Hugh Sackett, global authority on the archaeology of the Aegean – obituary

Telegraph Obituaries
Hugh Sackett

Hugh Sackett, who has died aged 91, was an internationally recognised scholar, and a classics and Greek archaeology teacher at Groton School, Massachusetts, for more than 60 years; he also made an indelible mark on the archaeology of the Aegean through collaborative excavations of sites ranging in date from the Early Bronze Age through to Roman, under the auspices of the British School at Athens.

His discoveries included the Palaikastro kouros, the most magnificent prehistoric ivory statue yet found in the Aegean. In 2014 he became the first British archaeologist to receive the Gold Medal for distinguished archaeological achievement from the Archaeological Institute of America.

Leyland Hugh Sackett was born in Oxford on August 13 1928 to AB Sackett and Dorothy, née Salter, one of four sons and a daughter. He was educated at Kingswood School, Bath, where his father was headmaster. In 1949, after two years’ National Service, he went to Merton College, Oxford, where he gained an MA in Literae Humaniores and a Dip Ed in 1954.

That year also saw his first visit to the British School at Athens (BSA) on a Rotary Foundation fellowship, beginning his relationship with the institution to which he gave so much over the next 65 years.

He was assistant excavator at Emporio, on the island of Chios, directed by Sinclair Hood, with John Boardman and Emily Vermeule; he worked at Mycenae with Lord William Taylour; at Myrtos Pyrgos, Crete, with Gerald Cadogan; and at the Menelaion, Sparta, with Hector Catling. At the BSA he also met John Ellis Jones, with whom he collaborated on several innovative projects investigating Classical Attica (Dema House, Vari House, and the silver mining site at Agrileza).

In 1955 Sackett took up a post at Groton School, where he was an inspiring teacher. His career, the longest in the school’s history, spanned seven of its eight headmasters. One of them, Bill Polk, a former pupil of Sackett, wrote: “In his calm, patient way, he would encourage those students for whom Latin was a challenge, and challenge those for whom it was not.” The present headmaster Temba Maqubela recalled: “He was one of the finest true gentlemen I have ever met.”

The Palaikastro kouros - Giannis Papadakis-Ploumidis/Reproduced with the permission of the British School at Athens

Sackett took many of his students to Greece to expose them to the archaeology and art of the ancient Aegean – and to his skills in avoiding potholes and negotiating Greek roads, which many driven around by him will recall.

A lucky few took part in excavations that he co-directed, notably at Knossos and Palaikastro in Crete. Some have pursued careers as classicists and archaeologists, including Dr Séan Hemingway, head of Greek and Roman Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York; Dr Jennifer Stager, professor of art history at Johns Hopkins University; and Dr Andres T Reyes, a faculty member of Groton School.

As assistant director of the BSA from 1961 to 1963 Sackett began collaborating with Mervyn Popham, first at Palaikastro, then at the Unexplored Mansion at Knossos, and finally at Lefkandi on Euboea, a crucial site for the prehistory and early Dark Ages of Greece.

The famous Centaur of Lefkandi was found in one of the very rich tombs demonstrating surprisingly close ties with the eastern Mediterranean. A hero shrine was also uncovered dating to around 1,000 BC, with horse and human burials, including a bronze crater containing the cremated remains of a man wrapped in a fringed linen cloth – one of the earliest preserved pieces of clothing from the Aegean.

At Knossos in Crete, with customary generosity, Sackett agreed to excavate and publish the “post-Minoan” or post-Bronze Age levels, then generally considered of less interest and less rewarding than the prehistoric remains that clearly lay beneath.

His brilliant attention to detailed stratigraphy is apparent in the publication of the Protogeometric to Roman levels, a milestone in the archaeology of Crete. None of his work would have been possible without the support and encouragement of Groton School.

As well as being an excavator of great precision, Sackett also had a reputation as an archaeological divining rod. Long before there were infrared aerial photographs, his instinct for identifying locations that would appeal to ancient peoples would prompt him to say “dig here”, and it often bore fruit.


In the 1960s, with Mervyn Popham, he had excavated at the prehistoric town of Palaikastro in Crete. He returned there for survey and a much larger excavation, co-directed with Sandy MacGillivray and Jan Driessen, from 1983 to 2003, with study seasons following annually until he became ill.

Former Groton students took part every year, alongside more experienced archaeologists and students of numerous nationalities. The excavations uncovered impressive town houses, one of which, destroyed by a fierce fire around 1450 BC, produced the torso of a burnt ivory statue.

It had been deliberately smashed during the destruction of the town, either during a local uprising or by attackers from elsewhere in Crete, perhaps even Knossos, with the help of Mycenaean mainlanders. Other fragments had been scattered far and wide, yet by carefully sieving the soil from the area, small pieces were recovered, including parts of the gold sandals on veined ivory feet, and the serpentine head, with rock crystal eyes, of the Minoan youth; it was the celebrated Palaikastro Kouros.

Meanwhile, Sackett invited Eleanor Davis (née Childs) to join the Palaikastro team, her three children having participated, as former Groton students, in earlier years. They married, and worked together in the study seasons that followed, while living most of the year at Groton, where he continued to teach and attend chapel into his late eighties.

Hugh Sackett was a man of quiet gentle humour, with a positive outlook and an inquiring mind. He nurtured young minds at Groton, and challenged fellow archaeologists in the Aegean to interpret as imaginatively as he did.

He was a vice-president of the BSA, the founding president of the BSA Foundation in the US, and a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London.

His wife Eleanor survives him with his three stepchildren.

Hugh Sackett, born August 13 1928, died April 12 2020