The Monuments Men

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Kenneth Steer ( 1913-2007 )

British archaeologist Kenneth Steer was an expert on ancient Scottish monuments. Born in Rotherham, England on November 12, 1913, he began his studies in history at the University of Durham. In 1938 he was awarded a Ph.D. for his thesis, The Archaeology of Roman County Durham. His extensive knowledge of ancient monuments in Scotland led to his appointment as assistant archaeologist for the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland in Edinburgh in 1938. In addition to undertaking a survey of important Scottish monuments, he participated in field excavations of prehistoric and medieval sites in Roxburgshire, the Southern Uplands, and ancient Roman sites in northern England.

In 1941 Steer was commissioned into the British army and assigned to the Intelligence Corps. He participated in the Italian Campaign of 1943-1945 as head of the Air Photographic Interpretation Service, 56th Division. Toward the end of the war, he was transferred to a similar post in the 5th British Infantry Division. He joined the MFAA in June 1945 and was assigned to the MFAA North Rhine Division in Düsseldorf, Germany, where he worked alongside fellow British MFAA Officer Maj. Lionel Perry. Together, the two represented the U.K. in early plans for the organization of the various collecting points. Steer was also tasked with procuring building materials for first aid repairs to ancient and historic monuments heavily damaged during the war, including Cologne Cathedral. At monthly meetings of the Allied Control Commission, he argued for resources against competing claims for housing, schools and hospitals.

Steer left Germany in July 1946 and resumed his work with the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland. In 1957 he became Secretary (Chief Executive) of the Commission and, until his retirement in 1978, greatly expanded its influence. In addition to increasing the number of archaeologists working in the field, Steer established important partnerships with other national heritage institutions. He continued to conduct excavations and created inventories of historic monuments in Roxburgh, Selkirk, Stirling, and Peebles. In 1966 the Commission absorbed the staff and collections of the Scottish National Buildings Record. Together, the combined archives formed the basis of what is now the National Monuments Record of Scotland.

Steer remained an active champion of archaeology for the duration of his life. He served as President of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland from 1972-75 and was a corresponding member of the German Archaeological Institute. In 1977, in collaboration with Dr. J.W.M. Bannerman, a lecturer in the Department of Scottish History at Edinburgh University and a Gaelic scholar, he wrote Late Medieval Monumental Sculpture in the West Highlands. He was made a Commander of the British Empire in 1978.

Kenneth Steer died on February 20, 2007 in Cheltenham, England.