Obituary: George Boon

William Manning
Monday 19 September 1994 23:02

George Counsell Boon, archaeologist: born Bristol 20 September 1927; archaeological asssistant, Reading Museum 1950-56; Assistant Keeper of Archaeology, National Museum of Wales 1957-76, Keeper 1976-87, Curator 1987-89; married 1956 Diana Martyn (two sons, one daughter); died Penarth 31 August 1994.

GEORGE BOON was one of the leading figures in Romano-British archaeology for over 40 years.

Archaeology and excavation are often thought of as almost synonymous, and in his early years as an archaeologist Boon spent much of his time in the field. As an excavator he was largely self-taught, undertaking his first excavation, while still a student, on the Roman villa at King's Weston, near Bristol, which he had himself discovered. Subsequent work on the Roman city of Silchester, in north Hampshire, and on the fortress of the Second Legion at Caerleon, in South Wales, confirmed his status as an excavator. But he was essentially a 'hands-on' archaeologist, who liked to do much of the digging himself, and he was temperamentally out of sympathy with the changes which came in the 1960s, when the increasing size of excavations forced directors to rely on assistants for much of the routine work. As a result he handed this aspect of his work over to younger colleagues and concentrated on his studies of artefacts and coins. As an excavator he had made some notable discoveries, including the early defences of Silchester, the legionary bath-house at Caerleon and the Roman Mithraeum at Caernarvon, and he had set an admirable example to his younger (and to many of his older) colleagues, publishing the results of his work with exemplary speed.

George Boon was born in 1927 and educated in Bristol; reading Latin at Bristol University under Arnaldo Momigliano, for whom he retained the highest regard. His first appointment was as an archaeological assistant in Reading Museum; a post which proved to be the ideal training-ground for him, for the museum possessed the great collection of finds from the pre-First-World-War excavations at Silchester, the academic potential of which had been almost completely neglected. This provided a challenge to which he responded with enthusiasm, and which resulted in a stream of papers culminating in two important books, Roman Silchester (1957) and Silchester: the Roman town of Calleva (1974). Together with Isca (1972), his study of the fortress at Caerleon, they form the core of his long list of publications.

In 1957 he moved to the National Museum of Wales as Assistant Keeper of Archaeology, becoming Keeper in 1976 and Curator, with responsibility for the main museum building, from 1987 until his retirement in 1989. For historical reasons the museum's Roman collections are dominated by material from Caerleon, and much of it coming from Sir Mortimer Wheeler and his wife Tessa's famous excavations of the 1920s which revealed the legionary amphitheatre. Much of Boon's work in Wales was devoted to that site, on the north bank of the river Usk, three miles north-east of Newport. At Caerleon itself he found a small, dilapidated site museum, and one of his most cherished projects was to replace it with a new and well-equipped building worthy of the site and collection. It took him 30 years to achieve his aim, but achieve it he did, and it forms a fitting memorial of his work there as does the public display of the fortress bath- house which he discovered.

One of his first tasks at Reading Museum had been to catalogue the Roman coins from Silchester, and in doing so he began a lifelong interest in numismatics. Numismatists tend to be a breed apart, devoted to their coins, but not very familiar with other artefacts, and it is rare to find an archaeologist who is equally expert in both areas, as Boon was.

His numismatic interests extended far beyond the Roman period, and he produced in-depth studies of medieval coins, most notably in Welsh Hoards 1979-81 (1986), and of 17th-century tokens from Wales. His book on 17th-century minting in Wales (Cardiganshire Silver and the Aberystwyth Mint in Peace and War, 1981) is an excellent example of the breadth of his interests.

Boon always retained the rather formal manner which he had acquired in his youth, and at first sight he could appear quite formidable, but closer acquaintance revealed a sympathetic, humorous and very likeable man. He had very high academic standards and had little time for work which did not measure up to his own criteria, but when he detected promise in anyone, young or old, professional or amateur, he was unstinting in his support and help.

For many years he took an active part in the work of the Society of Antiquaries, of which he was vice-president from 1980 to 1984, as he was of the Society for the Promotion for Roman Studies. He was a loyal and hard-working member, too, of the local archaeological societies of Gwent and Gloucestershire.

(Photograph omitted)

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