Obituary: Prof Peter Woodman
Leading archaeologist on the Irish Mesolithic period, beloved and inspirational teacher
Peter Woodman: July 2nd, 1943 -January 24th, 2017
Peter Charles Woodman, who has died at the age of 73, was emeritus professor of archaeology at UCC. With 113 publications to his name, he was the leading authority on the Irish Mesolithic (8,000BC-4,500BC), a period during which the first settlers arrived in Ireland. He was also the former assistant keeper of prehistoric antiquities at the Ulster Museum in Belfast.
Remarkably, at UCC, Woodman PhD, Dlitt (QUB) also taught t’ai chi, an ancient form of non-competitive Chinese martial arts aimed at reducing stress and keeping fit, a discipline he learned after holidaying in France. Despite being extremely fit himself, his sudden death was caused by a stroke.
In a glowing tribute to his scholarly work, Prof Jim Mallory of Queen’s University Belfast described him as its most illustrious archaeology graduate, adding that Woodman’s research provided the “basic structure of all subsequent research into the Irish Mesolithic”.
Recalling their attempts at “experimental archaeology” – hunting hare at night with ranging rods for spears – he said “the less said the better” . “He was not just a good scholar but a good friend and his sudden and wholly unexpected passing will leave a real gap, both in Irish archaeology and in the lives of all those who knew him”.
The theme of many tributes, including that of the Heritage Council of Ireland, the Association of Young Irish Archaeologists and IT Ireland Applied Archaeology, was the inspiring influence Prof Woodman had on several generations of archaeologists through his passion for his subject, his readiness to challenge accepted ‘facts’ and his quirky wit.
He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Antiquaries (of London) in 1982. Shortly after his appointment as professor of archaeology in Cork in 1983, he published the account of his excavations at Mount Sandel in Co Derry, the earliest dated Mesolithic settlement structures in Ireland. Up to that point, as professor Mallory put it “the Irish Mesolithic was essentially a ‘northern affair’ but this changed when Peter set out to search for evidence in Munster”.
His excavations at Ferriter’s Cove in Co Kerry uncovered fascinating evidence about the last foragers and first farmers on the Dingle peninsula. In 2009 he was awarded the Europa prize by the Prehistoric Society for his outstanding contribution to European prehistory. On a touching note his death notice said he would be “greatly missed by family, friends and the community of prehistoric archaeologists in Ireland, Britain and beyond”.
Before Christmas, Prof Woodman published his magnum opus, Ireland’s First Settlers. Encompassing 50 years of his search to make sense of what initially “appeared to be little more than a collection of beach-rolled and battered flint tools”, it tells the story of the archaeology and history of the first continuous phase of Ireland’s human settlement.
In this seminal work, he gives a vivid account of how the story of the first settlers was embedded in the position, distinct landscape and ecology of the island of Ireland and the impact this had on when and how it was colonised in the Mesolithic period. Surmising that they probably arrived on the northeast coast from Scotland, he explores how their way of life evolved to suit the narrow range of resources available.
He discusses how one should search the landscape for the often ephemeral traces of these early settlers, and how sites should be excavated, but also asks what we really know about the thoughts and life of the people themselves and what happened to them as farming began to be introduced.
Full of intellectual curiosity since his boyhood days in Holywood, Co Down, Prof Woodman encouraged his students to indulge in “the pleasure of finding things out”. As one leading archaeologist said, he had the knack of making people feel their contribution mattered. Though he retired in 2006 as professor of archaeology in UCC, he continued teaching t’ai chi and worked on various research projects.
Predeceased by his son, Barwin, he is survived by his wife Toni (née Phillips) and their children, Paddy, Deborah, Peter, Aaron, and Emma and by his sister Deirdre.