent journal Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society. Professor Clark was awarded the Erasmus Prize because he was one of the first scholars to establish cross-links, in both theory and practice, between the historical, anthropological and biological sciences. With his book Prehistoric Europe – the Economic Basis, he can be seen as a pioneer in the study of the economic aspects of prehistoric societies. His publications reached a wide audience.

Grahame Clark set up a fund with which the Prehistoric Society can award an annual prize. Another fund, which he set up in 1992, enables the British Academy to award a medal for outstanding achievement through a recent contribution to prehistoric archaeology.


In accordance with article 2 of the constitution of the Praemium Erasmianum Foundation concerning the enhancement of the position of the humanities, social sciences and the arts and the promotion of appreciation of these fields within society, His Royal Highness Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands, Patron of the Foundation, has confirmed the decision of the Board of the Foundation to award the Erasmus Prize for the year 1990 to Grahame Clark.

The Erasmus Prize for Prehistory is awarded to Grahame Clark because

  • he recognized the interdisciplinary character of Prehistory quite early, and has linked together, both in theory and in practice, the historical, anthropological and biological sciences;

  • he can be regarded as a pioneer in the study of the economic aspects of prehistoric communities; studies which have led to fundamental new insights that have meaningful implications for modern society;

  • he has demonstrated in his publications the ability to define the principal features of prehistoric societies, based on the detailed analyses of divergent archaeological evidence, and to impress these principle features on a wide public;

  • he has established in Cambridge, through his incisive and inspiring working methods, a scholarly institute whose influence is felt throughout the entire world.


Who is this creature we call Man? From where did he arise? Where did he come from? And where is he going? These questions have puzzled thinkers ever since the dawn of history. Many Erasmus Prize winners as well have contemplated these matters; I am thinking, in particular, of the many philosophers, theologians, anthropologists and psychologists whom we number among our laureates. The questions surrounding the origins of Man, and what distinguishes him from animals, also forms the foundation of your work, Professor Clark.
In contrast, however, to all previous laureates who have pondered the dim beginnings of Man's history, you approach these issues, as a prehistorian and archaeologist, by the most matter-of-fact and often seemingly simple discoveries. Based on the exacting study, classification and comparison of divergent archaeological evidence - such as flint stones, hand axes, pottery shards, soil traces and even fossil pollen, as well as a host of other subtle remnants from the distant past - you have demonstrated that there is more to the science of prehistory than merely collecting. By making use of the modern techniques of natural science to ask provocative questions of the discovered material, you have been able to draw conclusions regarding the biological, ecological, social, economic and anthropological aspects of primitive Man. You recognized quite early the interdisciplinary character of your work, and have linked together disciplines which still stood quite far apart from one another at the beginning of this century.

While the historian concerns himself only with the last 5,000 years of human history at the very most, your field of study is somewhat broader, covering a few million years at the very least. Although more has happened regarding the development of Man and his environment in the last two centuries than in the last 50,000 years, and more again in the last 50,000 years than in the last 500,000 years, you have made it clear that there is no more important event imaginable than the moment when Man differentiated himself from the primates and all other animals through the development of culture. During the cultural flowering that has taken place since that moment - at first very gradually and then with increasing rapidity - two revolutions, the Neolithic and the Industrial, formed the most remarkable turning points. With the transition to the period which we term the Neolithic, Man took the step from being merely the beneficiary of what nature supplied to a food-producer with a fixed dwelling place and dominance over plants and animals. On the one hand, this formed the basis for increasingly complex societies with a high degree of diversity, creativity and cultural wealth. On the other hand, it also sowed the seeds of unbridled population growth, large-scale poverty, famine, epidemics, war and environmental pollution. The great challenge of our time, as our laureate in 1987, Alexander King, foresaw decades ago, is to direct the positive achievements of civilization toward the mastering and banishment of all the unwanted and unforeseen negative side-effects of our cultural unfolding.

One of the central questions which has occupied you, Professor Clark, over the years, is how the earliest hominids, around 500,000 - 250,000 years ago, differentiated themselves from the primates. "We owe our identity as human beings", you write, "to the fact that, in contrast to animals, we belong to societies constituted by shared values". Your interest in this regard has concentrated itself on the inventiveness and adaptability of the earliest human beings, as well as on their differing cultural patterns, each with its own individual value. Your study of bio-archaeology, alongside that of economy demonstrates the wide ranging circle of your research, whereby you have posed the question of how Man was able to survive and to adapt himself to various ecosystems. In your social archaeological studies, you point out that we are not dealing with individuals, but with communities of people, including their internal stratification, their local organization, their relations to one another, as well as to the world of nature.

You have further pointed out that in the course of the last two to three million years, the most basic biological functions like eating, sheltering, pairing, breeding, fighting and dying were performed in idioms acquired by belonging to historically and locally defined cultural groups, where patterns of behaviour are conditioned by particular sets of values. This is the essential difference between Man and animals. Man's behaviour is determined more by historical and cultural influences, rather than by innate, biologically determined factors. The sharing of common traditions is a consciousness of sharing a common past. We follow cultural patterns inherited through belonging to societies shaped by history. We are free to initiate change, and this change, in turn, results in an astonishing diversity of cultural patterns.

The prehistorian is especially qualified to recognize this unique diversity in Man, just as you have done in your many publications. Assisted by your knowledge of comparative ethnology and social anthropology, you have come to the conclusion that, quite other than is the case with animals, the entire process of humanization is based on the growth of distinct traditions, which result in a broad spectrum of cultural diversity. It is precisely this diversity, and the resulting social disparities, which are the key factors in the intensification of culture. In this regard, rivalry and emulation are the most important incentives for Man, just as they still are to this day. For Man, unlike the animals, the specific is relevant and not the general.

In your study of the earliest and most primitive artefacts, you have determined that - other than we would have suspected - mere utility was not the ultimate motivation for the form in which many of these relics have come to us. In your essay "Symbols of Excellence" you write that the most refined artefacts - whether it be shells from the Palaeolithic age or ivory, amber, jade, gold or precious gems from later periods - were not made as utilitarian articles or weapons, but were intended for the cult of ancestors and, later, also for personal adornments. Thus, these objects were created not to satisfy material appetites, but to promote religious and political value systems. Consequently, it seems that the ability to discriminate was also a basic ingredient for survival; for he who knew how to make the finest weapons, tools and medicines also had the greatest chance for survival. We see this every day around us. Therefore, the notions of excellence and aesthetic awareness, ideas which can be traced back to earliest vestiges of homo sapiens, are the basis not merely of cultural advance, but of the very attainment of humanity.

As the entire world becomes more and more controlled by industrial technology, and the similarities between peoples appear to be become greater than their differences, one wonders how this process of homogenisation can be reconciled with the diversity of human values. Does not the process of homogenisation, if carried to its conclusion, destroy the diversity of cultural patterns and, ultimately, the dignity of man?
Fortunately, however, you remain truly optimistic, for in your opinion, as I understand it, this greater freedom of opportunity has only stimulated emulation and whetted the collective appetite for success; while the professionalism and specialization present in the modern world only adds to the variety and diversity of Man, rather than detracting from it.
These absorbing questions, which you have suggested in your publications, define the wide scholarly terrain which is brought together in your work. I can imagine with what fascination your students must have attended to your lectures. In Cambridge, you have established, through your inspiring working methods, a scientific school whose influence is felt all around the world. With your countless publications, including three books which appeared only last year, you have enriched the science of prehistory immeasurably. And in addition, you have illuminated for a large public the meaning of prehistorical insights for modern society. But what stands out above all your other activities and accomplishments is your great love for and interest in Man. This is a distinction which you share in honour with a long line of Erasmus Prize winners because, as a colleague of yours once remarked, "to be human is not to be everyman, it is to be a particular kind of man". And you, Professor Clark, are indeed a very particular kind of man.
And with these words, I would like - and it is a great pleasure for me - to present you with the Erasmus Prize 1990.

Acceptance Speech

Your Royal Highness,

As Praeses of the Praemium Erasmianum it has fallen to you to present prizes to a long procession of men and women who have made outstanding contributions to the artistic and intellectual life of our continent. This year it gives me the greatest pleasure to accept the Erasmus Prize from your hands for contributions made to the study of Prehistory. The sense of honour that I feel at my name being added to the prestigious roll of previous winners is much enhanced by the circumstances under which you have presented me with the prize and not least by the gracious presence of Her Majesty and of so many members of the Royal Family.
To be awarded a prize which takes its name from an illustrious Dutchman who at the same time was a great citizen of Europe and through his writings did so much to open up our modern world of sensibility and thought is indeed a most signal honour. Now the master paid a number of visits to England and, as a Cambridge man, it is a source of pride that he taught there for a longer period than elsewhere in my country.As a former Master of Peterhouse, the oldest college in Cambridge and one situated only a couple of hundred meters or so upstream from Queens where Erasmus lodged between 1511(c)14,I can claim a slight, although tenuous, link. As we know from his correspondence Erasmus counted among his closest Cambridge friends John Watson who was a fellow of Peterhouse under my thirtieth predecessor as Master of the College; it is very thin, but nevertheless it is a link.
Since Prehistory only began to take shape some three centuries or so after his death Erasmus himself could hardly have been aware of the subject. Yet prehistorians, like those who work in many of the fields recognized by the award of the Erasmus Prize, realize how much they owe to a man who took such an important part in freeing Christendom from superstition and making possible the growth of modern consciousness. One aspect of this is the way we have come during recent centuries to appreciate that the world and indeed the very universe in which we live have evolved over immense periods of time.
If we turn to palaeontology to tell us about our biological evolution it is to prehistory that we look for evidence of the evolution of specifically human patterns of behaviour. The artefacts recovered by archaeology tell us not merely how our forebears adapted to and modified their environments but how they learnt to shape their behaviour to accord with cultural values rather than merely with biological imperatives. As contemporary history reminds us we are human to the extent that we are able to chose between alternatives. You have shown your appreciation of the significance of the study of prehistory by awarding it the Erasmus Prize.
May I say how much I appreciate the care there has been taken to ensure that this occasion has been pleasureable as well as memorable to me personally. The brave sound of the Danish lurer is a tuneful reminder that prehistoric people were far from living by bread alone. Moreover they remind me very vividly how much I owe to the example of Danish prehistorians. For one thing they set me a standard when I came to write my doctoral dissertation on the Mesolithic Age in Britain dealing with the British evidence for the cultural life of the hunter-fisher people of the early Postglacial period. Many years later I had the privilege of teaching the future Queen of Denmark when she came to Cambridge as Princess Margarethe to take her Diploma.
Similarly the film, which we have just seen, illustrating the work on The Somerset Levels Project, reminds me of my early association with zoning postglacial deposits in the Somerset Levels and in the Cambridge of Fenland by means of archaeology and pollen-analysis. The choice of this film is all the more satisfying to me that it has been made by Professor John Coles, who we are delighted to see that he is here present with us - I wrote this before I knew he was going to be here - one of my most brilliant former pupils and later my close colleague as editor of the Prehistoric Society and a leading member of the staff of the Department of Archaeology at Cambridge.
In conclusion I thought you would like to know how I intend to use the Erasmus Prize which has been such an honour to receive. I intend to use it to promote and to reward fellow prehistorians for the contributions they are making to a subject whose importance you have indicated by awarding this prize to Prehistory.I am very glad to say that the Prehistoric Society has undertaken to administer a Europa Fund to provide an annual monetary prize and that the British Academy has agreed to accept an endowment for a medal to recognize achievements in Prehistory comparable to those it already awards to leading scholars in other fields. In this way I hope your action in awarding me the Erasmus Prize as a prehistorian will help to further the wider recognition of the subject in our continent as a whole.


John Grahame Douglas Clark (1907- 1995) was educated at Marlborough College and Peterhouse Cambridge, where he was first a research student and subsequently assistent lecturer in archaeology from 1930-46. During World War II he served as a squadron leader in the RAF with a special commission in Air Intelligence and Air History. After the war he became a university lecturer in Archaeology and in 1952 he was appointed as the Disney Professor of Archaeology and Ethnology, which post he held until 1974. From 1973 until 1980 he was Master of Peterhouse, Cambridge.

Grahame Clark made a name for himself at an early age. The Mesolithic Age in Britain was published in 1932, followed by The Mesolithic Settlement of Northern Europe in 1935, which was rewritten in 1975. In 1935 he became the first editor of the Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society, a position he held for 35 years. Under his guidance the Proceedings grew into an internationally renowned and highly appreciated periodical, in which articles covering the British Isles, Europe and beyond appear. His ability to provide the broad overview is also apparent in works such as Prehistoric England (1940 & 1962). In 1939 he published Archaeology and Society (19571/42). In this book Professor Clark laid the foundation for the development of theoretical thinking in archaeology, from which came the impressive series New Directions in Archaeology, published by his Institute at Cambridge.

Not only in his theoretical and written work, but also in his field work, Grahame Clark has won his spurs. Firstly he focused on East Anglia, the region close to Cambridge, where he demonstrated the importance of archaeological investigation of the Fenlands at Peacock's Farm. His interest in the Mesolithic period led him to excavate at Starr Carr, Yorkshire. These excavations were exemplary in the manner in which all possible sciences related to archaeology were used as part of the work. All of the drawings for the publication in 1954 on this excavation were done by Grahame Clark himself.

Clark's book Prehistoric Europe - the Economic Basis, published in 1952, has been highly influential on the thinking on prehistoric archaeology far beyond Britain. In this book he expressly pointed the way the use of ethnografical information. The book has been translated into several languages, including Russian and Polish. In 1959 The Prehistory of Southern Africa appeared, followed by World Prehistory - an Outline in 1961 (reprinted in 1962 and rewritten in 1977). Together with Stuart Pigott, Clark wrote Prehistoric Societies (1965), a highly valued survey of European prehistory. Aspects of Prehistory (1970) is the reflection on the lectures he gave at Berkeley.
Grahame Clark's latest books bear witness to an active life: The Identity of man as seen by an Archaeologist (1982), Symbols of Excellence; Precious Materials as Expression of Status (1986) and a study on Space and Time in History, which appeared in 1991.

Grahame Clark

In 1990 the Erasmus Prize was awarded to Sir Grahame Clark in the field of Prehistory.