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
Arts and Entertainment
Joe Cocker performing on the Stravinski hall stage during the Montreux Jazz Festival, in Montreux, Switzerland in 2002
musicHe 'turned my song into an anthem', says former Beatle
News
Clarke Carlisle
sport
Sport
footballStoke City vs Chelsea match report
Arts and Entertainment
theatreThe US stars who've taken to UK panto, from Hasselhoff to Hall
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Life and Style
Approaching sale shopping in a smart way means that you’ll get the most out of your money
life + styleSales shopping tips and tricks from the experts
News
newsIt was due to be auctioned off for charity
News
Coca-Cola has become one of the largest companies in the world to push staff towards switching off their voicemails, in a move intended to streamline operations and boost productivity
peopleCoca-Cola staff urged to switch it off to boost productivity
Environment
Sir David Attenborough
environment... as well as a plant and a spider
Voices
'That's the legal bit done. Now on to the ceremony!'
voicesThe fight for marriage equality isn't over yet, says Siobhan Fenton
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Austen Lloyd: Regulatory / Compliance / Exeter

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: Exeter - An excellent opportunity for a Solici...

Ashdown Group: IT Support Technician - 12 Month Fixed Term - Shrewsbury

£17000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Helpdesk Support Technician - 12 ...

The Jenrick Group: Maintenance Planner

£28000 - £32000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: Maintenance...

The Jenrick Group: World Wide PLC Service Engineer

£30000 - £38000 per annum + pesion + holidays: The Jenrick Group: World Wide S...

Day In a Page

Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there