Elizabeth Eames: Influential, widely published archaeologist whose expertise was in medieval floor-tiles

In 1949 Elizabeth Eames became Special Acting Assistant Keeper in the Department of British and Medieval Antiquities in the British Museum. She had been appointed to unwrap and catalogue the department's collections, which had been sent away to safe places for the duration of the Second World War. But before long she was invited to work on the collection of medieval floor-tiles that the trustees had acquired, with a grant from the National Art Collections Fund from the Duke of Rutland in April 1947 to augment the not inconsiderable collection already in the museum.

Writing in the Archaeological Newsletter for October 1948, Rupert Bruce-Mitford discussed progress in medieval archaeology, referring to a landmark in the subject, the London Museum Medieval Catalogue, to Gerald Dunning's work on medieval pottery – and to the British Museum's plans to publish a catalogue of its medieval tiles, so recently enlarged by the acquisition of the Rutland Collection. He remarked that with these works "the foundations of medieval archaeology will have been well and truly laid".

By the 1960s Eames's domain was a tiny room at 1a Montague Street, with a desk, filing cabinet, bookcase and a phone, which she disliked using. In the basement were three rooms, with racks and low-drawered mahogany cabinets containing the largest and most important collection of medieval floor-tiles in the world.

The Rutland acquisition included the Canynges pavement from Bristol, pieces of pavement from Halesowen, West Midlands, part of a pavement from Burton Lazars, Leicestershire, tiles from Byland Abbey, Yorkshire, from the tile-kiln at Bawsey, Norfolk, and masses of tiles from the abbeys at Hailes, Chertsey, Rievaulx and Maxstoke Priory. Already in the museum's collection were more than 3,000 tiles from Chertsey Abbey and the decorated wall-tiles from Tring, Hertfordshire.

The list of material demonstrates the enormous diversity and quality of tiles that Eames had to study and understand. Nothing had been published properly and questions about the techniques of production had never been raised. Eames had to start from scratch, acquiring an unsurpassed knowledge of the literature.

She did so with alacrity, publishing many seminal papers and contributions to articles, as well as her own Medieval Tiles: a handbook (1968), followed by English Medieval Tiles (1985) and English Tilers (1992). She established a thorough academic approach and made this neglected subject her career, transforming the study of floor-tiles over the whole of Europe. The British Museum's collection was finally published in 1980 as the two-volume Catalogue of Medieval Lead-Glazed Earthenware Tiles in the Department of Medieval and Later Antiquities, British Museum – with 14,000 tiles listed and illustrated with more than 3,000 designs.

She was born Elizabeth Graham in Northampton in 1918, the eldest child of Fred Graham, a research chemist, and his wife Eva. After Rugby High School she went to Newnham College, Cambridge (the first pupil from her school to win a place at the university) and there read English for part II, before changing to Archaeology and Anthropology. Following war service in the ATS, she gained an MLitt – on women in Viking society – from Cambridge in 1950, having studied at the University of Oslo in 1947-48. She joined the British Museum in 1949, the same year that she married Herbert Eames, a solicitor and later a Conservative councillor in Lewisham, south-east London.

Much of Elizabeth Eames's work was delivered as lectures to the Society of Antiquities of London (she was elected a Fellow in 1958), or to the British Archaeological Association, which she had joined in 1950, and in whose journal she published regularly. She was a member of the BAA's council for three terms, serving for 17 years, and was elected vice-president in 1978.

In preparing the BM catalogue, Eames engaged many young illustrators, who had to meet her rigorous standards, although, surprisingly, she never published any of her own drawings. For more than 40 years anyone who had floor-tiles to discuss went to see Eames. Welcoming, always, generous with time and information, she was the fulcrum of medieval-tile studies.

I nervously went to see her in 1966, having become interested in some tiles from North Devon. Eames was stunningly encouraging, urged more field work and research and then suggested that the result should be submitted for an essay prize. Floor-tiles studies have remained for me an interest ever since. And I am only one of several students whose work was greatly influenced by Elizabeth Eames.

In her publications there is scarcely a county in England which does not have a note or article. On a wider academic front she was well respected and known overseas. So much so that a small seminar held in the British Museum in March 1983, to mark the publication of her catalogue, was attended by fellow scholars from France, Germany, Denmark, Ireland and Holland. Significantly, catalogues of tiles from Germany and Denmark are modelled on Eames's BM catalogue, and with Tom Fanning she produced an important corpus of Irish medieval tiles, published in 1988.

During her career she supervised or helped with excavations on medieval kilns at Meaux Abbey, Yorkshire (1957-58), Clarendon Palace in Salisbury (1967-68) – organising the lifting of two pavements and the kiln itself to the British Museum – Ramsey Abbey, Cambridgeshire (1967-68) and Haverholme Priory in Lincolnshire (1970). In the early 1970s she created a new gallery at the museum to display the collection of tile pavements and kilns.

Eames, with Dr A.B. Emden, with support from the British Academy, established the Census of Medieval Tiles in Britain in the late 1960s, engaging a large number of field workers to assemble material from the English counties. Census volumes for Dorset and Wales have been published and similar volumes for Somerset and the whole of northern England have also appeared. Without Eames's impetus, these volumes and many other publications by specialists would have been impossible.

But Eames's contributions to medieval studies were not confined to her work on floor-tiles. Throughout her busy personal and family life she worked assiduously for the City Literary Institute, London University Department of Extra Mural Studies, the City University and the WEA (London District). For more than 45 years she taught a wide variety of courses, which were frequently oversubscribed. She commanded great respect and the admiration of thousands of students.

Eames was president of the Surrey Archaeological Society, and the Southwark and Lambeth Archaeological Society; she served as governor of special-needs schools in the London borough of Lewisham and was associated with the Horniman Museum for many years.

Elizabeth Sarah Graham, archaeologist: born Northampton 24 June 1918; Special Acting Assistant Keeper, Department of British Archaeology 1949-80; MBE 1978; married 1949 Herbert Eames (died 1983; one son, two daughters); died Hampstead, London 20 September 2008.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Life and Style
Fans line up at the AVNs, straining to capture a photo of their favourite star
life Tim Walker asks how much longer it can flesh out an existence
Life and Style
Every minute of every day, Twitter is awash with anger as we seek to let these organisations know precisely what we think of them
techWhen it comes to vitriol, no one on attracts our ire more than big businesses offering bad service
Professor David Nutt wants to change the way gravely ill patients are treated in Britain
people Why does a former Government tsar believe that mind-altering drugs have a place on prescription?
Norway’s ‘The Nordland Line – Minute by Minute, Season by Season’ continues the trend of slow TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Arts and Entertainment
Jonny Evans has pleaded not guilty to an FA charge for spitting at Papiss Cisse
Life and Style
Kate Moss will make a cameo appearance in David Walliams' The Boy in the Dress
The image released by the Salvation Army, using 'The Dress'
Liverpool defender Kolo Toure
football Defender could make history in the FA Cup, but African Cup of Nations win means he's already content
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Technical Presales Consultant - London - £65,000 OTE.

£65000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Technical Presales Engineer - central London ...

Recruitment Genius: Physiotherapist / Sports Therapist

£20000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Physiotherapist / Sports Ther...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive / Advisor

£8 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives / Advisors are required...

Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Operative

£14000 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for a...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

Homeless Veterans campaign

Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

Lost without a trace

But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

Confessions of a planespotter

With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

Russia's gulag museum

Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

The big fresh food con

Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

Virginia Ironside was my landlady

Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

Paris Fashion Week 2015

The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
8 best workout DVDs

8 best workout DVDs

If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

Paul Scholes column

I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable