Peter Ucko

From Academic Kids

Peter J. Ucko (born 1938) is Professor of Comparative Archaeology and Director of University College London's Institute of Archaeology, notable for his organisation of the first World Archaeological Congress in 1986.

Ucko was born in Buckinghamshire, his German father was a professor of medicine. He was educated at a boarding school and took his A-levels at the North Western Polytechnic in London before reading Anthropology at University College, London (UCL). He completed his Ph.D. thesis on prehistoric archaeology and Egyptology in 1962.

Ucko became a lecturer at UCL, producing two books, The Domestication and Exploitation of Plants and Animals and Man, settlement and urbanism that were widely accepted as standard works. His 1968 monograph Anthropomorphic Figurines of Predynastic Egypt and Neolithic Crete countered the Mother Goddess theories espoused by Marija Gimbutas, characterizing her interpretations as glib. He saw the figurines as sexless, unless they had unmistakable features like sex organs, breasts and beards, and he resolutely refused to see them as representations of deities, instead characterizing them as amulets of sympathetic magic, even children's toys. His views were highly influential on the succeeding generation.

Ucko accepted the post of Principal of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies in Canberra in 1972. In 1980 he advised the Zimbabwaean government on cultural resource management and in 1981 was appointed to succeed Colin Renfrew as professor of archaeology at the University of Southampton.

As a young man, Ucko was one of the very few white students at the North Western Polytechnic where he heard first-hand accounts of racism and discrimination. On entering the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, he found an organisation devoted to paying white people to study black people and whilst working in Zimbabwe he saw how Ian Smith's government had manipulated archaeological evidence to support the racist regime. These experiences made him strongly anti-racist.

At Southampton, Ucko agreed to become National Secretary of the British Congress of the International Union of Pre- and Protohistoric Sciences which was to meet in 1986. When Ucko decided to exclude South African and Namibian delegates because of the Apartheid regime in those countries the archaeological community was split, leading to the foundation of the World Archaeological Congress.

In 1996, Ucko was appointed to the post of Professor of Comparative Archaeology and Director of the Institute of Archaeology, London amidst a minor controversy based upon the fact that the post was not advertised. Ucko was headhunted directly from his post at the University of Southampton.


  • Ucko, P., 1987, Academic Freedom and Apartheid: The Story of the World Archaeological Congress, London: Duckworth. ISBN 0715621912

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