Obituary: The Rev Professor Jack Plumley

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WHAT BROUGHT Jack Plumley to public prominence, his holding of the Chair in Egyptology at Cambridge from 1957 to 1977, was only a part of a varied life, the principal themes of which were service to others and a continuation of the venerable scholar- cleric tradition which has now become unfamiliar to most people.

He grew up first in the vicinity of Plymouth (retaining a slight West Country intonation in his voice) and then in London, his father working for what was to become the Esso Oil Company. He owed his first interest in ancient Egypt to the superintendent of his Sunday School in London who had served in Egypt and Palestine in the First World War. At Merchant Taylors' School Plumley showed great aptitude for ancient languages, not only Latin and Greek, but also Hebrew (which was still taught as a regular subject) and Syriac.

He went on, in 1929, to St John's College, Durham, to read Theology Honours (for Holy Orders), which also enabled him to continue his studies in Hebrew and Syriac. He was ordained in St Paul's Cathedral in 1933. There followed not the bookish tranquillity of rural parishes but the rough-and-tumble of a succession of London curacies and livings, beginning in Hackney. Plumley threw himself energetically into parish life, organising scout troops and learning the trombone and oboe for church orchestras. He remained a curate during the London blitz, giving extra duty at Great Ormond Street Children's Hospital.

Remarkably he found time to develop his interest in ancient Egypt by attending classes in Egyptology at University College London, and at this time became a close friend of two people who were to have a great effect on his life, Stephen Glanville, the Professor of Egyptology there, and Jaroslav Cerny, his successor. It was the latter who encouraged Plumley to develop an interest in Coptic, the last form of the ancient Egyptian language preserved during the early Christian period in the Nile Valley. Its outcome was Plumley's Introductory Coptic Grammar, published in 1948.

It was at this time that Glanville, by now appointed to the newly founded Herbert Thompson Chair in Egyptology at Cambridge, persuaded Plumley to take up a college church living at Milton, a village on the outskirts of Cambridge, from where he could also provide teaching in Coptic to university students. Nine years later, following Glanville's unexpected death, Plumley was himself offered the Chair in Egyptology.

His view of a university was that it should be a humane and dignifying place in which the development of rounded, well-balanced personalities was as important as the gaining of qualifications. He filled his new role with relish, giving his time to teaching, to coaching rowers from a bicycle along the river footpath, to concerts and amateur dramatics (his maternal grandfather had been a professional actor), to church and chapel duties, as well as to aspects of university administration, especially where they involved student health.

The early years of his tenure coincided with by far the largest example of international co-operation in archaeology that the world has seen, the campaign to rescue the monuments of Nubia ahead of the hugely enlarged reservoir behind the high dam at Aswan. Unesco was at the peak of its influence, and governments throughout the world heeded its call for money and archaeological teams for the scores of archaeological concessions into which the doomed area had been divided. One that Britain took on was the fortified town of Qasr Ibrim which towered on a rocky eminence some 60 metres above the river and was distinguished particularly by the well-preserved remains of a stone cathedral.

The Committee of the Egypt Exploration Society, the co-ordinating body for the British archaeological contribution, invited Plumley to carry out a small investigation of the site in 1963, with a view to full excavation later. Very much in the spirit of responding to another call to serve he accepted, seemingly unperturbed by this being his first exposure to field archaeology. In the end he directed seven seasons of excavation, eventually handing the responsibility to others who have continued to work profitably on the peak of the site which still survives.

The expedition had an adventure-film element. It was (and still is) based on a tall many-decked Nile houseboat towed the nearly 250km from Aswan lashed to a tug and housing the complete community of archaeologists and Egyptian workmen, marooned with two or three months of supplies. Plumley saw his role not only as the organiser of this logistically difficult project but also as the principal investigator, regarding archaeology as basically an application of the good sound common sense of which he had so abundant a supply.

The site proved to be exceptionally rich, for it preserves a record of life and history at a strategic centre in the Nile Valey from the time of the Pharaohs to AD 1812. Well-preserved debris, including numerous papyri, began to pour from the soil and created a research archive on which scholars will continue to work for many years to come.

An early dramatic discovery was the undisturbed tomb of a medieval bishop, Timotheos, clad in his vestments and accompanied by two handsome scrolls each nearly five metres long which, in Coptic and in Arabic, recorded a testimonial from the Patriarch of the Coptic Church in Alexandria. They provided indisputable evidence that, at least as late as the 14th century, the Christian Church was still surviving in Nubia in some strength. Plumley's scholarly edition of the scrolls, The Scrolls of Bishop Timotheos: two documents from medieval Nubia, was published in 1975.

The Ibrim excavations had a particular resonance for Plumley. He had already developed friendly relations with members of the hierarchy of the Coptic Church in Egypt, for which, as a traditionalist in religious matters, he developed considerable respect. He now found himself bringing to public attention a lost chapter in the history of Christianity in the Nile Valley. In a subsequent volume, Old Nubian Texts from Qasr Ibrim (1987), co-edited with Gerald Browne, he turned his attention to other fragments of religious manuscripts, possibly from the cathedral library, written in the Old Nubian tongue.

During his 20 years as professor Plumley had continued to take Sunday services throughout the Diocese of Ely. On his retirement in 1977 his life returned to its former pattern and he resumed his ministry for the Church full time, taking over one of Selwyn College's livings near Cambridge, the rectorship of Longstowe, whilst continuing to work in his spare time on more of the Ibrim papyri. He served this parish conscientiously for the next 14 years, until declining health persuaded him to take full retirement at last, in 1995.

Jack Plumley wore his scholarship and his religion lightly, no conversation or discussion getting far without a gently humorous anecdote. Yet he could express robust views, as in his preference for maintaining some of the older traditions of the Church of England. In a slightly gruff but good- hearted manner he was unusually generous with his time. As a junior colleague who benefited from this I also came to recognise that he somewhat and mischievously played up the image of the crusty representative of an older style of doing things, whilst quietly assisting the process of modernising the university.

He was a much-loved man, sustained by two harmonious marriages; his life ran in a calm seamless flow that is now hard to emulate.

Jack Martin Plumley, priest and Egyptologist: born Peverell, Devon 2 September 1910; ordained deacon 1933, priest 1934; Vicar of Christ Church, Hoxton 1942-45; Vicar of St Paul's, Tottenham 1945-47; Rector and Vicar of Milton 1948-57; Associate Lecturer in Coptic, Cambridge University 1949-57, Herbert Thompson Professor of Egyptology 1957-77; Fellow, Selwyn College, Cambridge 1957-99; Chairman, British Committee of International Critical Greek New Testament Project 1963-87; President, International Society for Nubian Studies 1978-82; Priest-in-Charge, Longstowe 1981-95; married 1938 Gwendolen Darling (died 1984; three sons), 1986 Ursula Dowle; died Cambridge 2 July 1999.