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Eleanor Mary Megaw

Epithet: Archaeologist and anthropologist (1911-1977)

Record type: Biographies

Biography: From ‘New Manx Worthies’ (2006):

Eleanor Hardy was born into a distinguished Cambridge academic family; her father was a pioneer biophysicist and tutor at Caius College. She obtained a first class degree in archaeology and anthropology and then went to Sweden to study pollen analysis with Professor Lennart von Post. At Cambridge she had met Basil Richardson Stanley Megaw who in 1936 was appointed assistant director and secretary of the Manx Museum Trustees. They were married in St Benet's Church, Cambridge and set up house on the Isle of Man. The wedding was conducted by the future Archbishop of Canterbury, 'nice Father Ramsey' on 6th September 1939 and Burgundy being out of bounds' the couple honeymooned at Peel 'watched over by St Patrick, St German and Cowley the Chemist [Charles Henry Cowley] (the great Manx flint collector)'.

When Basil left the Island for war service the museum trustees invited Eleanor to become acting director and caretaker, a role that she fulfilled throughout the conflict. The Megawremained in the Isle of Man until 1957 when Basil accepted the directorship of the Schoolof Scottish Studies in Edinburgh. Eleanor maintained many Manx friendships and visited the Island regularly until her sudden death at home in Edinburgh at the age of 66.

Eleanor Megaw arrived on the Isle of Man with a considerable reputation as a pioneer palaeo-botanist. Her work on the mosses on the Shropshire and Flintshire border and in Cornwall had helped to establish that the Scandinavian pollen zonation also applied in the British Isles. At Hawkes Tor, Bodmin Moor, she discovered the first evidence for a local late-glacial climatic oscillation. Her early work published in 1939 in the New Phytologist also emphasised the influence of human populations on the prehistoric environment.A note on 'Gold Lunulae from Denmark' in 1937 was followed in the following year by a major article, also in the Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society, on 'British decorated axes and their diffusion in the earlier part of the Bronze Age', written jointly with her husband-to-be. This paper provided a vital building block for the emerging definition of the Wessex Culture and has stood the test of time.

Once established in the Manx Museum Eleanor's interests, abilities and international contacts - she had studied with Hector Munro and Nora Chadwick and Harry Godwin -were put to good use. Her Cambridge circle of friends, especially Gordon Childe and Thomas Kendrick (of the British Museum and the Society of Antiquaries of London) facilitated the provision of small grants to support fieldwork on the Isle of Man being carried out under Eleanor's general supervision by Gerhard Bersu, former head of the German archaeological service, and other 'enemy aliens' interned on the Isle of Man.The climax of her archaeological career came in 1943, when, during a wartime extension of the Ronaldsway airfield, a prehistoric house was discovered. Because of the security sensitivity of the site Bersu was not allowed to be directly involved and Eleanor carried out the excavations with friends and volunteers. In the 1970s Eleanor described to the writer her daily evening cycle ride to the internment camp to show sketch-plans and sections to Bersu and to get his advice on the next stage of work. The Ronaldsway house, which turned out to be rectilinear and of Neolithic date - only the second such structure ever to have been discovered in the British Isles -produced a wide range of distinctive pottery, flint-work, polished axes and incised slateslabs that appeared to be of insular manufacture. There was sufficient associated evidence for the idea of a `Ronaldsway Culture' to be proposed - a concept that was confirmed by Bersu's excavations in 1946 at Ballateare and that remains viable to this day.

At the March meeting of the Natural History and Antiquarian Society in 1944 Eleanor described to the members 'the recent discov-eries at Ronaldsway' and in 1946, as secretary of the Archaeological Section of the society, she reported on Bersu's major excavations on the Viking ship-burial at Balladoole and his work at Cronk Mooar, Jurby. She was also able to report her success in negotiating the gift by Ernest Cowley to the Manx Museum of his father's flint collection, easily the most important of its day and still one of the two largest assemblages from the Island.

Inevitably, as both acting director of the Manx Museum and wife of Basil, Eleanor's academic interests diversified. She became an authority on Manx fishing craft, about which she wrote a number of papers. In 1941 she recorded the first successful breeding of the fulmar petrel on the Isle of Man at Kione ny Ghoggan. In 1942 she helped to produce a widely researched biography of Captain John Quilliam of HMS Victory fame. In 1943, with William Stanley Cowin, she produced an account of 'The raven past and present' in which her long-standing interest in Norse cultural influence as well as natural history comes to the fore. In 1945 a paper on 'The Governor's staff of office' demonstrates wide reading and a sympathy for, and interest in, the early medieval societies of both Scotland and Ireland. A short paper on eighteenth century evidence for the medicinal use of cobwebs for curing 'agues' on the Isle of Man, published in 1947, continues a fascination for folklore,
already shown in the work on ravens.

Despite this plurality of interests, she main-tained an involvement in palaeo-botany and in 1954 encouraged new work on the Kirk Michael cliffs by Frank Mitchell who used the Megaw home as his base. She herself discovered the basins exposed to the north of Glen Ballyre which have subsequently provided an enormous amount of environmental evidence for climate and habitat change over the last 18,000 years.

Despite leaving the Island for Edinburgh, Eleanor's involvement in Manx research continued. Two of her most influential papers were produced in the eighteen months beforeshe died. One, on 'The cult of St Leonard and Manx medieval monasteries' is a masterpiece of scholarly detection and finely balanced argument. The other on `The Manx Eary and its significance' makes a crucial distinction between sites bearing the place-name and the sheilings, mounds which Peter Gelling had identified all over the Manx uplands. The paper provides a balanced fusion of place- name, field archaeology and medieval documentary evidence that is presented in a masterly way and links convincingly with studies in other parts of the British Isles.

Although not a prolific writer, Eleanor Megaw's contributions were always thoroughly researched, clearly and meticulously argued, balanced in their judgements and drawn on an internationalist canvas. They are quiet and unassuming, as she herself was often described. In her student days Godwin noted 'a disconcertingly active though benign sense of humour that was more often betrayed by a twinkle in the eye than by anything said'. Mitchell found her 'kind' and 'unobtrusive'. He admitted that the preliminary typescript of The Irish Landscape, his magnum opus, 'was enormously improved after I had studied the numerous alternative suggestions she carefully pencilled in between the lines'. Mitchell concludes:Despite the great breadth of her knowledge Eleanor never pushed her knowledge on anyone, but any enquiry was always met with an informative reply or with an indication of where the answer might be found. Even at the cost of inconvenience to herself, no old friend was ever neglected, and no-one ever heard a word of malice cross her lips.

Eleanor Megaw's contribution to Manx stud-ies is impressive in its own right. To it should be added much practical and intellectual support of her husband Basil as well as her encouragement to a notable group of international academics whom she persuaded of the intrinsic interest and importance of the Island's archaeology, folklore and palaeobotany.

Biography written by Peter Davey.

(With thanks to Culture Vannin as publishers of the book: Kelly, Dollin (general editor), ‘New Manx Worthies’, Manx Heritage Foundation/Culture Vannin, 2006, pp.307-9.)

Culture Vannin


Gender: Female

Date of birth: 6 September 1911

Date of death: 2 October 1977

Name Variant: Megaw, E.M., Mrs


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