Obituary: Diana Kirkbride-Helbaek

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Diana Kirkbride-Helbaek was one of the last surviving grandes dames amongst British archaeologists who explored the Middle East in the early post-colonial years. Her death marks almost the end of a generation of formidable women whose contributions to the archaeology of western Asia were milestones. Her remarkable career places her among such luminaries as Dorothy Garrod and Dame Kathleen Kenyon, whose discoveries were among the most important in archaeological scholarship at mid-century.

Diana Kirkbride grew up in Southampton and Norfolk and attended Wycombe Abbey School in High Wycombe. During the Second World War, she served in the Women's Royal Naval Service; some of that time was spent in Southampton, where the WRNS base included a small library. A classic work on ancient Egypt inspired her decision to make archaeology her life's work. Lacking a first degree, but excused from it because of her war service, she pursued full-time study of Egyptology at University College London, obtaining a postgraduate diploma in 1950.

Yet it was western Asiatic archaeology which would emerge as her metier. She studied Mesopotamian archaeology under Sir Max Mallowan and Palestinian archaeology under Dame Kathleen Kenyon at the Institute of Archaeology, which was then an independent institution unrelated to University College. Mallowan and Kenyon became influential mentors. After only one year of study in Egypt on a small grant, and a brief flirtation with Assyrian archaeology in 1951, Kirkbride went to work as a site supervisor at Kenyon's excavation of Jericho. She remained a key member of the Jericho project from 1952 to 1955, having been charged with responsibility for the excavation of the many tombs found there.

At the time, the Jericho project was a benchmark for controlled stratigraphic excavation in Palestine (a region which Sir Mortimer Wheeler had once called "the land of archaeological sin"). Jericho launched the careers of a generation of British archaeologists who dispersed across western Asia to explore other regions and other problems. Kirkbride looked eastward.

In 1953, she formed a crucial alliance with the then director of the Jordanian Department of Antiquities, Gerald Lankester Harding, who took her on as a staff member. With Lankester Harding's guidance, she began a series of important field projects in Jordan. Among the first was what she would later say was her proudest achievement: the restoration of the South Theatre at Roman Jerash. It was a stunning task for an archaeologist with only a few years of experience.

Months of work ensued, during which time Kirkbride oversaw the construction of ramps, scaffolding, the cleaning of massive rubble from passageways and the reconstruction of columns and amphitheatre seats. Today the restored theatre is a central tourist attraction of Jordan and an annual arts festival is held there.

In 1956 her attention turned to the Petra region of southern Jordan. She excavated at Petra itself but soon began to explore the Palaeolithic and Neolithic sites in the area. In the 1950s, the early prehistory of southern Jordan was terra incognita, and indeed most of the archaeology of the region (apart from Petra itself) was an unmapped landscape. Kirkbride's discoveries in the area began with the excavation of a small late Palaeolithic rock shelter called Wadi Madamagh.

Not far from the shelter and only a few miles from Petra she discovered a small low ruin of Neolithic remains. The name of the site was Beidha. In 1958, with the backing of the British School of Archaeology in Jerusalem, she began to excavate there and continued to do so until 1967. During this period she often spent many months alone in Petra, save for the Bedouin, who had become trusted friends (and who still speak of her fondly to any archaeologists passing through).

The excavation of Beidha caused great excitement in the world of western Asiatic prehistory in the 1960s, for several reasons. Beidha was revealed as a small but impressive Neolithic village of the late eighth and early seventh millennia BC, in an arid setting of marginal rainfall and modest sources of permanent water. It was a first look at what was called at the time a "desert Neolithic" phenomenon.

Kirkbride's excavation (unlike Kenyon's) emphasised broad exposures and recovery of as much of the village layout as possible. This provided scholars with a window on how a Neolithic village looked as a whole; more crucially, it permitted observation of variations between Neolithic houses, including household "workshops" seemingly specialised in the production of beads and other crafts. Finally, Beidha contained a remarkable sequence of superimposed levels which gave the best evidence yet of how Neolithic vernacular architecture developed.

Such observations were made possible by Kirkbride's excavation of more than 70 per cent of the site, a sharp contrast to Kenyon's approach, which emphasised very fine stratigraphic control but in much smaller trenches, thus providing little information on village layout. It is a balancing act familiar to all archaeologists, but in certain respects time has been kinder to Kirkbride's broad area excavation approach, provided the tight stratigraphic controls can be maintained.

One member of the Beidha field team was a Danish archaeobotanist named Hans Helbaek, a scholar who had already begun a lifelong project of the study of plant domestication in western Asia. At the end of the 1960s, Helbaek and Kirkbride were married. At about the same time, Kirkbride was appointed Director of the British School of Archaeology in Iraq.

From her new base in Baghdad, she began a new series of explorations in northern Mesopotamia, which resulted in important discoveries at another Neolithic site, this one called Umm Dabaghiyah. Here Kirkbride- Helbaek exposed an enigmatic but extensive series of small cellular structures which may have served as storage facilities for a herding population, or, as she believed, a hunting group.

In the late 1970s, she left the Middle East to live in Denmark. By then she had lived in Jordan for almost 20 years and conducted excavations and surveys in Lebanon, Cyprus and Turkey. Among many honours she received in recognition of her work were Oxford University's Gerald Avery Wainwright Fellowship in Near Eastern Archaeology and the Fellowship of the Society of Antiquaries.

Even after the death of her husband in the late 1970s and after Diana Kirkbride-Helbaek herself had suffered a stroke, she continued to conduct fieldwork. In 1983 she returned to Beidha for one more season of excavations. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, despite increasing problems with her health, she continued to work, collaborating with younger scholars on the final publications on Beidha and Umm Dabaghiyah and planning new excavations in Wadi Rumm.

On frequent visits to London, she held court in the lounge of the University Women's Club in Mayfair, where, over drinks and hors d'oeuvres, she entertained colleagues and friends with news, gossip, amusing stories and arguments about the Neolithic.

The plans for excavation of a Nabataean temple in Wadi Rumm were a central theme of those years. She had written to a major funding body asking for a grant to begin the excavations. The grant body wrote back that, in view of her advanced years and her health, she would be required to take out additional insurance providing for special transport in the event that she should become seriously ill or die whilst in the field.

Quaking with laughter, she recounted this tale with the observation that the reviewers were simply too young and inexperienced to evaluate properly either the application or her stamina.

In 1988, several of us accompanied her to the Jerash arts festival, where a performance of Rigoletto was staged in the South Theatre. She had not been back to the theatre in years and had never seen a play or an opera performed in it. As dusk fell, and the music rose, she shifted in her seat and looked up and around at the setting. Quietly, and almost to herself, she said: "Restored, and now in use. Who would have thought it could ever happen?"

Diana Kirkbride, archaeologist: born 22 October 1915; married Hans Helbaek (deceased); died Aarhus, Denmark 13 August 1997.