Donald Henson (1956-2021)

By now, many of our readers who knew Donald Henson will have heard the sad news of his death, in April 2021, at the young age of almost 65 years, after a short illness. His long-time friend and colleague, Mark Hall, here recalls something of Don’s life for us.

I knew Don as teacher, colleague and friend and like so many others will miss his unfailing enthusiasm and humour and his committed fostering of the next generation in archaeology. He was a long-standing friend of and contributor to the EAA. His first annual meeting was at Riva del Garda in 2009, becoming a regular attendee thereafter: Den Haag, Helsinki, Plzeň (where both of us could not believe our luck of a free p*ss up in a [great] brewery), Istanbul, Glasgow, Maastricht and Barcelona. A valuable contributor to debates he also joined the EAA’s select group of highly enthusiastic dancers at the Annual Party and, for both of us, was always a welcome chance to catch-up and talk archaeology and sample beer. At each conference he organised and/or contributed to sessions and roundtables, generally on a theme linked to archaeology’s educational role – one of his driving passions and one that latterly took him as far afield as Japan and Korea as an educational consultant.

Donald was born in 1956, in Chester, and grew up initially in Penwortham, Lancashire and then, from 1965, in Swansea, South Wales (where he acquired a life-long passion for the locally brewed Brains SA, or ‘Skull Attack’ to its afficionados). In 1978 his long association with the University of Sheffield began, where he successfully studied for his BA in Prehistory and Archaeology. He followed this with short-term contracts with Sheffield Museums and Creswell Crags Visitor Centre (now Museum and Prehistoric Gorge) and began his long-term involvement in adult education across several universities. He returned to Sheffield University in 1982 to carry out an MPhil on prehistoric lithics. It was there I first met Don, who was one of my tutors during my first-year study of Prehistory and Archaeology, and where we first got to know The Black Cat public house. I recall thinking how unusual it was to come across someone who was equally passionate about prehistoric lithics and Anglo-Saxon elites. His MPhil was conceived of as a platform for a PhD in which he sought to combine his liberal democrat politics as a framework for understanding Neolithic social dynamics, which eventually stalled.

Unfazed, he picked up another passion, for education and public archaeology, when he was appointed to the post of Outreach Officer for Wakefield Museums, Galleries and Castles, in 1988 (mainly to engage with secondary schools). It was there that our paths once more crossed and lead to our enduring friendship. I joined Wakefield Museums in 1989 and had terrific fun with Don establishing the Wakefield Archaeological Society through our co-organising of an archaeology evening class through Leeds University (where Don also carried out extramural fieldwork with Roger Martlew, at Kettlewell in the Yorkshire Dales, and where Donald made his greatest discovery, the love of his life, Emma). The field trips we planned were particularly convivial as Don and I ensured they were appropriately leavened with pub stops. Don’s passion for doing was matched by his passion for recording – he leaves a huge resource of notebooks and journals that document an individual’s life and its network of interactions. The second day of our re-acquaintance in Wakefield he told me he had the previous evening looked out all my essays written for him as a student just to remind himself how I had been and that the marks impressed him – this somehow became a firm foundation of our friendship. We were drawn together by archaeology, but our friendship ripened through our shared appreciations of beer – in Wakefield our local was The Beer Engine, in York, which we visited almost every Saturday, it was the then legendary Spread Eagle (and its prodigious chip butty’s) – food, chocolate, the Anglo-Saxons (fuelled by the second-hand bookshops of York), books and film (he was a devotee of the films of Powell and Pressburger and of Martin Scorsese).

Eager for a fresh challenge Don left Wakefield in 1994, joining the Council for British Archaeology as their Head of Education. He arrived at the right moment with the right passion and proved fundamental to the development of archaeology at GCSE and A-Level, whilst never losing sight of the need for the encouragement of wider public engagement (including the Young Archaeologists Club, which he helped to run). He produced some key reference works during this time, perhaps the most significant, Teaching Archaeology: a UK Directory of Resources Handbook (1996); Archaeology in the English National Curriculum (1997) and the CBA Guide to Archaeology in Higher Education (1999). He staunchly fought a rear-guard action against the gradual loss of archaeology in adult continuing education and he successfully campaigned to ensure archaeology graduates did not need a Curriculum-specific qualification to take-up teacher training. He promoted the value and potential of archaeology at primary school level and various other initiatives including Learning Outside the Classroom and Engaging Places with Archaeology.

The economic collapse at the end of the first decade of the current millennium affected the CBA no less than other organisations and its reduced resourcing saw Don leave in 2011, taking-up the new venture of consultant in archaeological-education. This took him, as already indicated, as far as Korea and Japan. His latent passion for Japanese culture now came to the fore, leaving a lasting mark on his language repertoire and his eating habits. This phase of his life also facilitated his own return to higher education.

In 2014 he was awarded an Arts & Humanities Research Council Collaborative Doctoral Award to carry out a PhD, on this occasion at his ‘home’ University of York. His original PhD research now long abandoned he nevertheless stuck with prehistory, shifting focus slightly and drawing on his rich experience to pursue: The Meso-what? The Public Perception of the Mesolithic, a massive piece of work that tracked, through a wide array of media and resources, the way that the Mesolithic past had been perceived and portrayed over nearly a century. He was awarded his PhD ion 2017 and thereafter became a lecturer in Cultural Heritage Management with the Archaeology Department in York. Several conversations I had with him testified to how much he enjoyed this teaching and when we were catching up in York (invariably at the Minster Inn and The Maltings) we would meet students who would recognise him and make their high regard of him clear. His down-to-earth enthusiasm and humour made him very approachable to students.

Don’s funeral service took place on 29 April 2021, at York Cemetery and then York Crematorium. Covid-19 restrictions meant only 30 could be in attendance, so many more could have and would have been there, but Don would smile if they all lift a glass in his memory every now-and-then or take a chunk of chocolate (preferably both). His love of chocolate knew no bounds: the first time he tasted my chocolate mousse at a Wakefield Museum Christmas Party, he proclaimed loudly, in typical Don fashion, that he wanted to marry me and bear my children on the promise of more such mousse.

Don was very fond of quoting the wisdom of King Alfred the Great, usually in Old English, and so I can only bid farewell with these choice words of Alfred, which chime so much with Don and the life he led and worked for others, male and female alike:

“The saddest thing about any man is that he be ignorant,
and the most exciting thing is that he knows.”

Goodbye Donald, and in the words of the Arctic Monkeys, “you look good on the dance floor”.

Mark Hall (

Fig. 1: Donald and his session colleagues at EAA-Helsinki 2012 © Emma Townend

Fig. 2: Don in full flow giving his paper in Helsinki © Emma Townend

Fig. 3: Don at dialogic ease during his session at EAA-Barcelona 2018 © Emma Townend