May 12, 2020
The AIA is deeply saddened by the passing of L. Hugh Sackett and we extend our condolences to his family, friends, students, and colleagues.
Leyland Hugh Sackett (1928 – 2020)
Shortly after the publication in 1979 and 1980 of the first volumes on the excavations at Lefkandi in Euboea, the archaeologist and Harvard professor Emily Vermeule explained to me, then an undergraduate, that “archaeological ability, like music or painting, was a talent as much as any other”. She spoke with particular reference to Hugh Sackett, who was to deliver at Harvard later that day a James Loeb lecture on his discovery of “The Hero at Lefkandi”, a talk she was to introduce. She noted that Hugh “has archaeological talent in spades and simply knows where to dig” – a joke she later used for her introduction – and then she conjured for me a picture of the excavator of Lefkandi at work: a tall, indefatigable figure, loping through the landscape, eminently visible because of an ancient red sweater he liked to wear.
With the passing of Hugh Sackett, in the early hours of 12 April 2020, Easter Sunday by the Western calendar, at age 91, after an archaeological career taking in six and a half decades, it is now possible to appreciate more fully the truth of Professor Vermeule’s assessment forty years ago. If anything, it did not go far enough. At the start of his Loeb lecture, Hugh replied, with characteristic modesty, that archaeology was “good fortune, not talent”. Yet, in his absence, we can see that his archaeological ability was not solely a manifestation of talent, nor merely a matter of fortune, but also a mark of genius.
Born on 13 August 1928 and educated at Merton College, Oxford, Hugh had been a fixture at the British School of Archaeology at Athens from 1954. As an archaeologist, he is known principally for his partnership in the field with Mervyn Popham, with whom he excavated Lefkandi in Euboia and Palaikastro in East Crete. Both digs may claim to have been, for different reasons, the most significant of the archaeological projects conducted by the British after the Second World War. When the Archaeological Institute of America, of which he had been a member for many years, awarded Hugh its Gold Medal Award for Distinguished Archaeological Achievement in 2014, its trustees noted in the citation, “People may not agree which aspect of Sackett’s work represents his most significant legacy. Some would point to the major Cretan site of Palaikastro and the impact of discoveries there on our conception of Minoan Crete, others to the revolutionary discovery and exploration of Iron Age Lefkandi …. It is a wonderful thing to be able to have such a debate about a single archaeologist.”
Survey and excavation at Lefkandi (1962–1963;1964–1990; new excavations under the direction of I. S. Lemos) revealed it to have been, in Hugh’s words, “as important a center and as sophisticated as Athens itself” from 1100–800 BC. The Lefkandi centaur has become emblematic of that time, and the peristyle structure known as the Heroön extended the early history of the Greek temple-type by two, if not three, centuries. It can be said of only a few that their work has shed “too much light” on their subject – and yet, the phrase is, in Hugh’s case, apt, since no one now would use the term “Dark Age” when speaking of Early Iron Age Greece.
At Palaikastro (excavations in 1962–1963; 1983 to the present with J. A. MacGillivray, J. Driessen, and others), the discovery alone of its chryselephantine kouros – to quote Hugh again, “among the masterpieces of Minoan glyptic” – would have secured the fame of the site and the reputation of its archaeologists. But Palaikastro itself is more than the kouros. It is also, like Knossos, a major urban center.
Patient, persevering, practical, precise, and energetic, Hugh at both these sites may fairly be said to have trained, with Mervyn Popham, a significant number of the current generation of field archaeologists now at work in Greece. But equally important were excavations, aside from Lefkandi and Palaikastro, with different colleagues. In 1954, Hugh assisted at Emporio in Chios under Sinclair Hood, then Director of the British School, with whom he also worked at Knossos in 1957. With A. J. Graham and J. Ellis Jones, he excavated in Attica the “Dema House” (c. 450–425 BC) from 1958 to 1960, and in 1966 the “Vari House” (c. 350–275 BC), still important examples of ancient domestic architecture. From 1967 to 1973, again with Mervyn Popham, Hugh dug what Sir Arthur Evans had called the “Unexplored Mansion” at Knossos, and publication of this site is invaluable for the stratified evidence it provides for occupation in Crete from 1500 BC to AD 200. A principled man, Hugh understood the importance of publishing the results of his excavations, and his volumes appeared at regular intervals.
Archaeological ability, however, was not Hugh’s only claim to prodigious talent. As a schoolmaster too, he possessed a touch of genius. He began to teach Classics at Groton School in Groton, Massachusetts, in the autumn of 1955, a position he assumed he would hold for only a year. Instead, for the next 63 years, between excavations (or perhaps his excavations were conducted between lessons), he taught a typical array of school classes on Latin and Greek: introductory grammar and composition, Catullus, Cicero, Homer, Ovid, Plato, Virgil, and others, introducing into the syllabus as well elective courses on modern Greek, in which he was fluent, and archaeology, in which he was expert. He also coached intramural soccer and crew and served on assorted committees.
In all that he did at School, he was challenging and supportive in equal measure. The calm and kindness, the incisiveness and insistence on accuracy that he showed in his digs served him equally well in the classroom, where his liveliness became at times theatrical, and in his many dormitories, where common-room life swung between the high-minded (readings of Shakespeare plays broke out on stray Saturday nights) and the amusingly chaotic (as Hugh wrote in a preface to the School yearbook of 1972: “… dorm games of all kinds were invented with an astonishing fecundity but always recognized the meaning or spirit of the dorm master’s objections….”). Even after his putative retirement in June 2018, he remained at Groton, not at all a diminished figure, but to the contrary, amidst the changes of the twenty-first century, a still vital and reassuring presence, who continued to take his usual seat for daily chapel and Sunday services, attend School occasions, and participate informally in the classes on archaeology.
This balancing act between the British School and Groton School, between a life of schoolmastership and one of scholarship, was unusual. The two demand distinct ways of thinking. As Hugh put it, when asked by the School newspaper in 1987 to comment on the differences between curating pots and counselling pupils: “Young Americans are, of course, quite different from pottery.” How had he been able to maintain the equilibrium over the years?
As ever, Hugh asserted that it was a matter of luck. He was fortunate to have served at Groton under two particularly enlightened Headmasters. These were the Reverend John Crocker (who hired Hugh at the recommendation of R. G. C. Levens, Hugh’s old Classics tutor at Merton) and the Reverend Bertrand Honea, who succeeded Crocker from 1965 until 1969. Both realized that since Hugh was an exceptional teacher and colleague, his curious passion for archaeology was to be indulged and encouraged. “The allurement of digging is apparently a strong one,” noted Crocker in 1961, as if unable to understand how this could possibly be.
A year at Groton had turned into six, archaeology confined largely to summer holidays. At Hugh’s request, Crocker permitted leave in 1961, so that he could take up, for two years, the Assistant Directorship at the British School – a sign of the Headmaster’s regard. Not since the Second World War had Groton granted a teacher so long an absence from his duties.
Honea, no less supportive, set in place more formal mechanisms to allow Hugh to pursue his double life. In 1967, Honea agreed that, in lieu of the sabbatical year Hugh was owed for longtime service, he could have instead three successive Spring Terms off. To substitute for him at Groton from April 1968, Hugh turned to Rogers Scudder, who had retired from teaching Classics at Brooks School in North Andover, Massachusetts, in 1966. Sometime before that, they had met (one or the other told me) on the sidelines of a soccer match between their two schools.
This duopoly proved so congenial and convenient to all concerned that the “Castor and Pollux” arrangement, as some called it, was granted in perpetuo. The Sackett-Scudder partnership became one of those quaint and curious elements of boarding school life that generates story after story which gain in the telling and invite cozy reminiscence years later. From 1968 until his death in 2006 at age 93, Rogers, a kind of “alter ego” to Hugh, took over Hugh’s duties in the spring, taught his classes, dispensed idiosyncratic wisdom to advisees, and ran the dormitories. Hugh used spring and summer to excavate and write and see to the logistics of his many projects (the acquisition of permits, the search for funding, the careful preparation of all the administrative minutiae that go toward the success of a dig). Even when Rogers, an expert on the archaeology of Rome and Italy, was appointed Director of the Library at the American Academy in Rome from 1975 until 1979, the arrangement continued, and he added to the School syllabus a class on “Roman Archaeology” for the Spring Term to complement Hugh’s own courses on “Aegean Archaeology” and “Archaic and Classical Archaeology” taught in the fall and winter. In 2006, at a memorial service for Rogers in the School chapel, Hugh said, “Without Rogers, my career would not have been possible”.
And so, in 1968, the passage of Hugh’s career was set fair, set even fairer with his marriage to Eleanor in 1995. With Hugh, she travelled to Greece, and at the excavations she took part in drawing, conserving, and recording the finds. She also saw to the well-being of many pupils and teachers from Groton whom Hugh, in a 1950s Mercedes or, subsequently, in a minivan, drove around Greece. Several of these boys and girls – and at least one faculty member (Thomas Carpenter, Professor of Classics at Ohio University, who taught at Groton from 1971 to 1976) – became archaeologists themselves under Hugh’s encouragement.
But now Hugh’s work for the British School and his time at Groton have come to a close – or as C. S. Lewis put it at the end of his sequence of novels on Narnia, “The term is over: the holidays have begun”. In other words (to continue the metaphor), that moment has come which would signal for Hugh the chance to begin another season of survey, excavation, and study, even if “upon another shore and in a greater light”. And so, as valediction, we may repeat the words of the Reverend Crocker, delivered at Groton School’s Prize Day in June 1961, just before Hugh left to become Assistant Director at the British School:
During his years at Groton he has quietly carried out all that we hope for in a teacher. With modesty and humor, with kindliness and integrity, with ability and scholarship, he has served this School unselfishly and with a sensitive understanding of what it is all about. He has been not merely a colleague, but a dear and true friend to us all. We wish him God’s blessing in his new venture.
A. T. Reyes