William H. Waldren

Self-taught archaeologist devoted to the exploration of Majorcan prehistory
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The Independent Online

William Henre Waldren, archaeologist and artist: born New York 5 February 1924; three times married (five daughters); died Oxford 26 November 2003.

When William H. Waldren first arrived in the Spanish island of Majorca in 1953, at the age of 29, on vacation from his artistic career in Paris, he had neither academic qualifications nor any experience of archaeology.

Inspired by the well-preserved prehistoric monuments from Majorca's Bronze Age Talayotic culture, which had been excavated in the early 20th century, Waldren determined to devote himself to the field exploration of Majorcan prehistory. Within a few years, in the early 1960s, he had made a series of outstanding discoveries, particularly in the rock shelters of Son Matge and the cave of Son Muleta, in the northern, mountainous region of the island, between the towns of Valdemossa and Soller. In subsequent years, dozens of other important archaeological sites were identified and excavated by Waldren on Majorca and Minorca.

Son Muleta cave, a natural animal trap, preserved abundant remains of the now extinct native mammals of the island, notably the dwarf antelope-like creature Myotragus balearicus, which was found in abundance along with human remains. This revolutionised ideas of the prehistory of the island, as the extinct Myotragus was thought to have died out before the end of the last Ice Age. Waldren brought to bear a battery of scientific techniques on the archaeological and palaeontological materials from the cave, dating not only the survival of the fauna but the first appearance of human populations.

At the rock shelter of Son Matge, Waldren found a deep stratigraphy unique for the Balearic Islands, spanning the sixth millennium BC to the Roman period, with very large numbers of human burials. During the 1970s and 1980s, Waldren's excavation work extended to prehistoric settlement sites, uncovering the large fortified Chalcolithic site of Son Ferrandell-Oleza and the ritual sanctuary of Son Mas, near Valdemossa. These sites, with their distinctive incised pottery, belong to the European Bell-Beaker complex.

Waldren was essentially a self-taught, self-made man. From humble beginnings in New Jersey during the Depression, he went to art school, learning painting, ceramics and sketching. During the Second World War he learned map-making and mechanical drawing, unwittingly honing his skills for a future archaeological career.

As a young man Waldren was developing as a successful artist in New York and also became national novice figure-skating champion (later touring with Sonja Henie's show Holiday on Ice). After the war he remained focused on art, and with the aide of the GI Bill studied at the Académie Julien in Paris. However, Paris and its art scene began to lose its allure, and in the1950s he discovered the scenically spectacular village of Deyá, in Majorca. This was an ideal retreat for a growing influx of distinguished foreign artists and writers, of whom the best known was Robert Graves. Waldren decided to settle there.

After he met in Deyá Jacqueline Brown, who in 1960 was to become his third wife (and is now an Oxford anthropologist), his art career continued to improve and in 1960 he landed a contract with the prestigious Dwan Gallery in Los Angeles. It was around this time that he began his archaeological explorations in earnest and by 1965 he had ended the gallery contract to concentrate on excavations, which soon took precedence over art. Waldren, surrounded by his new family and friends, devoted himself to archaeology, relying on various sources of income ranging from architectural work to decorating discotheques in Palma in order to fund his projects.

His friendship with local landowners facilitated permissions to reconnoitre several promising sites, later to be excavated in detail by volunteers. Waldren then proceeded to design and build an architectural and functional masterpiece which fitted beautifully into the exotic local topography of Deyá and which since the 1970s has served as residence, research centre, museum and visitors' accommodation: the Deyá Archaeological Museum and Research Centre (Damarc).

In 1974 Waldren became involved with Earthwatch, a charitable foundation funded by paying volunteers who take part in archaeological and environmental projects around the globe. Along with the Heinze Foundation, the Smithsonian Institution, National Geographic, the National Science Foundation, and many private donors, Earthwatch has been a major supporter of the work of Damarc. The centre has since been host to over 3,000 Earthwatch volunteers who provided Waldren with a labour force for the excavations and who in return enjoyed the unique ambience of Deyá at the research centre, as well as the extensive hospitality of Bill and Jackie Waldren.

After over a decade of pioneering archaeological work in Majorca, Waldren decided to try for an academic qualification and applied to Linacre College, Oxford, in 1975 to work for an advanced degree. He was accepted on the obvious strength of his achievements. He subsequently mastered (not without some initial setbacks, but with the help of sympathetic research supervisors) the disciplines of academic writing, and in 1981 produced a massive doctoral thesis, Aspects of Balearic Prehistoric Ecology and Culture. Waldren always regarded the award of an Oxford doctorate as one of the proudest achievements of his life.

Waldren maintained his affiliation both with Linacre College and with the Baden-Powell Quaternary Research Centre, spending part of each year in Oxford working on the results of his continuing excavations. In addition he held Research Fellowships at St Catherine's College, Oxford, and Churchill College, Cambridge, during the late 1980s. Always creative and innovating, Waldren was a pioneer in video-recording and in computer-based recording and publication, as well as a great networker and tireless organiser of conferences. The results of over four decades of research were published by Waldren and colleagues in numerous books, journals and conference reports.

Waldren was a charismatic person, whose forceful and sympathetic character inspired enormous loyalty, quite apart from the wide appreciation of the quality and range of his teaching. He seldom missed a day of excavations with his Earthwatch teams, and was a perfect leader in the field. He had a sixth sense of where to find the best artefacts, and when others beat him to it their reward was a much sought-after, energetic bear-hug.

Never losing his artistic inspiration (no piece of wood, stone or metal was safe in his presence), he continued to produce a steady stream of art work throughout his life. From his art to archaeology, computing to photography, sculpture to poetry, Waldren was a man who could turn his hand to anything, with outstanding results.

Andrew Sherratt