OBITUARY: Ralph Merrifield

Ralph Merrifield, archaeologist and museum curator: born Brighton 22 August 1913; married 1951 Lysbeth Webb (one son, one daughter); died London 9 January 1995.

Ralph Merrifield has been called the "father of London's modern archaeology", for he is the only person since the Second World War to map the remains of the Roman city, and was the first to reconstruct its beginnings nearly 2,000 years ago. His quiet manner obscured a steely determination to establish a quality of published archaeological scholarship that London had not seen since 1928, when the Royal Commission Report on Roman London was published.

Merrifield was born in Brighton in 1913, and was brought up by his mother, as his father had died when he was only three. It was whilst in the sixth form of Varndean Grammar School in 1930 that he seized the opportunity of working in Brighton Museum as an assistant to the curator H.S. Toms, formerly an assistant to the great General Pitt-Rivers. He was fascinated by the superb ethnographic collection which he catalogued, and decided to embark on a London External Degree in anthropology, whic h he achieved in 1935. This was to give him a lasting academic interest in the archaeological evidence for past religions and witchcraft in England, two subjects full of pitfalls for the unwary but which included such fascinating evidence as "witch- bottles". His book The Archaeology of Ritual and Magic (1987) is a masterly study of an unusual subject.

His attention for detail served well during the war, when he was involved in intelligence work in the RAF, particularly in interpreting air-photographs.

He returned to Brighton Museum when the war was over, but in 1950 was appointed Assistant Keeper of the Guildhall Museum in the City of London. This was more a "museum" in name only, for as a department of Guildhall Library it had no home, though the arrival of the new Keeper, Norman Cook, saw the opening of a small exhibition in a corridor-like room off the medieval Guildhall. By 1954 the museum had been moved to temporary premises in the Royal Exchange, where its offices were wedged between the grand pillars. The famous Roman Temple of Mithras was discovered by William Grimes that year and brought a public awareness of London's ancient origin.

In November 1956, Merrifield was assigned to Ghana for six months to set up the National Museum at Accra, an interlude that supplied him with many anecdotes. This museum of folk culture had previously been the University Museum of Ghana and was largely stored in cupboards. The new National Museum had to be ready for Ghana's independence day in April 1957, but when Merrifield arrived he found the building not completed. There followed a rush to get the exhibits ready for the opening by the Duchess of Kent; Merrifield vividly remembered the museum's first security guards, one armed with a sword and the other with a bow and arrows.

Although Ralph Merrifield was a museum man he saw the need for London's archaeological research to have a sense of direction, and in 1963 he gladly accepted the challenge offered by the publisher Ernest Benn to compile the first detailed study of Roman London for 35 years. The basis would be a map of all discovered ancient remains, including those that had turned up during the post-war rebuilding of the City. As one of the Guildhall Museum's staff then, I recall the extreme care with which Merrifield alone and largely in his own time plotted the fragmentary remains of Roman streets, houses and baths. My job of excavating on the City building sites was to find significant bits of information, and this was soon enlarged by the amateur members of my City of London Excavation Group, later to become the City of London Archaeological Society. Merrifield plotted the information on the maps, and began to predict the layout of streets in the Roman city - and I would go out and confirm or deny them on the sites.

One morning he arrived in the office brimming with excitement. The evening before, he had carefully plotted out fragments of all the ancient walls found under the great Roman forum. With his ruler he showed me how bits of walls lined up and seemed to hint at the existence of a previously unidentified large Roman public building, perhaps an earlier forum dating from about AD 90, only 50 years after the founding of London. A subsequent excavation, which he arranged, confirmed his suspicion, and the creditfor that major discovery is entirely his. That basilica and forum reflect when London first became a self-governing city with its own elected council.

Merrifield's book The Roman City of London was published in 1965 and still stands as the fundamental study. In 1983 another book interpreting the early city, London City of The Romans, brought together many of his ideas.

Ralph Merrifield was not entirely an armchair archaeologist, for he would visit the building sites when needed, and was responsible for the best of the Guildhall Museum's archaeological photographs. Whenever on a photographic session, however, he would ignore both bulldozers and draglines in crossing the site to set up his camera and tripod. He always wore his safety helmet back to front - a habit that puzzled others, but was perfectly sensible to him.

Merrifield used his deep knowledge of London's past to design the Roman gallery in the new Museum of London which superseded the joining of the London and Guildhall Museums in 1975. When he retired in 1978 he was Deputy Director of the Museum of London, and was presented with a festschrift, Studies Presented to Ralph Merrifield. Subsequently he was honoured by London University with a Doctorate in recognition of his outstanding historical contribution.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
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 People

Ashdown Group: HR Manager - West London - £50,000

£40000 - £50000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: HR Manager - West London - £...

Recruitment Genius: Recruitment & HR Administrator

£17000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Guru Careers: HR Manager / HR Business Partner

£55 - 65k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: A HR Manager / HR Business Partner i...

Recruitment Genius: Senior HR Assistant

£23000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Company's vision is to be t...

Day In a Page

Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

Making of a killer

What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most
Katy Perry prevented from buying California convent for $14.5m after nuns sell to local businesswoman instead

No grace of God for Katy Perry as sisters act to stop her buying convent

Archdiocese sues nuns who turned down star’s $14.5m because they don’t approve of her
Ajmer: The ancient Indian metropolis chosen to be a 'smart city' where residents would just be happy to have power and running water

Residents just want water and power in a city chosen to be a ‘smart’ metropolis

The Indian Government has launched an ambitious plan to transform 100 of its crumbling cities
Michael Fassbender in 'Macbeth': The Scottish play on film, from Welles to Cheggers

Something wicked?

Films of Macbeth don’t always end well - just ask Orson Welles... and Keith Chegwin
10 best sun creams for body

10 best sun creams for body

Make sure you’re protected from head to toe in the heatwave
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon files

Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games
Women's World Cup 2015: How England's semi-final success could do wonders for both sexes

There is more than a shiny trophy to be won by England’s World Cup women

The success of the decidedly non-famous females wearing the Three Lions could do wonders for a ‘man’s game’ riddled with cynicism and greed
How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

One day to find €1.6bn

Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

Historians map out untold LGBT histories

Public are being asked to help improve the map