Richard Avent

Archaeologist and conservationist who was a pioneer in the study of Welsh castles
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The Independent Online

John Richard Avent, archaeologist: born Cookham, Berkshire 13 July 1948; Assistant Curator, Carmarthen Museum 1971-73; Assistant Inspector of Ancient Monuments, Wales 1973-76, Inspector 1976-84, Principal (later Chief) Inspector of Ancient Monuments and Historic Buildings 1984-2006; FSA 1979; President, Cambrian Archaeological Association 2006; married 1980 Sian Rees (one son, one daughter, and one son deceased); died Gozo, Malta 2 August 2006.

With the death of Richard Avent, in a diving accident in Gozo together with his younger son, Rhydian, Wales has lost one of its most senior and respected archaeologists and conservationists and a noted exponent on Welsh castles. Avent had led the Inspectorate of Ancient Monuments and Historic Buildings within Cadw, the Welsh Assembly Government's historic environment service, for 22 years.

He brought to the post wide experience of Welsh archaeology, deep understanding of the problems of protecting, conserving and managing ancient monuments, considerable knowledge of archaeopolitics in Wales and his own specialist interest in Welsh castles. Underlying all of this was his enthusiasm for communicating his knowledge to the public. His leadership of his team of archaeologists and architectural historians was strengthened by his care for his staff.

Avent made three significant and lasting contributions to Welsh archaeology. In the late 1970s, in the face of the rising tide of rescue archaeology, he played a pivotal role in the creation and support of the four Welsh archaeological trusts (Clwyd-Powys, Dyfed, Glamorgan-Gwent and Gwynnedd). This was a unique approach to the structural problems of responding to rescue archaeology and it is a tribute to his foresight that the trusts have weathered the vicissitudes of the last 30 years, adapting to the changing circumstances and survive to this day.

Contrary to popular belief, the practice of archaeology changes over time. In the 1990s Avent had to respond to the shift from studying individual sites to investigating the wider landscape, what has become known as landscape archaeology. As so often, Cadw followed its own distinctive course by producing the Register of Historic Landscapes in Wales, listing the best landscapes and thus helping to ensure their survival.

The Edwardian castles of north Wales are the best known of all Welsh castles. They are, however, not Welsh, but English. Avent was among those who pioneered the study of the Welsh castles, particularly the castles of the Welsh princes, culminating in his book, Cestyll Tywysogion Gwynedd - Castles of the Princes of Gwynnedd (1983). In this way he was part of the renaissance which led, in a wider framework, to the establishment of the Welsh Assembly Government.

Richard Avent was born in Cookham, Berkshire in 1948. During his childhood he led a somewhat peripatetic existence as his father was in the RAF. Following school at Reading Bluecoat School he read Archaeology at University College, Cardiff. He undertook research on Anglo-Saxon button brooches, one of his reports being published in the prestigious Archaeologia series of the Society of Antiquaries of London in 1982. A period of a year or so in Carmarthen Museum preceded his appointment as an Assistant Inspector of Ancient Monuments in Wales in 1973. He rose through the hierarchy to become Principal Inspector (later renamed Chief Inspector) of Ancient Monuments and Historic Buildings in 1984.

As head of the Inspectorate, Avent had wide and demanding duties: he was, in effect, the chief archaeologist for Wales, often directly advising his Minister. His value was recognised by his masters in the most clear way. For nine years, Avent organised a conference on Welsh archaeology intended to aid understanding of the subject and seek sensible ways of studying it. Every conference was attended by his Minister: an impressive achievement - for both.

Avent led his team from the front, but he was always open to suggestions. He supported the distinctive approach of reviewing classes of monuments to determine which should be protected through scheduling, and it was under his leadership that the listing of historic buildings in Wales was completed. Avent also participated in the publication of a new series of guide-books to Welsh monuments, which were received to universal acclaim. He was an excellent representative for Welsh archaeology, thoughtful, articulate, enthusiastic, but most certainly never pompous or bombastic. He was not keen on some of the new structures of British and European archaeology, but he loyally performed his duty at such gatherings, most recently in April when he participated at a forum on the future of state archaeology at the annual conference of the Institute of Field Archaeologists.

In spite of the demanding duties of his post, Avent was determined to retain some hands-on work. He achieved this through his excavations at Laugharne Castle and his publications on castles, not least in the Cadw guide-book series. These publications were but one part of his enduring keenness to communicate his knowledge, experience and enthusiasm to a wide audience. It is not surprising that his contributions to bodies such as the Castle Studies Group and Château Gaillard, the European conference on castles, were so much appreciated. Through these gatherings, Avent was able to bring to an international audience the results of work on Welsh castles and he, in turn, attained an international reputation.

In Britain his wise counsel was sought by ICOMOS, the International Council on Monuments and Sites. He helped to establish the UK World Heritage Committee, on which he served from its inception, and his support and advice was invaluable when preparing the nomination for the Castles and Town Walls of King Edward in Gwynedd World Heritage Site, which was inscribed in 1986. In 2005 he helped organise and lead the ICOMOS-UK summer meeting in North Wales.

Richard Avent was everything a professional officer in the Civil Service should be: knowledgeable about his own subject, skilful in its interpretation, a sound manager and administrator and a good front-man for his organisation.

David Breeze