Obituary: Donald Harden

Kenneth Painter,Hugh Thompson
Thursday 28 April 1994 23:02
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Donald Benjamin Harden, archaeologist, museum curator: born Dublin 8 July 1901; Assistant Keeper and Keeper, Department of Antiquities, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford 1929-56; Director, London Museum 1956-65; Acting Director, Museum of London 1965-70; married 1934 Cecil Harriss (died 1963; one daughter), 1965 Dorothy McDonald; died 13 April 1994.

Donald Harden's life was devoted in equal measure to museums and archaeology, with an interest centred more on artefacts than

excavation.

Born in Dublin in 1901, Harden was of Anglo-Irish descent (his father was Bishop of Tuam, Killala and Achonry). He was educated at Kilkenny College, Westminster School, and Trinity College, Cambridge. He pursued his interests in classical archaeology with travels in Italy and Tunisia in 1923-24, and, after a brief spell in the Department of Humanity at Aberdeen University, he became Commonwealth Fund Fellow at the University of Michigan, where he devoted himself to the study of the Roman glass from the university excavation of the Faiyum site of Karanis, in Egypt, and took part in the Michigan Archaeological Expedition to Egypt in 1928-29. His work on the Karanis glass became a doctoral thesis and was later published (in 1936) in a volume, Roman Glass from Karanis, which set new standards in the study of this attractive product of antiquity.

Harden's professional career opened with a long spell at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, first as assistant keeper and then as keeper in the Department of Antiquities from 1929 to 1956, with a break during the Second World War as a temporary civil servant. In 1956 he was appointed director of the London Museum at Kensington Palace, after its move there from Lancaster House; in pre-war years Mortimer Wheeler had established high standards of research and publication at the museum, and Harden, in active collaboration with Norman Cook of the Guildhall Museum, devoted his energies to the foundation of the new Museum of London, combining the two institutions, a natural consequence of the hectic campaign of the bombed sites of the City, before (sometimes as) they were destroyed by development. It was fitting that he should serve as acting director from 1965 until his retirement in 1970.

Harden's interests were not narrowly confined to ancient glass; a successful study, The Phoenicians (1962), revived an earlier interest and was twice re-issued, while Harden was a valued member of the committee superintending the British participation in the international excavation of Carthage. His numerous offices and duties to some extent limited his scholarly output; but retirement released his full energies for the study of ancient glass, of which he had long been recognised as the international master, following in the steps of the greatest German scholars in the field, Anton Kisa and Fritz Fremersdorf, but with a far wider range.

Harden's book on the Roman glass from Karanis was the first to treat systematically the finds from a single important site. This was the beginning of a lifetime's study of all aspects of ancient glass, ranging geographically over Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean, Europe, Britain and Ireland, and chronologically from prehistoric and Roman times to the Middle Ages. A list of his publications fills many pages; but some of the most important were the essays encapsulating his unsurpassed view of the history of Roman glass, which were written at the age of 86 for the catalogue of Glass of the Caesars (an exhibition of master works of Roman glass, shown in Corning, New York State, London, Cologne and Rome, in 1987-88).

In person Donald Harden displayed a neat, almost dapper appearance. His contributions to committees, especially on publication, were distinguished by a shrewd and well-balanced approach (sometimes trenchantly expressed), based on a wide knowledge of British and Mediterranean archaeology and its practitioners.

He had an extremely happy family life, and this was perhaps one reason why no young scholar appealed to him in vain.

(Photograph omitted)

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