Obituary: Professor G.D.B. Jones

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
WHEN G. D. B. Jones was at Oxford, one of his Classics tutors warned him that Roman Britain amounted to nothing more than "two wet bricks in a wet field". Jones's career stands as a firm rebuttal of such views.

His contributions to Roman archaeology cover a remarkable range of themes and areas and earned him an international reputation and a Chair at an early age. Over the years he sat on most of the leading national archaeological bodies and was especially proud to serve as a Royal Commissioner for Archaeology in Wales. He was influential during the 1970s in the campaign to change the nature of archaeology in Britain from an essentially amateur pursuit into a highly professional and regionally distributed service. Many of his students were inspired by him to seek careers in archaeology, but he also devoted time and effort to energising a variety of non-academic audiences.

Geraint Dyfed Barri Jones was born in 1936 and studied Greats at Jesus College, Oxford, in the late 1950s, but found himself increasingly drawn into Roman archaeology as one of the last pupils of Professor (later Sir) Ian Richmond.

Jones had a prodigious appetite for fieldwork, excelling in problem-oriented excavations that challenged academic orthodoxy, as in a remarkable programme of work investigating the developmental sequence of the western end of Hadrian's Wall (it made front-page news in The Times).

Throughout his career, fieldwork on Roman Britain was a central concern (An Atlas of Roman Britain, 1990). He developed excellent skills as an aerial photographer, and made pioneering surveys in Wales, Cumbria and in Scotland (notably the Moray region) - in each case largely self-funded. He followed up his discoveries with targeted trial excavations and the results transformed our knowledge of settlement in these frontier regions (as for instance in his 1985 book on Roman Cumbria, The Carvetii, co-authored with Nicholas Higham).

Similarly, his work on Roman mining in Britain brought about a significant reappraisal of the scale and sophistication of such activity at sites like Dolaucothi in South Wales, where he identified complex hydraulic mining structures at Britain's only known Roman gold mine.

His involvement in archaeology abroad was also to be influential across a series of fields: rural settlement patterns, urban topography and ancient mining. Through his DPhil research on Italy in 1959-63 he became involved in the South Etruria Survey co-ordinated by John Ward-Perkins, then Director at the British School at Rome (his reports on the Ager Capenas area remain one of the enduring achievements of the project). He was subsequently employed in 1963-64 as a post-doctoral researcher on the Apulia project, utilising a remarkable aerial survey carried out in southern Italy by John Bradford (Neolithic Apulia, 1987).

Then, in the late 1960s, came the first of his major phases of Libyan fieldwork, with excavations at the classical cities of Tocra and Euesperides (early Benghazi), followed by a foray into Spain, where he carried out important work on the Rio Tinto complex of ancient mines and Roman gold mines at Las Medulas, building on his growing knowledge of comparable British sites.

From 1979 to 1989 he co-directed a project which explored the technology of Roman period farming in the Libyan pre-desert, with the results published in more than 30 specialist articles and an acclaimed two-volume final report (Farming the Desert: the Unesco Libyan Valleys Survey, 1996). Returning to the problems of Libyan coastal cities, he helped co-ordinate and edit the publication of earlier British work at Lepcis Magna (The Severan Buildings of Lepcis Magna, 1993).

Appointed lecturer in ancient history and archaeology in the Department of History at Manchester University in 1964, Barri Jones was a key player in the eventual creation of a Department of Archaeology. In 1971, he was promoted to Professor of the department, which, though small, had quickly gained a national profile.

As a teacher he could be inspirational, not least because he had the rare knack of getting students to share his total enthusiasm for the subject. The 1970s were the peak years of the department, with a succession of graduates and doctoral students from this period finding employment in the burgeoning professional units and in university posts.

Jones was one of a small band of highly committed archaeologists who campaigned for increased protection for the heritage in law, higher funding and the creation of a network of professional archaeological services. In the late 1960s the regional organisation of archaeology was still largely based on amateur societies, with a small and under-funded central service within the Department of the Environment. As Secretary of Rescue, the charitable trust set up to campaign for legislation to safeguard the archaeological heritage, he was instrumental in securing the transition of British archaeology to a highly professional and statutory regional service (as documented in detail in his book Past Imperfect: the story of Rescue archaeology, 1984).

He practised what he preached in the North-West, through a series of Rescue excavations (published as Roman Manchester in 1974 and Roman Lancaster in 1988), which demonstrated that real archaeological potential lurked beneath unpromising Victorian slum clearance. In 1980 he persuaded the Greater Manchester Council to set up its own archaeological unit (GMAU), which despite changes in funding base and name still continues.

Jones was a great populariser of archaeology, whether in his dealings with farmers, local societies or the media. Wherever he carried out fieldwork he developed networks of firm friendships - often people who found a commitment to their local heritage through his encouragement. From 1979 to 1988 he edited a national archaeological magazine, initially known as Popular Archaeology, later as Archaeology Today, and, when this was discontinued, he contributed to another, Minerva. The public interest he stimulated and sustained (at personal and financial cost to himself) was a service of lasting value to the whole archaeological community.

It is fair to say that Barri Jones did not live life the easy way; indeed he seemed to shun the safe option. All these commitments, and his own restless drive, meant that he was frequently juggling with too many balls in the air, and occasionally balls were dropped. In truth he was a better starter than a finisher (harsh though that judgement may seem of a man with 10 books and well over 100 articles to his credit), and he too readily made promises that were impossible to keep when there were only 26 hours in his day. Chaos was frequently averted only by the timely intervention of his long-serving secretary, Sylvia.

But, whilst he might sometimes disappoint and infuriate by his lateness or sins of omission, working with Jones was always exciting and fun, as is clear from a rich stock of unforgettable stories. He was generous, charming and sparkling company, giving purpose and direction to many people's lives. He was completely lacking in malice and took a positive interest in others, making them see a potential in themselves they had not suspected.

At the same time he was guarded about his own private life, which was not always easy or happy (he was twice married and twice divorced). His archaeological preoccupations and his willingness to subsidise his work from his own pocket did not sit easily with family life, though he was in truth a devoted father and talked of his children with pride. Yet, in his last months, he seemed to have found a new equilibrium: a new partner and impending retirement had rejuvenated him.

How ironic and tragic then that he should be snatched away from us by a sudden heart attack as he reached the summit of one of his beloved Welsh mountains.

Geraint Dyfed Barri Jones, archaeologist: born St Helens, Lancashire 4 April 1936; Lecturer, Manchester University 1964-71, Professor of Archaeology 1971-99; married 1967 Vicki Sanderson (one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved 1983), 1983 Brigitte Bowland Barrett (one daughter; marriage dissolved 1998); died Waun Doch, Gwynedd 16 July 1999.