Professor Edward Hall

Thursday 16 August 2001 00:00 BST

Edward Thomas Hall, archaeological scientist: born London 10 May 1924; Director, Research Laboratory for Archaeology and the History of Art, Oxford University 1955-89, Professor 1975-89, Emeritus Professor of Archaeological Sciences 1989-2001; Fellow, Worcester College, Oxford 1969-89 (Emeritus); Chairman, Hon Scientific Committee, National Gallery 1978-84; Hon FBA 1984; Chairman, Goldsmiths' Antique Plate Committee 1987-99; CBE 1988; President, Council, International Institute of Conservation 1989-92; married 1957 Jeffie de la Harpe (two sons); died Oxford 11 August 2001.

Edward Hall was throughout his academic career a dominant force, nationally and internationally, in the development of archaeological science or "archaeometry", an aspect of archaeology concerned with the use of scientific techniques in the study of archaeological artefacts and sites. He came to public prominence with his role – one he relished – in the 1988 carbon-dating tests for the Turin Shroud.

As a DPhil student in the Clarendon Laboratory, he played a significant part in the start of the Research Laboratory for Archaeology and the History of Art which was established at Oxford in 1955 through the combined efforts of his supervisor, Lord Cherwell, and Christopher Hawkes, the then Professor of European Archaeology. From its beginning, he directed the laboratory in his inimitable fashion for some 35 years until his retirement in 1989. And in addition, prior to his retirement, he was instrumental in raising the funds required to endow a Chair in Archaeological Science, which has since been named the Edward Hall Professorship.

Teddy Hall was born in London in 1924, the son of Lt-Col Walter D'Arcy Hall, a First World War MC and bar, later Unionist MP for Brecon and Radnor, and brought up at Shipton Court, a Jacobean manor-house in Shipton-under-Wychwood, Oxfordshire. From Eton, where he excelled at the Field Game, he went into the RNVR (as an ordinary seaman) and then, after the Second World War, up to New College, Oxford, where he read Chemistry (an unusual course then for one of his background). He switched to Physics for his DPhil.

He had always been fascinated by gadgets. With his elder brother Bill (who was killed in the war at Anzio) he had made a television set in the Thirties. In later life he constructed at his house what he boasted was the most accurate pendulum clock in the world. Sunk in 18 tons of concrete, it varied some 0.01 seconds in three months and was, he said, "the biggest waste of time anyone has conceived". He had a particular enthusiasm for the design, development and application of new instrumentation, taken especially from physics and chemistry, for the analysis of archaeological and art objects.

In the early years of the laboratory, he was directly involved in the development of special equipment for non-destructive X-ray fluorescence analysis and he built one of the very early electron-beam microprobes for the analysis of small samples taken from artefacts. Together with Martin Aitken, his long-term colleague at the laboratory, he also participated in the development of equipment for archaeological prospection, taking a special interest in the development of a proton magnetometer for underwater archaeology.

Much of such equipment developed in the laboratory was subsequently made available to the archaeological science community through its production at his scientific instrument company, Littlemore Scientific Engineering Company (Elsec), based at his home in Littlemore, outside Oxford.

In the late 1970s, he was quick to see the value of the revolutionary new method of radiocarbon dating then being developed (called accelerator mass spectrometry or AMS dating) and became fully committed to establishing the method at Oxford. In the early days of setting up the AMS facility at Oxford, he could be found crawling inside the accelerator tank, or discussing design modifications, or even sweeping the floor. Such total involvement got its reward especially in his participation in the dating of the Shroud of Turin in 1988. Cardinal Anastasio Ballestrero, the Archbishop of Turin, had authorised the removal of samples of the shroud for testing by three laboratories: in Arizona, Zurich – and Oxford. Hall's laboratory dated its sample to between 1260 and 1390.

The mix of good science, intricate instrumentation, the attention of the world's press, the ambivalence of the religious authorities and sheer importance of the outcome for so many people appealed to him immensely; he also took pleasure in, as he saw it, the debunking of any conviction that could not be rationally demonstrated. "There was a multi-million-pound business in making forgeries during the 14th century," he bluntly told a British Museum press conference. "Someone just got a bit of linen, faked it up and flogged it." And again, "Some people may continue to fight for the authenticity of the shroud, like the Flat Earth Society, but this settles it all as far as we are concerned."

As important as Hall's own research contributions was his crucial role in helping to establish archaeological science as a discipline that was valued by archaeologists and, at the same time, commanded the respect of scientists in other fields. At Oxford, he was involved in establishing the journal Archaeometry that has since become one of the two major international journals in the field, and in starting and sustaining the International Symposia on Archaeometry.

Nationally, Hall was a prime mover in the setting up of the "Science-based Archaeology Committee" of the then Science Research Council in the mid-1970s, a development that was only possible because of the respect in which archaeological science was held by other scientists. The resultant increase in public funding for university research in archaeological science helped in the progressive establishment of a large number of academic posts in the subject in the UK, so that work in archaeological science remains especially vigorous in this country as compared to the United States and other parts of Europe.

As a collector himself of Chinese porcelain and antique clocks, Hall was extremely active in the world of conservation and museums. For many years, he was a member of the Scientific Committee of the National Gallery and a Trustee of the British Museum, in the latter case taking a particular interest in the Departments of Scientific Research and Conservation. In both these institutions, he provided the scientists and conservators with invaluable support in ensuring that their work received both the funding and recognition that it deserved.

In all the many parts that he played, Teddy Hall will perhaps best be remembered for his enjoyment in demolishing pretentiousness with a few robust phrases, and for the refreshing encouragement provided to all who worked with him by his conviction that scientific research should be primarily motivated by a desire for intellectual fun. He was perhaps fortunate to have retired before such a view would lose all headway in the newer climate of accountability and cheese-paring.

It was this energetic and free- spirited approach that was perhaps his major contribution both to research in the Oxford laboratory and, nationally and internationally, on the many academic committees on which he served.

As a colleague, he was a pleasure to work with, he rarely interfered, and his judgement of people was shrewd. Above all he enjoyed life. His parties for the laboratory itself and for participants at the many symposia, seminars and workshops organised over the years at the laboratory were legendary; and often convened at a few hours' notice. One held after an International Workshop on AMS dating was still being fondly recalled 20 years later.

Robert Hedges and Michael Tite

Teddy Hall enhanced the life of all who knew him, writes Sir Martin Jacomb. He was a true lover of life in the fullest sense, and this he conveyed to all around him. He was a big man physically and his personality more than matched this.

With his wife, Jeffie, as his enthusiastic and alluring support, the hospitality at Beenhams was legendary. With an ample supply of the very best claret, stored in a wartime air-raid shelter in the garden, and cuisine to match (he was an excellent cook), the parties were frequent; friends were always willing to cancel other commitments to get to them. For the warmth of the welcome and the sense of fun was irresistible.

But he was much, much more than a good host. His outstanding intellect made every conversation enthralling. His explanations of the mineral colouring of his amazing and highly distinguished collection of Chinese pots (started when he was virtually still a schoolboy) fascinated scientists and non-scientists alike. And the clocks were not only beautiful, but masterpieces with mechanisms which he loved to reveal to everyone, whether schoolboy or of his own generation.

There was in fact always a bit of a schoolboy in him. His manufacture of scientific instruments was the basis of a serious business, but the creation of the most accurate clock on earth was the realisation of the schoolboy dream as well as serious science.

The choice of his Oxford University laboratory (which was for many years financed by Teddy Hall personally) as one of those few entrusted with the analysis of the Turin Shroud fragment was a true accolade. He suspected what the answer would be, being a firm non-believer, but prejudice was never allowed to interfere with science. The pursuit of truth as revealed by science was a firm principle with him.

He was a true original as well. It was he who started the hot-air balloon fashion when, years before anyone else, he created one of his own (Flaming Pearl). He made the sophisticated "iron lung" chair that kept Robin Cavendish, paralysed aged 28 by polio from the neck down, alive for 36 years. And who else would have acquired a genuine Enigma machine and learnt to send messages in code to another possessor.

When dividing the cake with his mess-mate at Eton, Sir John Smith of the Landmark Trust, he measured the slices with a protractor. Scientific exactitude, a delicious cake, sharing life with a true friend and ensuring good-humour was always present: that is how I shall remember him.

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