John Pull: Worthing’s hero archaeologist

Self-taught archaeologist John Pull made discoveries of national significance in the South Downs around Worthing, but his humble origins saw him sidelined by more privileged professional peers. With a recently extended exhibition at Worthing Museum and Art Gallery bringing his story back into the spotlight almost 100 years after his investigations began, Current Archaeology's Carly Hilts visited to find out more.

In a picturesquely rural part of England, in the first half of the 20th century, a self-taught local archaeologist uncovered remains that would illuminate a then-poorly understood part of the past. As news of the significance of his finds spread, however, the working-class archaeologist was pushed aside by excavators of higher social standing who were dismissive of his lack of formal training. This might sound like the story of Basil Brown at Sutton Hoo in 1939, but the archaeologist in question was working almost two decades earlier, excavating not early medieval burials in Suffolk, but labyrinths of Neolithic flint mines in West Sussex. Although he would go on to make decades of discoveries dug from the Downland chalk, plumber’s son John Pull initially had to fight to have his work recognised by the archaeological establishment. Now, though, his achievements are being brought to the fore in an exhibition at Worthing Museum and Art Gallery, less than ten miles from where his investigations took place.

In this recently colourised photograph, John Pull crouches in a c.6,000-year-old mineshaft at Blackpatch, where he excavated for a decade. He was always smartly dressed on site, despite the Downland chalk which here smudges his navy jacket.

Born in Arundel in 1899, John was around seven years old when his family moved to Worthing, where he would remain for the rest of his life. A gifted artist from an early age, John was enthralled by the rolling landscape of the South Downs, documenting what he saw in beautifully illustrated notebooks that won him first prize in a school competition; some of these books are included in the exhibition, their pages vividly showing the Sussex schoolboy’s talent at capturing the world around him. Military service on the Western Front subsequently added surveying to his skills; at the age of 16, John enlisted in the 1st Battalion of Rifles Brigade, enduring first gas attacks and then captivity as a prisoner of war in a German military hospital in Mons. He stayed in touch with the nuns who nursed him, and a number of their letters are displayed alongside his drawings of Sussex flora and fauna. This love of nature called John back to the Downs after the War, and during his explorations he came across a cluster of craters at Blackpatch: the remains of Neolithic mines where, c.6,000 years ago, communities had used antler tools to dig deep shafts and networks of tunnels to extract the flint they needed to make tools and weapons. This site would occupy John for the next ten years.

Digging deep

When John’s investigations began in 1922, they represented the first excavation of a Sussex flint mine since the 1880s. Assisted by a small group of friends and meagre resources, John set about documenting his discoveries in meticulous detail, and although he had no formal archaeological training, his artistic skills lent themselves well to recording the site, as the elegant hand-drawn plans shown in the exhibition demonstrate. As the scale of the task at hand became clear, however, additional help was requested from the Worthing Archaeological Society (WAS). It would not prove to be a happy partnership.

Photographs and artefacts from his excavations bring John Pull’s career and discoveries to life. Photo: C Hilts.

John immediately found himself marginalised by the upper-crust incomers, who effectively took over the project, excluding him from site tours and even omitting his illustrations – and his name – from the official excavation report in 1924. Adding insult to injury, an anonymous figure calling themselves ‘the Antiquary’ wrote letters to the Worthing Herald savaging John’s credentials and criticising his investigative methods. This bitter campaign, James Sainsbury – Curator of Archaeology at Worthing Museum, and creator of the exhibition – suggests, was driven by classism and professional jealousy from those who were appalled that such an important discovery had been made on their doorstep by someone outside their clique. (Establishment opposition to John’s work was not universal, however: Herbert Toms, curator of Brighton Museum and himself the son of an under-gardener, notably wrote in his defence.)

Faced with this acrimony, John resigned from WAS but was undeterred in his work, excavating at Blackpatch until 1932 (and publishing a well-received book about his discoveries). He subsequently investigated other Neolithic mines at Church Hill (1933-1952, with a hiatus during the Second World War) and at Cissbury Ring in the 1950s. These decades marked a hugely productive period, and one that also saw John reconciled with the archaeological establishment, thanks to the emergence of more cooperative personalities including a new curator at Worthing Museum, Ethel Gerard, who invited John to rejoin WAS in 1947. He was even elected chairman in 1952. John himself had always been inclusive in his excavations, welcoming women, working-class people (including colleagues from the post office where he worked to finance his investigations), and former servicemen to dig with him – something that can be seen in the many photographs of his excavations, some of which have been carefully colourised, on display.

Worthing Museum and Art Gallery is also home to one of the UK’s most-significant costume collections, which have been drawn on to recreate one of John’s trademark suits (displayed alongside his actual digging tool and oil lamp). Photo: C Hilts.

These images bring the investigations vividly to life, though they also highlight how precarious some working practices were, with team members pictured crawling through narrow tunnels and raising huge blocks of chalk using thin ropes and no safety equipment. Viewers also cannot fail to notice how smartly dressed John was on site, descending into the mines in a dark three-piece suit – an expression of professional pride, though perhaps not the most practical choice for excavating in chalk, as colourised images featuring his white-smudged jacket attest. Here, too, Worthing Museum’s other holdings come into their own: the museum is home to one of the most-significant collections of costumes in the UK, and in a corner case the exhibition recreates John Pull’s trademark outfit, displayed alongside his actual digging tool and oil lamp, loaned by his family.

Sadly, John’s investigations came to a sudden and violent end when he was fatally shot during an armed robbery on a bank where he was working as a security guard. His archive entered the collections of Worthing Museum, and, although his writings were left incomplete, his archaeological legacy is undeniable. In their Archaeology gallery, Worthing Museum has a case dedicated to the Blackpatch mines which includes a permanent display of some of John’s finds from the site – as well as relics from the investigations themselves, in the form of two glass lemonade bottles discovered during a Time Team dig on the site in 2005. It is hoped that this exhibition, as well as the impending centenary of John’s investigations at Blackpatch next year, will see his story brought to greater prominence once more.

Further information:

John Pull: Worthing’s hero archaeologist has been extended and will run at Worthing Museum and Art Gallery until Christmas Eve 2021. Entry to the museum and the exhibition is free, and details of free gallery talks will be posted on the museum website when dates are confirmed. For more information, see https://wtam.uk/events/exhibition-john-pull-worthings-hero-archaeologist.
All images: Worthing Museum and Art Gallery, unless otherwise stated.