Obituary: Cressida Ridley

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The Independent Culture
THE DEATH of Cressida Ridley marks the end of an era in which the British contribution to archaeological research in Greece has relied as much on the dedication, energies and indeed self-sacrifice of individuals as on the funding of research councils and universities. With a keen intellect, down-to-earth approach to life and an unsurpassed fund of knowledge and anecdote she would, and did, make an ideal companion on a desert island.

Her devotion to archaeology was aroused by participation in fieldwork with a local amateur group in the barrow-filled Wiltshire countryside and in 1961, she enrolled for the Postgraduate Diploma in Archaeology at the Institute of Archaeology in London, under the guidance of Professor John Evans.

Her success in this won her a scholarship to the British School of Archaeology at Athens, which became the focus for her research and earned her continued affection and support. Soon after, she had her first taste of fieldwork in Greece when she joined the excavations Professor Evans directed with Colin Renfrew (later Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn) on the tiny Aegean island of Saliagos.

What was originally intended as just one more in many interests became an absorbing passion to be maintained for the rest of her life. For the next 30 years, she hardly missed a summer's excavation, in Crete, Euboea, Greek Macedonia and Turkey, driving out and back each year through Austria and Yugoslavia, often alone, always intrepid.

She learnt modern Greek fluently and translated a number of books, including Stylianos Alexiou's guide to the Heraklion Museum. She visited museums and collections throughout Greece and the southern Balkans and became a leading expert on Greek neolithic pottery.

In 1971, she was invited to mount a rescue excavation at Servia in the Haliakmon valley, in collaboration with Dr Katerina Romiopoulou of the Greek Archaeological Service. This neolithic site was under imminent threat from a hydro-electric scheme and for three summers Ridley organised an international team, living in a soon-to-be-flooded village, with an erratic supply of electricity and water. The exploration of this site made a major contribution to understanding the architecture of a Greek village and its way of life seven millennia ago. Strategically situated on the principal route from northern to southern Greece, it lay beside the bridge which her uncle had blown up in the Allied retreat from Macedonia in 1941.

The large quantities of finds from the excavation, especially the pottery, were to occupy Cressida Ridley for many years to come, as she meticulously sorted and recorded them in the museum in Florina where they are now stored.

The preparation of an excavation report on any site is a laborious process, a true labour of love, and that on Servia has been no exception. By this spring the first volume of Servia - a Rescue Operation was ready in proof and Ridley had checked and discussed every page with her collaborators, and ruthlessly corrected their grammar. Publication will continue, but without the deep knowledge and sound judgement of the principal investigator.

Born Helen Cressida Bonham Carter in 1915, the granddaughter of H.H. Asquith, the eldest child of Sir Maurice and Lady Violet Bonham Carter and the sister-in-law of Jo Grimond, her outlook and politics were staunchly Liberal, but she remained on the periphery of political life. Both her boundless curiosity and capacity for logical analysis were fostered by regular visits to Austria and Eastern Europe between the ages of 15 and 19 to finish her education. Surprisingly, Victorian family attitudes prevented her from taking up a place at London University - which she would have exploited to the full - but did nothing to quench her catholic appetite for the arts and literature, music or science.

She found a partner with similar interests in Jasper Ridley (whose earlier exploits included a summons for common assault with a missile after he and his companions had defenestrated an inedible pudding served up once too often at the college table). They married in June 1939 but their life together was all too brief: Jasper enlisted and was killed in 1943 following an escape from a prisoner-of-war camp in Italy. Cressida was left to be both mother and father to the son, Adam, whom he never saw.

Fiercely independent and seemingly with boundless energy - she rarely slept for more than three or four hours in later years - her own war effort included training as a nurse and using her fluent German to contribute to propaganda broadcasts. She later made her home in Stockton, near Warminster, where in her childhood she had been a regular visitor.

She carried out time and motion studies for a local farmer as mechanisation continued its radical changes to the landscape and found time to take part in the many activities of the local community. She always read voraciously and kept up with all the developments in the arts. She had persuaded her father-in-law (as one of the trustees of the Tate), for example, to purchase Henry Moore's work when it was still little known. She had decided, if eclectic, tastes ("if Richard - Wagner; if Strauss - Johann").

Those who worked in Greece with her over the years have vivid memories: a vast repertoire of nursery rhymes to entertain the youngest members of the team or songs and madrigals to share with all; boiling eggs on a camping gas stove at four in the morning so that team mates would have no excuse to miss breakfast before an early start; exerting her formidable authority on workmen for whom male chauvinism was a way of life; discussing long into the cicada- loud night the latest perfomance of England's opening batsmen, the merits of the short list for the Booker Prize, the historical background to the Arab-Israel conflict, as well as the minutiae of neolithic pottery found at scores of different sites.

She was excellent company to students of all ages: famous for pithy comments or provocative debating positions. When offering her help she would rarely take no for an answer, with washing-up ("you wash, I'll smash"), insisting on giving up her camp bed to visitors ("don't mind me, I prefer sleeping on the floor") or her generosity to students from Britain or Greece, with her books, her advice or her house.

As a girl, she told us, she had hoped for a large family: she took pride in the achievements of her son, Sir Adam Ridley (even though he had been recruited into the Tory fold) and her daughter-in-law Biddy. Her three young grandsons, Jasper, Luke and Jo, gave her endless delight and a new lease of life. Those who shared with her the experience of discovery, the privations of rough living and the relaxation of informed conversation are proud to have been included, without question, as members of her extended family.

Cressida Ridley continued the great British tradition of collaboration between the expert amateur and the paid professional which has contributed so much to pushing back the frontiers of human knowledge, including our own past. Villagers in Greece often asked in recent years why she didn't retire and draw her pension: our only reply could be that she would only retire when she had found the answers to all her questions.

Kenneth Wardle

Helen Laura Cressida Bonham Carter, archaeologist: born London 22 April 1916; married 1939 Jasper Ridley (died 1943; one son); died Salisbury, Wiltshire 10 June 1998.