Obituary: Derrick Riley
Saturday 28 August 1993
DERRICK RILEY, the aerial archaeologist, was a man of great achievement and even greater modesty.
Born in 1915 and educated at Haileybury College, Riley entered the steel industry in 1932 as a management trainee. When war broke out he became a pilot in Bomber Command flying first Wellingtons, then Mosquitoes, before he returned to the steel industry in 1946. He devoted the working hours of the next 30 years of his life to his management responsibilities at the British Steel Corporation at Stocksbridge.
In 1977 he took early retirement and launched himself on the career for which be had waited and planned since 1932 - as a full-time archaeologist. As a young man, Riley had already completed six seasons of fieldwork in Lincolnshire before war intervened. But while making a full contribution to the RAF's war effort, Riley took the opportunity his new job offered him, to observe archaeology from the air. First over the Thames Valley and then over the Fens, Riley accumulated photos (when permitted) and typically meticulous notes of the ancient sites which he saw from his Wellington and his Mosquito. By the time the war finished, Riley had not only earned a DFC but had also published his first three articles - all on archaeological air photography.
He marked his return to the steel industry in 1946 with the publication of his seminal paper 'Technique of Air-Archaeology', which is widely recognised as laying the foundations of aerial archaeology's methodology.
For the next 25 years Riley was grounded at Stocksbridge, but still maintained a steady flow of articles about archaeology in Yorkshire and Derbyshire. Then, in the early 197Os, he started flying again and in 1975 took his private licence, before early retirement. There followed 15 years of unparalleled achievement in the world of aerial archaeology. His first book, Early Landscape from the Air (1950), won the BBC Chronicle Award in 1981. By then he was an honorary lecturer in the Department of Archaeology and Prehistory at Sheffield University, had been awarded an Honorary Doctorate of the university, and had masterminded a new MA course in Aerial Photography.
In 1982 his second book appeared, Aerial Archaeology in Britain. Meanwhile, Riley had made his first visit to Jordan and begun to take a personal interest in aerial archaeology around the globe. There followed flying visits to Germany, France, Italy, Jordan, Israel and America. Air Photography and Archaeology (1987), his third book, reflected these wider horizons, and has become the definitive book on the subject for practitioners everywhere.
But Riley never forgot his roots, and in 1988 he edited, and wrote much of, Yorkshire's Past from the Air, while putting the final touches to Rome's Desert Frontier from the Air (1990), coauthored with David Kennedy, and based on their researches in Jordan. His last book, on aerial archaeology in Israel, was virtually finished when he was taken ill. In between this array of major monographs came a stream of more than 30 articles and a regular lecture course to students at Sheffield.
Derrick Riley's contribution to archaeology in general, and aerial archaeology in particular, can perhaps be measured by the sheer volume of his publications but it can never be truly appreciated in those terms. In everything he did, he was meticulous. His fieldwork and flying programmes were carefully planned in advance, books and papers were thoroughly researched, his lectures superbly prepared. His interpretation of aerial photographic evidence was sound and sober, and he was never tempted to dramatise his discoveries. Indeed he evaded the spotlight whenever he could, and he genuinely seemed never to realise just how impressive, important and original his work was.
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