Born in Petersfield, Hampshire, Piggott was educated at Churcher's College and on leaving school in 1927 took up a post as assistant at Reading Museum where he developed an expertise in Neolithic pottery.
In 1928 he joined the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales and spent the next 5 years producing a revolutionary study of the site of Butser Hill, near Petersfield. He also worked with Eliot and Cecil Curwen on their excavations at The Trundle causewayed enclosure in Sussex.
In the 1930s he began working for Alexander Keiller, an amateur archaeologist who funded his work from the profits of his Dundee marmalade business. The two dug numerous sites in Wessex including Avebury and Kennet Avenue. In 1933, he joined his friend Grahame Clark in writing the highly significant, ‘The age of the British flint mines’, (Antiquity,1933); the resultant controversy brought about the founding of the Prehistoric Society. Still without any formal archaeological qualification, Piggott enrolled at Mortimer Wheeler's Institute of Archaeology, taking his diploma in 1936 and where he also met his wife, Peggy (Margaret Guido). In 1937 he published another seminal paper, The early Bronze Age in Wessex and with his wife went on in June 1939 to join the burial chamber excavations at Sutton Hoo at the invitation of Charles Phillips.
During the Second World War Piggott worked as an air photo interpreter and was posted to India where he spent time studying the archaeology of the sub-continent, eventually leading him to write the books Some Ancient Cities of India (1946) and Prehistoric India (1950). These experiences provided him with a valuable external view of European prehistory, which was to prove useful on his return to Britain.
After the war he went to Oxford studying the work of William Stukeley but in 1946 was soon offered the Abercromby Chair in archaeology at Edinburgh University succeeding Vere Gordon Childe. Piggott succeeded in making Edinburgh an archaeology department of international standing. He continued to publish widely including Neolithic Cultures of the British Isles (1954) which was considered highly influential until radiocarbon dating tests did not match its chronology. Piggott said that radiocarbon dating was "archaeologically unacceptable", because every other shred of evidence pointed towards his dates being correct. Ancient Europe (1965), however remained a popular survey of Old World prehistory for more than twenty years, demonstrating his view of the solidarity and continuity of the past in Europe. In 1956 his childless marriage ended.
In 1958 Piggott published a survey of Scottish prehistory, Scotland before History and, in 1959 one of a popular introductory volume, Approach to Archaeology. He was president of the Prehistoric Society from 1960 to 1963, then president of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland from 1967 to 1972, then president of the Council for British Archaeology from 1967 to 1970, and a trustee of the British Museum between 1968 and 1974). In 1963, he produced a thorough analysis of the Beaker culture in Britain, published as part of a Festschrift dedicated to Cyril Fox. Piggott's interest in the early history of the practice of archaeology led to him writing The Druids in 1968 whilst other books included Prehistoric Societies (with Grahame Clark), The Earliest Wheeled Transport (1983), followed by its sequel Wagon, Chariot and Carriage (1992) . His final book was Ancient Britain and the Antiquarian Imagination (1989).
He received the CBE in 1972, and was awarded numerous academic awards from scholarly institutions in Britain and abroad. He retired from the Abercrombie Chair in 1977 and awarded the gold medal of the Society of Antiquaries of London in 1983 and the Grahame Clark medal of the British Academy in 1992. He died of a heart attack at his home near Wantage in Berkshire on 23 September 1996 and his remains were cremated on 30 September at Oxford crematorium
Sites he excavated (often with Richard Atkinson) included:
- Cairnpapple Hill in West Lothian
- Wayland's Smithy in Oxfordshire
- West Kennet Long Barrow and Stonehenge in Wiltshire
- Bradley, R. "Obituary: Stuart Piggott", British Archaeology, No. 19, November 1996.
- Daniel, Glyn Edmund; Chippindale, Christopher. The Pastmasters: Eleven Modern Pioneers of Archaeology: V. Gordon Childe, Stuart Piggott, Charles Phillips, Christopher Hawkes, Seton Lloyd, Robert J. Braidwood, Gordon R. Willey, C.J. Becker, Sigfried J. De Laet, J. Desmond Clark, D.J. Mulvaney. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1989 (hardcover, ISBN 0-500-05051-1).
- Mercer, R. "Piggott, Stuart Ernest (1910–1996)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press, 2004.