Piggott, Stuart, 1910–1996

by Roger Mercer

17 Apr 2016
0-19-726192-2 hbk
Number of pages

Extract relating to military intelligence work:

But September 1939 saw an end to all this, as the global imperative brought a new direction to Piggott’s life. The beginning of the war found him serving with a Light Anti-Aircraft battery stationed at Longford Castle 2½ miles north-west of Fordingsbridge. The battery had been raised by the Earl of Radnor, and Piggott became a clerk in the Battery Office (it was here that the Crichel Down report was written up). In early 1941 Glyn Daniel, working at that time with aerial photographic intelligence was asked by his CO about other archaeologists ‘at a loose end’. He quickly traced Piggott, who was soon offered a commission in the Intelligence Corps and ultimately, after a period at Medmenham, near Marlow, was detailed, with two junior officers, to set up an air photographic interpretation unit for transfer to the Far Eastern theatre.

Eventually late in 1941 Piggott left on the ‘horseshoe’ run to India, first to Shannon (where, delayed for a week, he was able to paint and sketch) and then on to Lisbon, Freetown, Lagos, Leopoldville, Kampala, Khartoum, and Cairo. In Cairo the parlous state of affairs at Singapore, and the Japanese invasion of Burma in med-December, led to delay, which facilitated informal study of Islamic architecture among the city’s mosques, although the National Museumof Antiquities was closed (only five months later Rommel was to be hammering at the gateway to the Nile Delta). After some delay Piggott joined Glyn Daniel (later to be Disney Professor at Cambridge) and Terence Powell (later to be Professor at Liverpool) and other officers in Delhi to form the Central Photographic Interpretation Section within which Stuart was the senior Army representative in a combined operations office under Daniel’s command.

After some time, as Army and Air Force representatives, Daniel and Piggott were detailed to attend an Anglo-American conference on aerial photographic interpretation in Algiers in the summer of 1943. Difficult relations between British and American commands after the head-banging of the ‘Torch’ episode meant that the conference was cancelled so that the two were delayed in Cairo - by now fairly relaxed in its distance from the sterner aspects of the war. Daniel was taken ill and unable to fly so that the two, as Daniel puts it[28] ‘... spent a very pleasant few days in Cairo, went out again to the pyramids and at and drank surprisingly well. One night after a very good dinner at the St James’s Restaurant we were so delighted with the local Egyptian wine ... that we found ourselves unsteadily walking home singing "Vinicole at Viticole, let the tide of victory roll" - two putative professors in splendid form!’ The Cairo episode was a wonderful opportunity for relaxation and almost certainly the episode that cemented a friendship that lasted until Glyn’s death in 1986. Daniel suggests that it was Stuart who prompted him to try his hand at detective fiction which he did with not inconsiderable success.

After several weeks, with the Algiers meeting in the air, passage was offered to Malta and the two spent two ‘blissful’ days inspecting megalithic monuments and rock-cut tombs on the island, several spattered with bits of German and Italian aircraft. In August 1943 when the first convoy with wine aboard reached the island, Piggott and Daniel were still there, and after a ‘good evening’, Daniel tells us, Piggott added a poem to a collection of war-time poetry he had been writing. The two did eventually reach Algiers - an abortive mission that led to an initial, rather abrasive, episode with [Mortimer] Wheeler who, preparing himself for the rigours of Sicily, had, wrongly, and like many another ‘sharp-end’ soldier, little regard for carefully garnered intelligence. 

[At this point the full obituary prints three examples of poems from Piggott’s Fire among the Ruins - 1942-45.]

In India, Piggott, who always fully acknowledged the very privileged conditions of his war service, was nevertheless frustrated by the imposed break in his professional career and its development. A partial solution was however to hand. Within a month of life in Delhi he had found the Central Asian Museum and had obtained permission to work on its reserve collections there when off-duty - a project he published in Antiquity in 1943.[32]

In April 1944 Wheeler, after delaying until after the Salerno landings on the mainland of Italy, accepted appointment as the Director-General of the Archaeological Society of India and later sought Piggott’s release from ‘the women’s work of air photographic service’, in order that he could be allocated to the Survey’s staff. Fortunately the Army vetoed the idea - as Piggott and Wheeler would have, almost certainly, composed a volatile cocktail, the excellent qualities of both being polar expressions of the same dedication. Nevertheless, and more importantly, Piggott was truly bitten by the Indian archaeological bug and conducted considerable correspondence with Childe, in Edinburgh and Seton Lloyd in Baghdad to mitigate the isolation of his research. Most importantly the work gave Piggott the vital view of Europe from the outside, and against its Eurasian background, that was to become such an important component of his future perceptions. His book, Prehistoric India, was published in 1950.

28. G. E. Daniel, Some Small Harvest (London, 1986), 159.
32. ‘The Hissar Sequence - the Indian evidence’, Antiquity, XVII (1943), 169-82.

(See: List of humanities scholars who worked in military intelligence in the Second World War)

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