Sarah Clackson


Monday 18 August 2003 00:00 BST

Sarah Joanne Quinn, Coptologist: born Leicester 11 December 1965; Lady Wallis Budge Research Fellow, Christ's College, Cambridge 1998-2003; married 1991 James Clackson; died Cambridge 10 August 2003.

The death of Sarah Clackson at the age of just 37 is a blow for Coptology and the study of early Christian Egypt when, as Coptic, the Greek script was adopted to write the Egyptian language.

An elegance of appearance unusual among academics combined with a strong professional drive to make this scholar a force to be reckoned with. An excellent golfer in earlier years, as an individual she was fun to be with, and a loyal friend.

Born Sarah Quinn in 1965, the youngest daughter of Peter and Audrey Quinn, she attended Loughborough High School, where the influence of her Classics teacher and the school library made up for much else. At St John's College, Cambridge, she studied Classics followed by Egyptology.

From the start, her linguistic interests were clear; she was not to be deterred from her chosen career, specialising in Coptic, by a lack of funding for postgraduate work. She showed ingenuity in searching out short-term grants, interesting projects and consultancy work to develop her growing expertise. In this way she put order into various manuscript and papyrological collections in the Cambridge University Library. Her first publication (in Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, 1991) was of a New Kingdom stela from Girton College, where she sorted out the Egyptian collection.

A part-time PhD at University College London was completed in four years, in 1996, resulting in her first major book, Coptic and Greek texts Relating to the Hermopolite Monastery of Apa Apollo (2000). At the same time, she was working as Project Officer for the Manichaean Documentation Centre based first at the Institute of Classical Studies, London, and then at Warwick University; The Dictionary of Manichaean Texts, volume i, Texts from the Roman Empire (1998), bears her name among its authors, as does The Elephantine Papyri in English (1996).

It was, however, the monastery of Apollo at Bawit that was central to her work. Careful study of the language of surviving texts on papyrus, stone or pieces of broken pot, the formulae of receipts, items of income and expenditure and local accounts served to illuminate the life and economy of a key monastic community. A recent article ("Fish and Chits: the Synodontis schall", 2002) illustrated the importance of Nile fish in the diet of the times. Her publication of these and other texts helped bring new standards of presentation to the practices of Coptic papyrology. The investment was made, the potential was great, with so much more on the way.

Research appointments followed her doctorate: the Eugénie Strong Fellowship in Arts at Girton (1996-98) and the Lady Wallis Budge Fellowship in Egyptology at Christ's College (from 1998). Based in Cambridge, she was in wide demand as a lecturer and teacher: her (joint) masterclass in Coptic at Yale University (1997) was followed by invitations from Florence and Cairo, Leiden, Leuven, Lille and London, Oxford and Vienna. She became a well-known presence in her subject both in Europe and the United States; she served on the Board of the International Association for Coptic Studies, the Committee of the Egypt Exploration Society and in other professional capacities.

In her marriage to James Clackson, whom she met when still a sixth-former in Loughborough, she gained great happiness, intellectual stimulus and support which was mutual. They made a striking couple on the local scene; "blissful" is how she recently described this long-standing relationship.

When cancer was first diagnosed in 1998, she faced the threat positively, with courage and mordant good-humour. Her ability to enjoy life to the full was strongly on display in these final years. Once the outcome was clear, her talent for order and control so constantly exercised in her professional work was directed to sorting her files, to making available for others her still unpublished work.

Coptology is an international field; her library goes to Warsaw and her files to the Griffith Institute in Oxford. Her name will be commemorated, her elegant self remembered.

Dorothy J. Thompson

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