Alexander Keiller

(1890—1955) archaeologist

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(1890–1955) [Bi]

British archaeologist best known for his excavations at Windmill and Avebury and his pioneer flights recording the archaeology of Wessex from the air. Born in Dundee, Scotland, he was a member of the wealthy Keiller family, well known amongst other things for their marmalade and preserves. Educated at Eton, at the age of nine he became sole heir to the company and his family's fortune, and devoted the rest of his life to spending it. He became interested in aircraft and went flying intermittently from 1909 onwards, becoming a pilot in the Royal Naval Air Service in WW1. After meeting and becoming firm friends with O. G. S. Crawford, the two undertook what have become historic flights across the Wessex landscape recording archaeological sites using a captured German Service Type F.KI camera purchased from the Disposals Board and a De Havilland Company DH9 aeroplane. The work was published in 1924 as Wessex from the air (Oxford: OUP).

One of the sites the two men photographed was Windmill Hill in Wiltshire, and in 1925, after it was threatened by the construction of radio masts, Keiller bought it and began excavating it. He subsequently bought further land in the area, including much of Avebury and the adjoining West Kennet Avenue. Though much of the work was done in conjunction with the Office of Works, the whole cost of undertaking it was met by Keiller. To provide a base for operations he established the Morven Institute of Archaeological Research (named after the Keiller estate in Aberdeenshire) in a small building near Avebury Manor which is now the site museum. The excavations took place between 1925 and 1939, with restoration works thereafter to open the site for public viewing. In 1943 he transferred the whole Avebury Estate to the National Trust.

Keiller was not only interested in archaeology, however. Before WW1 he owned a car manufacturing company which in 1919 went bankrupt, but he was passionately interested in motorcars and owned a string of rather fast ones. He was an expert skier and was president of the British Ski Jumping Club in 1932. During his life he had four wives and a string of mistresses, but he left no heirs. Keiller was elected a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries in 1927 and of the Geological Society in 1928.

From The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Archaeology in Oxford Reference.

Subjects: Archaeology.

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