Camilla Ada Dickson, nee Lambert, was born in 1932 in Histon, Cambridgeshire. Although she had no formal scientific training, she became one of the most skilled and respected environmental archaeologists of the late twentieth century. Her career began in the 1950s when she started work as a technician in the Sub-Department of Quaternary Research in the Botany School at Cambridge. There she worked with the pioneering pollen expert Sir Harry Godwin. She became an expert in the identification of pollen grains and seeds, providing the identifications for many of Sir Harry’s later papers. Her study sites ranged from medieval Shrewsbury, to Bronze Age burial urns from Bedfordshire, to post glacial Northamptonshire to interglacial Essex. At Cambridge, she was responsible for the Quaternary labs in the Botany School, and maintained the reference collection of seeds and sediments. Despite having no formal qualifications, she was publishing academic articles by 1963 as first named author. The details of her activities are included within the annual reports of the Sub-Department.

She married a Cambridge research student, James Dickson, and together they began a career focused primarily on plant remains from archaeological sites in Scotland. One of their first pieces of work together, the study of pollen from a Bronze Age cist burial at Ashgrove in Fife attracted wider archaeological attention as the presence of meadowsweet (Filipendula) pollen lead Camilla to suggest that the burial had been dressed with a garland of flowers. James suggested that honey or mead had been in the beaker and the contents had spilled into the grave. The fact that lime (Tilia) pollen was present in this grave may also suggest that the honey or mead was brought to Fife from further south. The discovery in 2009 of meadowsweet flowerheads preserved in a Bronze Age cist at Forteviot supports Camilla’s original interpretation.  However, the two explanations are not necessarily mutually exclusive. There are now several discoveries of meadowsweet pollen from prehistoric sites in Scotland, in Wales and mainland Europe. The controversy continues.

She was especially skilled at identification, and in the 1970s worked on plant remains from Bearsden Roman Fort, where she and James identified bran from imported cereals along with parasite eggs, which suggested that the ditch contained the soldiers’ sewage. To confirm her suspicion, and unbeknownst to James, she spent several days eating only wholemeal bread, and sieved and examined her ensuing waste, which closely matched the Roman material. Her study of charcoal from Scottish island sites, including the famous Neolithic village at Skara Brae in Orkney, revealed that driftwood from North America was being used as a fuel when it arrived.  In 1970, she published an introduction to the study of plant remains from Quaternary deposits in Walker and West’s Studies in the Vegetational History of the British Isles that remained a key text for many years. At the time of her death, in 1998, she was close to completing a book about plants in Scotland’s prehistoric past. Plants and People in Ancient Scotland was finished by James, and published in 2000.

Post by Lisa Lodwick and Matt Law

Photo of Camilla provided by her husband, James Dickson and used with permission. Image of Bearsden Roman Fort by Richard Sutcliffe and used under a Creative Commons Licence.


Dickson, J.H. 1978. Bronze Age mead. Antiquity 52, 108-112.

Lambert, C.A. Pearson, A.G. and Sparks, B.W. 1963. A flora and fauna from Late Pleistocene deposits at Sidgwick Avenue, Cambridge. Proc Linn Soc Lond 174: 13-30.


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3 thoughts on “Camilla Dickson

  1. Susan Ramsay says:

    Camilla was an excellent archaeobotanist but also one of the nicest, kindest people you could ever meet. I did my undergraduate and postgraduate degrees at Glasgow University. Jim Dickson supervised my undergraduate and PhD theses but Camilla spent many hours with me showing me how to identify pollen, wood, charcoal and seeds. I learned wood ID using the Skara Brae material that Camilla was working on at the time. She was the most meticulous person when it came to identifications and record keeping and her practical experiments were legendary (as with the Bearsden sewage example above!). She also reused everything and anything and would never spend money on something for the lab when she could make it herself. She is much missed.

  2. Charles Turner says:

    When I began work on Interglacial deposits for my PhD in the Subdepartment of Quaternary Research in Cambridge, it was Camilla who with a smiling face and firm hand guided me through all the laboratory procedures I needed to know. Pollen preparations involved the tricky business of boiling your sample for a few minutes in neat HF on a sand bath over bunsen burners in a very precious platinum crucible and other procedures with acetic anhydride and sulphuric acid. Health and safety were foremost and drummed in with a demonstration that glass filter paper would simply disappear in contact with HF! I identification of the trickier herb pollen types was treated as a challenge, a range of possibles was suggested and when you had tried them, the matter was discussed and you were put on the right course. Identification of fossil fruits and seeds was Camilla’s speciality. They may get broken or eroded and it then needs an artist’s eye to recognise what they once were. Camilla had just that eye, and when she pointed out the identity of some tiny battered object, it suddenly became obvious. She also loved to experiment with treating modern seeds, for example by heating them in a ball of clay, to artificially fossilise them, so that cell patterns were revealed that could be compared with actual fossil material. She was also a consummate artist, able to draw even the smallest seed under the microscope with great accuracy, and I still have her ink drawings of the range of British Juncus seeds, showing the intricate variations in their cell patterns.
    When she moved to Glasgow from Cambridge, she left behind a tradition of work that was vital for Quaternary research in the laboratory.

    1. Brenna says:

      What a wonderful message, thank you so much for writing. Training is such a critical part of archaeology, but hard to capture the importance without recollections like yours! Thanks for sharing the memory!


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