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Birthe Kjølbye-Biddle

15th July 1941 - 16th January 2010

Professor Martin Biddle and his wife Birthe Kjølbye-Biddle at the St Albans Cathedral excavation, 24 August 1994. Picture Peter Trievnor © Times Newspapers Ltd.
Professor Martin Biddle and his wife Birthe Kjølbye-Biddle at the St Albans Cathedral excavation, 24 August 1994. Picture Peter Trievnor © Times Newspapers Ltd.

Appreciation by
Else Roesdahl

Read at Birthe Kjølbye-Biddle's funeral by Helena Hamerow

As a very old friend of Birthe I deeply regret being unable to be here in person. I send my deepest condolences to her family, also on behalf of her other friends in Denmark.

Birthe was born in 1941 in the small town of Sønderborg — on the green island of Als — near the Danish border with Germany, a border which had been redrawn only two decades earlier.

Birthe was born, then, during the Second World War, at a period when Denmark was occupied and when, in this region, many families still had a German identity and spoke German at home. Many — but not all — also admired the Nazi regime.

Birthe, however, sprang from a very Danish family, of conservative political convictions.

I first met Birthe in the 1950s in high school in Sønderborg. This school had an international and discursive environment — which, I think, marked Birthe for life.

Our class had a roughly equal mixture of "Germans" and "Danes", and we all knew each other's national background. But the school had strict rules against nationalistic quarrelling, and all got on well together.

For both of us, of course, it also helped that the German boys in class were rather more interesting than the Danish ones!

So, despite national differences, we were a happy class. We had a lot of fun but also, as becomes all adolescents, we indulged in serious discussion on national and political issues — discussions in which Birthe, you will not be surprised to learn, took vocal part.

Throughout her life she loved to express her convictions — and she expressed them forcefully!

Birthe and I sat next to each other, and often did things together after school. We alibied each other when involved in things that parents need not know about. We went to the jazz-club on Wednesdays and parties on Saturdays — and I — a country girl — often stayed with her afterwards. We also went on bike-rides in the summer and much else; and like all girls, we spent hours gossiping aimlessly about all sorts of things.

And we shared a special interest in history.

After we left school in 1960 our ways separated. Birthe went to Aarhus University, and I to Copenhagen. But our ways naturally crossed from time to time. And most particularly in later years, when she was ill, we resumed our old contact.

In Aarhus Birthe opted for archaeology — at that time a very small, lively and internationally-oriented department. There were about tenstudents, and a photo shows Birthe and the other students sitting around a table, being happily taught by their professor, Ole Klindt-Jensen.

Birthe took an energetic part in all aspects of student life: writing essays; discussing, partying, going on excursions and digs.

Søren Andersen, one of her co-students, spoke to me the other day about the extraordinary Hedeby excavation, in which they both took part, in 1963. This was the first excavation at this important Viking town site after the war. It was directed by a young Kurt Schietzel, but older archaeologists like Herbert Jankuhn, Carl Kersten, and others, were very much present, and among themselves kept a strict military hierarchy according to their former ranks in the SS!

Birthe, of course, made no secret of her principles and attitudes, and became quite famous there.

Then, in 1964, Birthe went to dig in Winchester. Martin has told me that he still remembers what she wore, when he first saw her. The rest is history...

Thus, Birthe was lost to Danish archaeology, although she finished her degree in Aarhus. Her graduate thesis consisted of a study of Danish influences at Winchester in the late Viking Age.

When she moved to England, Birthe, characteristically, demonstrated her very own identity with panache — many of you will remember that she continued to smoke a pipe — quite common for women in Denmark at that time, but (from what I have heard) not at all so in England!

Many a pipe must have been smoked here in Winchester and around this Cathedral — where the foundations of her English life were laid, — and where her funeral service now takes place — surrounded by bones of ancient Danish and English kings, by friends and colleagues from her new country, and by her Danish and English family.

On this day — let us remember the warm-hearted, lively and proud woman she was, a woman who endured her long illness with spirit and enormous courage, supported by her loved and loving family.

In the words of an ancient Danish memorial formula: Æret være hendes minde. Let us honour her memory.

Appreciation by
James Campbell

Read at Birthe Kjølbye-Biddle's funeral

Birthe in England

Birthe was born on St. Swithin's day 1941: a good omen. Of the many major enterprises in which she and Martin engaged the most important to her intellectual life were at Winchester.

Her work started in 1964 in the excavation of the Old Minster, the Saxon cathedral which lay immediately to the north of that in which we are. The Old Minster is all around us. For its demolished stones were devoured in the construction of its triumphant Norman successor. What faced Birthe was not so much the ruins of a church as the shadow of one. Reconstruction of it (soon to be fully published in Winchester Studies) is a triumph.

To read even Birthe's preliminary account of her Old Minster excavation is to see what immense sensitivity of hand, eye, and not least of mind was displayed. Three-dimensional recording requires a mathematically sophisticated skill which Birthe had, using innovatory techniques drawing on her Danish archaeological education.

No less remarkable was the choice of site. It is no charge against archaeologists of early medieval England, that inevitable pressures have ensured that major sites and places which cry out for excavation have had to cry in vain. To name the places in England on which Birthe and Martin have spent so many years, decades, is to see that their policy, their good fortune, has been otherwise determined: Winchester, St. Albans, Repton. One always has to say Birthe and Martin. The unique union of their work was rightly rewarded by the Society of Antiquaries jointly awarding them the Frend medal in 1987.

The achievements of the Anglo-Saxon church almost dominated English social life for over a thousand years, not least by establishing a parochial system such that nearly every 20 rural families were served by a priest. The written history of that church and even of its headquarters is thin indeed. Thus there was an early cult of Bishop Swithin here. But no one wrote a life of him until over a century after his death, 863. The history of many a great English ecclesiastical community depends on archaeology, sophisticated archaeology because the churches concerned were nearly all destroyed and replaced not long after the Conquest.

For some of us reading excavation reports is graced with a challenging uphill quality, but with temptation to turn to the end to see how many more pages there are to go. As one, guiltily, turns to the last page of Birthe's major article of 1986 on Winchester one is rewarded by bright flashes. She touches on the proportions and numerical ratios of the building and reminds us that the proportions of medieval buildings can play tunes, which take us back to Pythagoras and to the long Jewish and Christian concern with numerology. Coming events cast their shadow when she hints on a possible connection with the proportions of the Tomb of Jesus. This not only looks forward to Martin's and her major work on that Tomb, but also importantly emphasises how far such an English church as the Old Minster must be seen in a very wide context. It is characteristic of Birthe's work that it demonstrates such consciousness and will do so even more excitingly when the new Winchester Studies volume appears. I cannot in a brief space approach justice to Birthe's breadth of learning. One example. In her account of an early Nubian church, excavated by her and Martin as part of an international effort to save what could be saved of thousand years of Nubian Christian civilisation, she comments on an odd little portable wooden cross and shows that it is just like one which Mathew Paris's illustrations prove to have been at St. Albans in the thirteenth century. Who else could have known that?

In considering academic activity one has to wonder what is the point of it all. It is interesting enough if you like that sort of thing. Solving problems can have all the excitement of completing a cross-word. What more?

Much more. Discovering the past, not least the past of one's own country and people is a contribution to a common consciousness which is specially human. The urge towards it can be specially strong in Denmark and England, the only two European states which are seriously old. And in following such contributions as Birthe's one is learning about another mind, another personality and a remarkable one. How did she find the time for such meticulously detailed and thoughtful work?

Some people know how to make time. When she entertained friends, which Bärbel and I are proud to have been, she never looked at the clock. She was endlessly generous and interesting, and combative. She did not spare even fellow archaeologists. It was this spirit which made her fight so bravely in her last illness. We have lost her and our hearts go out to Martin, to Signe, Solvej and the rest of her family. What we have is her work, her memory, and our enduring affection for her.

Appreciation by
Margaret Taylor

Reproduced with kind permission from the St. Albans and Hertfordshire Architectural and Archaeological Society Newsletter, no. 175 (February 2010), p. 4.

It is with great sadness that we share the loss of Birthe, who died on 16th January, after a brave struggle against ovarian cancer, well supported by the family.

Birthe was our leader of many excavations inside and around the Abbey precincts from 1978, revealing some of the mysteries of our famous Benedictine Monastery. Professor Martin Biddle and Birthe were invited to St. Albans Cathedral by Bishop Robert Runcie, and to plan the emergency excavation of the site chosen for a new Chapter House overlying the demolished remains of the great mediaeval chapter house with its rich coloured entrance.

Birthe was an excellent teacher, strict in her supervision, aware of our lack of experience, patient in teaching us new techniques and meticulous in the daily recording on the huge site plan. She quickly noted special skills for success, e.g. computer skills, drawing, planning, surveying, photography and trowelling skills, and hard labour.

I was a member of Birthe's team on all the excavations. The first site was covered in nettles and brambles from a corner of the Deanery garden, to be cleared for a new path around the South Transept Slype which was demolished. Briefing began every Monday morning to the sound of the carillon with its missing notes (now repaired). At mid-morning coffee break, we were trained to tidy up our own section of the trench, bucket, shovel, kneeler, trowel and finds trays, so that the Biddles could examine every inch and together work out the plan, solve the problems and prepare for future excavating. All the finds were carefully scrubbed by volunteers and taken to Helen Paterson in charge of Finds.

Towards the end of that season's dig, onlookers were invited into the railed-off enclosure for a closer look and given a guided tour by Birthe or Martin.

Fragile, exposed stone was protected through the winter ready for next season's dig. One of Birthe's frequent injunctions was 'Keep your section clean!'

One morning, we were told that 'today the 100th Roman coin will be found', and I found it next to where Birthe's daughter and I were trowelling: it was tiny, no bigger than my smallest finger nail. The prize was to go to the local cake shop and choose a cake large enough for 30 hungry excavators to enjoy. Birthe was asked to slice the oblong cake and we all chanted 'Keep the section clean!'.

I have a very vivid memory, one of many, of Birthe who was invited to address the local Arc & Arc on the site. She had changed from her patched shorts to a long floaty white skirt, standing with a ranging rod to point out the features of the cellarium dig, and then the Cathedral bell ringers began their weekly practice, and Martin had to step in with his stronger voice.

An end of season celebration barbeque was held once in my garden, and I was told that there would be a 'shower' for one of the American Earthwatch volunteers who was pregnant. I had to be enlightened that a hosepipe was not needed!

Today there is a display in the Cathedral Treasury near the North Transept and the Museum of St Albans stores and shows many of the finds. The beautiful tiled floor of the Chapter House is replicated before the High Altar, and after their reverential interment, the Abbots' bones lie under a slab with exquisite carved inscription by the Kindersleys. This was a moment of deep, spiritual reverence. The stone store above the South aisle of the nave also is open to visitors by arrangement, on Open Days and Heritage weekend.

So we owe to Birthe and Martin our everlasting thanks for their uplifting gift to the people of St Albans, as we send our sympathy to the family in their loss.


Antiquity is also pleased to include the following obituary published in The Times on 26 January 2010 (reproduced with permission).

Birthe Kjølbye-Biddle was a Danish archaeologist who helped to transform Britain's approach to ecclesiastical archaeology in a career excavating important Early Christian sites in England.

Rumours went round the archaeological world in 1964 of the arrival at the huge excavations in Winchester of a dynamic pipe-smoking young Danish woman who was imposing new standards of rigour on an already exemplary project. Birthe Kjølbye, then studying at Aarhus University, came from an archaeological milieu where the clarity of research, design and technical brilliance of excavation were taken for granted and she would brook nothing less on the site she was to supervise on the Cathedral Green at Winchester.

The excavation was highly complex. Evidence suggested that it contained the remains of the Old Minster, the Anglo-Saxon cathedral demolished by the Normans. Successive seasons gradually revealed that it did — but of the original buildings hardly a stone survived in place. Kjølbye (she married Martin Biddle in 1966) and her team were faced with robber trenches, the long pits left after the Norman builders had removed the walls and foundations for re-use on their new cathedral. These and the original foundation trenches, by dint of minutely careful excavation and recording, proved to reveal traces of the church of Cenwalh of Wessex (c 648), the massive additions between 971 and 980 by Bishops Aethelwold and St Alphege, and the original burial place of St Swithun in 862, the site of his shrine and evidence of his cult.

In achieving the first near-complete excavation of an Anglo-Saxon cathedral, the Biddles changed perceptions of the architectural achievements of the pre-conquest Church and provided a backdrop for court life in the kingdom of Wessex. In 1967 a joint paper, Metres, Areas, and Robbing, in World Archaeology, established the problems and principles to be used in excavating and recovering the plans and structural sequence of buildings from which most stonework had been removed.

Birthe Kjølbye was born in 1941 in Sonderborg, south Jutland, into a Denmark under Nazi occupation. One of her earliest memories was of British airmen being passed through her parents' flat en route to safety in Sweden. Her father, Landsretsagfører Axel Kjølbye, was a vital link in the local resistance. His busy solicitor's office (which was also their flat), with Danish and German clients, was opposite the Gestapo headquarters in Sønderborg, and thus an ideal and unsuspected base.

She entered Aarhus University in 1960. An interest in Vikings took her to the Department of Archaeology, where in the Danish fashion of the ten-year Magister degree (awarded in 1972) she spent long periods working on excavations, including the defences of Viking-age Aarhus and at Haithabu in Slesvig. An interest in the early Bronze Age led to a year at the University of Edinburgh with Professor Stuart Piggott, and, looking for British excavation experience the summer beforehand, she chose Martin Biddle's investigations at Winchester.

The Cathedral Green dig necessitated the excavation of many thousands of burials. Kjølbye-Biddle worked out sophisticated methods that enabled the sequence of graves to be established and in many cases the graves to be assigned to periods and sometimes dated. Her work transformed perceptions of what could be learnt from the careful excavation of such cemeteries, even though she later published an apology for the perfunctory excavation that had been necessary for the medieval and later graves.

The Biddles' next big project was the excavation of the mausoleum of the kings of Anglo-Saxon Mercia at Repton in Derbyshire and the church and cemeteries associated with them. These were in and around Repton School, where between 1974 and 1988 the Biddles, their two small daughters Signe and Solvej, their dog Wiglaf and a motley crew of diggers became familiar figures during the summer holidays. For some of these years her husband was director of the museum at the University of Pennsylvania. The Repton seasons were a relief for Kjølbye-Biddle, for she did not take well to the social duties expected of the wife of a US museum director.

Her fierce excavation discipline and meticulous elucidation and recording of the micro-stratigraphy of the Repton cemeteries enabled them to unravel a story as remarkable as that at Winchester, complementing a stone-by-stone analysis of the Anglo-Saxon tower and crypt of the church of St Wystan carried out by the doyen of Anglo-Saxon church studies, Professor Harold Taylor. Surprisingly the church turned out to have been utilised as the strong point and gate structure of a D-shaped temporary earthwork fortress thrown up by the Danish Great Army in 874-5 when it overwintered in Repton during its conquest of Mercia.

A mound in the vicarage garden near by proved to be the site of a destroyed Mercian mortuary building — perhaps another royal mausoleum — re-used for the burial of at least 249 persons (sturdy males of Scandinavian physical type and females more akin to the Anglo-Saxon physique) again dated by coin and other finds to the period of the Great Army's brief sojourn in Repton.

Kjølbye-Biddle and her husband were jointly awarded the Frend Medal of the Society of Antiquaries (of which she had been elected Fellow in 1976) in 1986 for their work on the early history of the English Church, cited as a “really monumental contribution to our knowledge of the archaeology of this country during the Dark Ages”. By then the Biddles had spent several excavation seasons at St Albans Cathedral, work begun as rescue archaeology to help their friend Robert Runcie, then Bishop of St Albans. His project for a new pilgrimage centre at the cathedral had obvious archaeological implications. The traditional association of the abbey with Britain's proto-martyr St Alban led to a big research project that continued after Runcie was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury.

When Archbishop Runcie was asked to recommend experts for an investigation of that ultimate Christian shrine, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, the Biddles were an obvious choice. The story of this most sensitive of projects — sensitive because of its significance to Christianity, the delicate state of the structures and the complexity of the interchurch administrative arrangements that govern the site — is well set out in Martin Biddle's book The Tomb of Christ (1993).

Birthe Kjølbye-Biddle was recently collating the prodigious volume of data from a lifetime of digging, being old-fashioned enough to believe that publication is a duty — she was fiercely critical of modern standards of excavation and reporting. She will be remembered not only for her innovation and discipline as an archaeologist but for the coming publications, the result of one of the most remarkable partnerships in British archaeology.

She is survived by her husband and by two daughters.

Birthe Kjølbye-Biddle, archaeologist, was born on July 15, 1941. She died of ovarian cancer on January 16, 2010, aged 68