OBITUARY: Ralph Merrifield

Peter Marsden
Sunday 23 October 2011 03:29

Ralph Merrifield, archaeologist and museum curator: born Brighton 22 August 1913; married 1951 Lysbeth Webb (one son, one daughter); died London 9 January 1995.

Ralph Merrifield has been called the "father of London's modern archaeology", for he is the only person since the Second World War to map the remains of the Roman city, and was the first to reconstruct its beginnings nearly 2,000 years ago. His quiet manner obscured a steely determination to establish a quality of published archaeological scholarship that London had not seen since 1928, when the Royal Commission Report on Roman London was published.

Merrifield was born in Brighton in 1913, and was brought up by his mother, as his father had died when he was only three. It was whilst in the sixth form of Varndean Grammar School in 1930 that he seized the opportunity of working in Brighton Museum as an assistant to the curator H.S. Toms, formerly an assistant to the great General Pitt-Rivers. He was fascinated by the superb ethnographic collection which he catalogued, and decided to embark on a London External Degree in anthropology, whic h he achieved in 1935. This was to give him a lasting academic interest in the archaeological evidence for past religions and witchcraft in England, two subjects full of pitfalls for the unwary but which included such fascinating evidence as "witch- bottles". His book The Archaeology of Ritual and Magic (1987) is a masterly study of an unusual subject.

His attention for detail served well during the war, when he was involved in intelligence work in the RAF, particularly in interpreting air-photographs.

He returned to Brighton Museum when the war was over, but in 1950 was appointed Assistant Keeper of the Guildhall Museum in the City of London. This was more a "museum" in name only, for as a department of Guildhall Library it had no home, though the arrival of the new Keeper, Norman Cook, saw the opening of a small exhibition in a corridor-like room off the medieval Guildhall. By 1954 the museum had been moved to temporary premises in the Royal Exchange, where its offices were wedged between the grand pillars. The famous Roman Temple of Mithras was discovered by William Grimes that year and brought a public awareness of London's ancient origin.

In November 1956, Merrifield was assigned to Ghana for six months to set up the National Museum at Accra, an interlude that supplied him with many anecdotes. This museum of folk culture had previously been the University Museum of Ghana and was largely stored in cupboards. The new National Museum had to be ready for Ghana's independence day in April 1957, but when Merrifield arrived he found the building not completed. There followed a rush to get the exhibits ready for the opening by the Duchess of Kent; Merrifield vividly remembered the museum's first security guards, one armed with a sword and the other with a bow and arrows.

Although Ralph Merrifield was a museum man he saw the need for London's archaeological research to have a sense of direction, and in 1963 he gladly accepted the challenge offered by the publisher Ernest Benn to compile the first detailed study of Roman London for 35 years. The basis would be a map of all discovered ancient remains, including those that had turned up during the post-war rebuilding of the City. As one of the Guildhall Museum's staff then, I recall the extreme care with which Merrifield alone and largely in his own time plotted the fragmentary remains of Roman streets, houses and baths. My job of excavating on the City building sites was to find significant bits of information, and this was soon enlarged by the amateur members of my City of London Excavation Group, later to become the City of London Archaeological Society. Merrifield plotted the information on the maps, and began to predict the layout of streets in the Roman city - and I would go out and confirm or deny them on the sites.

One morning he arrived in the office brimming with excitement. The evening before, he had carefully plotted out fragments of all the ancient walls found under the great Roman forum. With his ruler he showed me how bits of walls lined up and seemed to hint at the existence of a previously unidentified large Roman public building, perhaps an earlier forum dating from about AD 90, only 50 years after the founding of London. A subsequent excavation, which he arranged, confirmed his suspicion, and the creditfor that major discovery is entirely his. That basilica and forum reflect when London first became a self-governing city with its own elected council.

Merrifield's book The Roman City of London was published in 1965 and still stands as the fundamental study. In 1983 another book interpreting the early city, London City of The Romans, brought together many of his ideas.

Ralph Merrifield was not entirely an armchair archaeologist, for he would visit the building sites when needed, and was responsible for the best of the Guildhall Museum's archaeological photographs. Whenever on a photographic session, however, he would ignore both bulldozers and draglines in crossing the site to set up his camera and tripod. He always wore his safety helmet back to front - a habit that puzzled others, but was perfectly sensible to him.

Merrifield used his deep knowledge of London's past to design the Roman gallery in the new Museum of London which superseded the joining of the London and Guildhall Museums in 1975. When he retired in 1978 he was Deputy Director of the Museum of London, and was presented with a festschrift, Studies Presented to Ralph Merrifield. Subsequently he was honoured by London University with a Doctorate in recognition of his outstanding historical contribution.

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