Last Friday, Ivor Noël Hume, who profoundly influenced the field of historical archaeology and inspired generations of students both casual and professional, passed away at 89. Over the course of his three-decade career at Colonial Williamsburg, he was a prolific and talented writer and speaker, and revered for modernizing archaeological methodology and for landmark discoveries, in particular the 17th-century Wolstenholme Towne site at Carter’s Grove.
Born and raised in London, Noël Hume had no formal training in archaeology, but he managed to turn his enthusiasm for collecting and identifying objects into a career where his talent and expertise were recognized around the world. An invitation to examine the scores of glass bottles that had been excavated during the restoration first brought him to Williamsburg in the summer of 1956, accompanied by his first wife Audrey, who was his indispensable research partner until her death in 1993.
A year later, he left his position at the Guildhall Museum in London to become Colonial Williamsburg’s new chief archaeologist. Noël Hume arrived just in time for the Fourth of July in 1957; Audrey soon joined him, after a memorable 42-hour journey from England to Virginia accompanied by Tigellinus, a giant Brazilian turtle, who flew first class in a basket, kept warm by a hot water bottle and several blankets.
Cary Carson, who first dug alongside Noël Hume as a student at Winterthur Museum and later became Director of Historical Research at Colonial Williamsburg, called him “a pioneer and a founder” for building the fledgling Archaeology Department with “a whole new level of sophistication and analysis.”
“Previously archaeology was more of a handmaiden to architectural restoration,” Carson explained. The purpose of most digging was to find building foundations, not artifacts. “Noël brought the advanced techniques being practiced in Britain to American shores,” demonstrating the promise of historical archaeology in its own right.
“I am much indebted to him both personally and professionally,” said Carson, who related the recommendation Noël Hume supplied for his grad school application—to Harvard, no less. “Mr. Carson,” he wrote, “is stronger than he looks.”
Perhaps that anecdote reflects Noël Hume’s prickly side. He was outspoken. A perfectionist. But he invariably charmed and enlightened his audiences. “He was a master storyteller,” said another former colleague, archaeologist Ed Chappell, “making what he found in the dirt come alive for a broad national public.”
Noël Hume was Freddie Cottrill’s first boss at Colonial Williamsburg when she started out as a secretary in the early 1970s. “He had his tea every afternoon,” she recalled, and “a very droll sense of humor that could really crack me up.”
Among her responsibilities was transcribing his dictated notes, which meant sorting through British pronunciations for words like controversy (accenting the second syllable rather than the first) and hearing even more exotic sounds in the background. “I remember hearing the chugging of the boat as he traveled down the Nile River,” she said.
“But if you ever saw him lecture, he was like Vincent Price. He owned the stage.”
Besides attracting many fans to his speaking engagements, Noël Hume was a prolific writer. Among his many books were “All the Best Rubbish,” “Here Lies Virginia,” and his autobiography, “A Passion for the Past.” “Martin’s Hundred,” his “warts-and-all anatomy of excavation” of the early colonial site, enjoyed a warm reception from both popular and scholarly audiences.
“He had an unparalleled ability to recreate a past that flickered, that creaked, and that could be smelled,” said archaeologist Meredith Poole, who got to know Noël Hume well over the past several years. “He artfully combined the analytical mind of a detective, the knowledge of a connoisseur, and the draw of a storyteller.”
But he was no mere popularizer. “A Guide to the Artifacts of Colonial America,” first published in 1969, remains in print. Testifying to its enduring value, archaeologist Andy Edwards, who worked with Noël Hume at Colonial Williamsburg, described it as “a bible for the identification of artifacts.” Poole called it “a staple on any historical archaeologist’s shelf.”
Among what he terms Noël Hume’s “inestimable contributions,” Edwards points to the attention Noël Hume drew to 17th-century sites, which expanded our knowledge of the full span of colonial history. “He was also instrumental in having the Society for Historical Archaeology hold its first meeting in Williamsburg in 1968. The organization now probably has 20,000 members.”
“When I think of Noël,” said Poole, “a few spots in the Historic Area come to mind. The first is Wetherburn’s Tavern, which he excavated in the mid-1960s. It was on this site that he first took modern archaeological techniques out for a test drive, opening up the practice to see what it could do. He approached the site as a detective, teasing apart the evidence, which included 47 buried wine bottles filled with cherries, 200,000 artifacts, and the contents of a 40-foot well. Much of that detective work was captured on film, intended, he said, as an instructive guide for preservationists.”
He was also deeply interested in displaying archaeological artifacts. In the 1970s he designed a self-guided exhibit at the Anderson House, in front of where the Public Armoury now stands, highlighted by “The Traveler’s Room,” a space set up as a tavern bedroom in which someone has just gotten out of bed. In his autobiography, Noël Hume described the scene: “His shoes were on the floor, his brass-buttoned coat hung on the bed frame and the remains of last night’s smoking and drinking lay on the table in the middle of the room. The lantern clock on the wall was ticking, there was a glimmer of fire in the grate, and the stubs of two candles burned on the table and mantle shelf.”
Ivor Noël Hume officially retired from Colonial Williamsburg in 1987 but continued under a five-year contract to work at Carter’s Grove. In 1992, for his contributions to British cultural interests, Queen Elizabeth II honored him as an Officer of the British Empire.
“In retirement,” said Poole, “Noël shared his time generously, visiting sites in the Historic Area, and talking with archaeological field school students as his health permitted. He could be counted on to make observations in the form of questions, leaving one with the sense that one had figured out the answer on one’s own. He had a marvelous sense of humor, and a sense of curiosity that wouldn’t quit. We will not see his like again.”
We would like to express our deepest condolences to Ivor Noël Hume’s family, especially his wife Carol, and to his many friends.