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Sheppard Sunderland Frere

23 August 1916 – 26 February 2015

Appreciation by
Michael Fulford

Sheppard Sunderland Frere

Sheppard Sunderland Frere made major contributions to our knowledge and understanding of late Iron Age and Roman Britain, in the fields of epigraphy and military and urban archaeology. He also wrote the first major synthesis of Roman Britain in the wake of the first edition of R.G. Collingwood and J.N.L. Myres's Roman Britain and the English settlements in 1936 and the slighter work of I.A. Richmond's Roman Britain (published in 1955). Frere's Britannia: a history of Roman Britain originally appeared in 1967, and still remains in print today (now in its fourth edition (1999)).

Frere contributed much to the infrastructure of archaeology in the UK between the mid-1960s and the early 1980s through his service on the Royal Commission of Historical Monuments of England and through national committees such as the Ancient Monuments Board of the Directorate of Ancient Monuments, which was later to become English Heritage, and via his presidencies of the Royal Archaeological Institute and the Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies. His leading association with the founding of the journal Britannia, the national journal for Romano-British and kindred studies, in 1970, and his service as editor of the first ten volumes marked another signal contribution. He was elected to the Fellowship of the British Academy in 1971, and became an Honorary Corresponding Member of the German Archaeological Institute in 1964 (later becoming a Fellow of it in 1967). He was appointed CBE in 1976.

It was both an education in classics and the excavations in the city of Canterbury (Durovernum), in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, which shaped the start of Frere's career as an archaeologist, although his passion for archaeology can be traced back to his childhood. His first short article was published in Norfolk Archaeology in 1939, shortly after he had graduated from Cambridge with a degree in classics. The outbreak of war, during which he served in the National Fire Service, interrupted his first position teaching classics at Epsom College in Surrey, but he resumed teaching after the war in 1945 as a master at Lancing College in Sussex and remained in this post until 1954. Canterbury had suffered badly from bombing throughout the war, particularly from the Baedeker raids of 1942, and this gave unprecedented opportunities for investigating the city's past before re-development. Excavations begun by Audrey Williams in 1944 under the auspices of the Canterbury Excavation Committee were taken over by Frere in 1946 and continued intensively until 1955, with almost all of the work being undertaken alongside fulltime teaching at Lancing. While The Ministry of Works provided funds for the excavation, there were no resources for post-excavation research, but several important sites were published before the last fieldwork was completed in 1957. The final report on this area, which involved Frere's last remaining work, was not published, however, until 1995. The excavations contributed much new knowledge of the Roman town and its development, with the discovery of the remains of bath buildings, a theatre (only the second to be discovered in Roman Britain), town houses and confirmation of the course and date of the town's defences. But the discoveries also ranged both earlier, with the excavation of the first late Iron Age hut to be identified from the town, and later, with the discovery of post-Roman Anglo-Frisian pottery and Anglo-Saxon Grubenhaüser, as well as the remains of later medieval occupation.

The reputation of the Canterbury work provided Frere with the rationale for applying for academic positions, and in 1954, at the age of 38, he was appointed lecturer in archaeology at Manchester University. This was followed shortly afterwards by his translation in 1955 to the Institute of Archaeology at the University of London, with the position of Reader in the Archaeology of the Roman Provinces. Indeed, 1955 was an important year in Frere's career as it also saw the start of a seven-year campaign of major rescue excavations in advance of road widening at Verulamium (St Albans), which cut a swathe through the heart of the town on its north-east/south-west axis. These excavations were to set new standards in urban archaeology, both in their execution in the field, particularly in laying the foundations for open-area excavation in an urban context, and in their publication. Once again, as with the excavations at Canterbury, while funds were found, there were no resources for the post-excavation research and publication, and it was not until 1972 that the first report appeared (Verulamium Excavations volume 1). Although the work at Canterbury had indicated the existence of timber buildings in towns in the first and second centuries, Frere recovered and recorded in detail a sequence of timber-framed, taberna-type buildings in Insula XIV from their initial construction c. AD49 to their final destruction by fire c. AD 155. Careful stratigraphic excavation ensured the recovery of a well-dated sequence of finds and Frere was at pains to report them in detail, including the coarse pottery and the samian (sigillata) that, along with coins, had been the traditional mainstay of establishing chronologies in the first and second centuries. As Frere remarked in his introduction to the volume (p. 3), this was a major departure from earlier work: "It is a regrettable fact that Wheeler's five year excavation in the city 1930–1934 resulted in the publication of only seventy-nine pieces of Roman pottery, including five plain but no decorated samian vessels: indeed, most of the material still remains unpublished in the Museum." By contrast, Verulamium I reported, inter alia, 142 sherds of decorated samian, 157 samian potters' stamps and 1293 sherds of coarse ware. Verulamium II (1983) reported all the other excavations, including the remains of town houses, notably in Insulae XXVII, where Frere traced an important sequence of construction well into the post-Roman period, and XXVIII, where the development of the house was traced to its origins as a timber-framed structure in the early second century, incorporating a fine polychrome mosaic in its mid-second century phase, before a house built in masonry followed in the third century. The publication in 1984 of the finds associated with volume II saw the completion of the Verulamium project.

Frere made one further urban excavation in Britain, this time in the walled Roman small town of Dorchester-on-Thames in 1963, which was published in 1984. A major discovery was that of early Saxon Grubenhaüser constructed beside Roman streets that were still in use.

In the countryside, the Bignor villa (West Sussex), first discovered in 1811 and subsequently excavated by Lysons, was renowned for its fine, polychrome mosaic floors on public display beneath cover buildings, but it had never been subjected to modern, stratigraphic excavation to establish chronologies and the development of the villa. Between 1956 and 1962, Frere undertook excavations of the main villa building around the inner court to address these questions and the results were published in the journal Britannia in 1982.

The London years also saw the completion of the first edition of Britannia: a history of Roman Britain, published a year after he had been appointed to the Professorship of the Archaeology of the Roman Empire at Oxford University and achieved a Fellowship at All Souls. Structured around the written sources, such as they are, the book skilfully integrates the epigraphic and archaeological evidence to develop a narrative of the province from Caesarian times of the mid-first century BC to the post-Roman period of the later fifth century. This historical narrative dominates the book, with less than a third summarising what was then known of important topics such as the administrative arrangements for the province, the army in Britain, the towns, the countryside, trade and industry, and an assessment of the cultural impact (Romanisation) of Rome on the island. Britannia was the first of an ambitious series, published by Routledge, on 'The History of the Provinces of the Roman Empire'. In the event, only four volumes appeared, but they provided up-to-date syntheses on provinces of the Roman Empire—Dalmatia, Moesia, Noricum and Pannonia—which had never been treated in English in this way before.

At Oxford, Frere engaged energetically in a wide range of important projects, many of which were concerned with advancing our knowledge of the Roman conquest of Britain and its military settlement. With Brian Hartley, he excavated the Roman fort at Bowes on the Stainmore Pass in Yorkshire in 1966–1967, establishing aspects of its plan and chronology from initial occupation in the Flavian period to the late fourth century. This work was finally brought to publication in 2009, following Hartley's death in 2005. Over six seasons with J.K. St Joseph, 1967–1971 and in 1973, he excavated almost one third of the pre-Flavian, 27 acre fortress and the later, 11 acre fort subsumed within the earlier fortress, at Longthorpe near Peterborough, recovering much of their plans; the site was subsequently largely destroyed by the construction of a golf course. The excavations were promptly published in Britannia in 1974. This was followed, during the years of 1973–1986, by a major, 14-season excavation, which investigated some 20 per cent of the interior of the fort at Strageath, located north of the Forth-Clyde isthmus in Scotland; the last six seasons of which were directed by J.J. Wilkes, and promptly published as a Britannia Monograph in 1989. This fort was shown to have been first established during the Agricolan campaigns of the late first century AD, then the site was re-occupied and the fort twice rebuilt as part of the defensive strategy north of the Antonine Wall in the second century. Finally, between 1981 and 1985 and partly with St Joseph, Frere excavated the pre-Flavian, probably Neronian fort established within the 8-acre Iron Age hill fort of Brandon Camp in the Welsh Marches, and recovered much of its plan. This work was published by Frere in Britannia 1987.

The Oxford years saw contributions to scholarship beyond the scope of his own research. He brought to publication Ian Richmond's 1961 excavation of the Silchester church and Donald Atkinson's earlier excavations of the forum and baths at Caistor by Norwich. The first volume of the journal Britannia was published in 1970, and the Britannia Monograph series, for which he also served as its first editor, was established a few years later. Of wide impact across the whole field of archaeology in England was the publication in his name by the Department of the Environment of Principles of publication in rescue archaeology: report by a working party of the Ancient Monuments Board for England in 1975. This arose from concerns over the growing number, size and costs of excavation reports resulting from rescue excavations undertaken in the face of development. The report defined four levels of archaeological reporting with priority in publication attached to the fourth and most synthetic level. One of the controversial and eventual outcomes of the development of this hierarchical structure was to lead to the consignment of detailed reports, such as by specialist contributors on aspects of the finds (which supplemented and supported the stratigraphic narrative) to microfiche. This was perceived by the profession as a downgrading of the value of what in many cases were innovatory fields of research, such as the reporting of faunal and botanical remains and the more systematic, quantitatively informed reporting of abundant categories of material finds such as pottery. The problem of what, and in what form, to publish, remains as acute as ever. Frere's final year in post at Oxford in 1983 saw the publication, with St Joseph, of some of the latter's remarkable aerial photography of Roman sites across Britain of all types in Roman Britain from the air. With a lucid commentary, this book gave a remarkable feel for the diversity of landscapes and their associated settlements—military, civil, urban and rural—across Roman Britain.

Retirement from the Oxford Chair and Fellowship of All Souls allowed for a complete focus on research and led to a blossoming number of publications. Outstanding among these is Frere's collaboration with Lepper, Trajan's Column: a new edition of the Cichorian plates. Introduction, commentary and notes, published in 1988. Of even greater significance, however, was the publication, principally with Tomlin but also with Roxan, between 1990 and 1995, of eight fascicules of the Instrumentum Domesticum as volume II of The Roman inscriptions of Britain, comprising all inscriptions from Roman Britain on materials other than stone. Britannia remains the only Roman province where this has been accomplished. Frere stepped into the breach to ensure continuity in the annual reporting of excavations, 'Roman Britain in 19xx', in Britannia for the first ten years of his retirement. These years also saw the completion of outstanding excavation reports, some dating back to the Canterbury years. The last of these, in his ninety-third year in 2009, was the publication of the excavations with Hartley on the Roman fort at Bowes, Excavations at Bowes and Lease Rigg Roman forts. A few further publications followed, the last in 2011.

Sheppard Frere was a remarkably warm person with a wonderful sense of humour. He gave generously of his time to other scholars, not least his doctoral students of whom he demanded the highest standards. He energetically supported the younger generations of Roman archaeologists, providing encouragement via the stern critique and editing of articles and monographs submitted to him for publication. He was sharply critical of poor work in the field and he was of the generation of scholars that could command the complete bibliography of work in their field throughout their working life. To this end, and despite all of the challenges instigated by the implementation of PPG 16 in 1990, Sheppard Sunderland Frere continued to publish and work within archaeology.

A bibliography of his published work was compiled by R. Goodburn and S. Stow in R.J.A. Wilson (ed.) Romanitas. Essays on Roman archaeology in honour of Sheppard Frere on the occasion of his ninetieth birthday (Oxford 2006): ix–xx. Additions to this will be published in the forthcoming volume (28) of the Journal of Roman Archaeology.