OBITUARY:Robert Hamilton

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The Independent Online
Robert Hamilton had several successive and partly overlapping careers, as an imperial civil servant, a scholar and a museum administrator.

Hamilton's father had served in India and Robert Hamilton was Inspector and the Director of Antiquities in the Palestine of the British mandate in 1938-48, where he resided almost continuously between 1929 and the end of the mandate in 1948. He created the British archaeological centre in Baghdad, often returned on various missions to Iraq or Palestine, and was offered the post of Director of Antiquities of Iraq in 1961, but turned it down.

My last exchange of letters with Hamilton brought back a memory of his official functions in the 1930s. I had received a letter from Germany that had been sent to an American friend, another Robert Hamilton, who had been, during his lifetime, a part-time archaeologist. The letter sought information about a German archaeologist who had excavated in Palestine before the Second World War and who was, I believe, killed on the Russian front.

I remembered that the British Robert Hamilton had once told me that, at the beginning of the war, in 1939, he had sequestered the belongings of that archaeologist and discovered a sizeable cache ofarms and a lot of Nazi propaganda. I do not know what Hamilton wrote to a correspondent unknown to both of us, but I do know that he answered the letter a month or two before his death.

This trivial anecdote illustrates the inevitability of certain ways of knowing other people, especially from foreign lands, among those who held positions of trust and responsibility in a world-wide net of service to the Crown.

Hamilton studied the classics at Oxford, learnt Arabic, became an ''excavating'' archaeologist as well as an admirable student of single monuments to be rescued from time or men. He was also a remarkable draughtsman and water- colourist; I was convinced for years that he had been trained as an architect, because his reconstructions as well as the copies he made of finds are both striking in technique and imaginative in evoking long-lost buildings or any part of them.

His scholarly contributions fall into two main groups. There are the learned disquisitions on individual monuments he helped renovate or preserve. Such is The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem (1947), a guidebook with a brilliant discussion of the mosaics of the church that went against the commonly accepted wisdom of the time and that aroused some further disagreements, but which found partial confirmation in recent investigations. This part of his contribution was printed in smaller script, and he warned unsuspecting readers away from what he thought was overly technical for casual tourists. Another basically monographic instance is the remarkable Structural History of the Aqsa Mosque (1949), relentless in the pursuit of details, unforgiving to anyone skipping even a line, but ultimately revealing the complexities of one of the most frequently rebuilt works of Islamic architecture.

Some of his conclusions were accepted, others were not, and he himself continued to debate the issues with himself and with whoever felt strong enough to challenge him.

Constant returns to his own work characterised even more Hamilton's long- standing involvement with Khirbat al- Mafjar, the most spectacular of the Umayyad "palaces", located in the Jordan valley just north of Jericho, a complex rich in mosaics, paintings, sculptures, and truly unique architectural compositions. Hamilton and Dimitri Baramki were involved in an excavation of many years that eventually led to some friction between the two, which Hamilton regretted a great deal.

Eleven years after the end of the British mandate, in 1959, Hamilton's masterful presentation of the site was published in unusually lavish ways for a work entitled Khirbat al-Mafjar. It should always be read together with several important articles dealing with various parts of the building and its decoration. What is important is not merely that Khirbat al-Mafjar is the only true early Islamic palace to be published, but that Hamilton never ended his affair with it. In several articles, and then in Walid and his Friends (1988), he kept answering occasional critics, refuting explanations by others which seemed wrong to him (including my own), and returning to the palace and to the prince he saw as its creator. In his last scholarly book, Hamilton, now a quiet and polite octogenarian, managed to bring his hero to life an to translate in very direct English al-Walid's often ribald and lascivious poetry.

It was my privilege, as a very young student, to participate with Hamilton in the investigation of Khirbat al-Mafjar after the end of formal excavations and I remember vividly the warmth of his welcome in Oxford where my wife and I had stopped on our way to Jordan.

I especially remember the quality of the notes he (and others) had left in the archives of the Palestine Archaeological Museum, in Jerusalem (now the Rockefeller Museum). In albums and boxes there were(and I suppose still are) stored drawings, photographs, observations of all sorts on Mafjar and on many other Palestinian remains by a man of intelligent devotion to his task who had become fascinated by the early Islamic period and the personages of the seventh and eighth centuries, under whose leadership or in whose lifetime the political structure of the Mediterranean changed irretrievably. He saw them as the weak but loveable libertines that many of them were, but he loved them for the wonderful places they had created.

Robert Hamilton was also a successful administrator, not only in Palestine, but later in Oxford, where he directed from 1962 to 1972 the Ashmolean Museum, where he was also Keeper of the Department of Antiquities, and handled successfully problems typical of venerable institutions. He was, too, a family man who could hardly be dissociated from his wife Hetty and his children. His functions required long absences from home, and the letters he published in 1992 (Letters from the Middle East by an Occasional Archaeologist) are a beautiful testimony to a creative and useful life, well spent.

Oleg Grabar

Robert William Hamilton, archaeologist: born 26 November 1905; Chief Inspector of Antiquities, Palestine 1931-38, Director of Antiquities 1938- 48; Secretary-Librarian, British School of Archaeology, Iraq 1948-49; Senior Lecturer in Near Eastern Archaeology, Oxford 1949-56; Keeper of Department of Antiquities, Ashmolean Museum 1956-72, Keeper 1962-1972; Fellow, Magdalen College, Oxford 1959-72; FBA 1960; married 1935 Hetty Lowick (three sons, two daughters); died 25 September 1995.