The Collectors: Edward Thurlow Leeds (1877-1955)

Edward Thurlow Leeds as an archaeologist and scholar was best known for his contribution to Anglo-Saxon studies. He was the first to integrate documentary and archaeological evidence to study the historical past.

Born on 29 July 1877 in Eyebury, Peterborough, Leeds was the second son of Alfred Nicholson Leeds, a palaeontologist and Fellow of the Geological Society. He was educated at Uppingham School before becoming a classical scholar at Magdalene College, Cambridge.

Photograph of E.T. Leeds
Edward Thurlow Leeds excavating at Sutton Courtenay

After his graduation in 1899, Leeds' first post was as a cadet in the Federated Malay States Civil Service, which took him to China for two years. Ill health ended this career in 1903 and in his five years of convalescence, Leeds spent much time on geological work in the gravel pits at Eyebury where his interest in archaeology developed.

In 1908, Leeds was appointed as Assistant Keeper in the Ashmolean Museum. Later the same year the museum was reorganised resulting in Leeds becoming the Assistant Keeper of the Department of Antiquities. Throughout this period of his Assistant Keepership Leeds' main research was on Anglo-Saxon archaeology. He was a prolific excavator, especially in Oxfordshire, and is considered instrumental in establishing modern archaeological research in the Oxford district. He was responsible for helping to refound the Oxford University Archaeological Society after the First World War.

The Leeds collection at the Ashmolean Museum includes many artefacts from Anglo-Saxon sites across England, as well as material from other periods, espeically sites in Oxfordshire.

In 1928, Leeds became Keeper of the Ashmolean and of the Department of Antiquities. He held both these positions until his retirement in 1945. Even after his retirement Leeds continued to work in the Ashmolean, where he catalogued collections of Chinese, Annamese and Korean coins in the Heberden Coin Room.

Leeds was interested many archaeological periods, researching and writing papers on archaeology from the Neolithic through to the medieval and early modern periods. He was also very interested in numismatics and was able to put his proficiency with Chinese and many European languages to good use in cataloguing and arranging coin collections.

His many publications include:

  • The Archaeology of the Anglo-Saxon Settlements, 1913
  • Celtic Ornament in the British Isles down to AD 700, 1933
  • Early Anglo-Saxon Art and Archaeology (Rhind Lectures), 1936
  • A Corpus of Early Anglo-Saxon Great Square-headed Brooches, 1949

Leeds died at his home in Oxford on 17 August 1955.

Further information about Leeds' work and publications can be found at:

Ashmolean Museum Archives and Artefacts website

Bibliography of Leeds' publications

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