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Roger M. Jacobi

16th February 1947 - 9th December 2009

Appreciation by
Tom Higham

Roger at the Musee de l'Homme with a bone from the Cro Magnon skeletal material.
Roger at the Musée de l'Homme with a bone from
the Cro Magnon skeletal material.

Roger Jacobi died in Watford in December 2009 aged 62, after a short battle with cancer.

Roger Jacobi, of the British Museum and the Natural History Museum, was involved in archaeology from the time he was a young lad. He said that from a young age he was always fascinated with the past. He excavated a Roman site whilst still a schoolboy at Merchant Taylors' School, Middlesex, and became a member of the Prehistoric Society shortly after. Roger went up to Cambridge in 1966 to read Archaeology and Anthropology. His DPhil concerned the Mesolithic of Britain and was titled 'Aspects of the post-Glacial archaeology of England'. It was completed in 1976, a labour of about seven years in duration. Roger enjoyed a research fellowship at Jesus College whilst working and spoke often about how much he loved being there. Paul Mellars, who was his DPhil examiner, recalls the depth and breadth of the work, the tremendous attention to detail and the wide coverage, aspects that were to become Roger's scholarly trademark throughout his career. The dissertation comprised three volumes. Colleagues in the Mesolithic community doubt we will ever see its equal, because of its thoroughness and tremendous breadth and scope. This is likelier still given current funding and time constraints. It remains a landmark in the field of Mesolithic archaeology.

From 1979 to 1988, Roger taught archaeology at Lancaster University and then moved to the University of Nottingham where he was again a lecturer in archaeology. His teaching is recalled fondly by former students as inspirational and captivating, involving impressions of bears and hyaenas, sometimes on lecture room tables! He is fondly remembered by many for the magnetic and captivating nature of his teaching, which drew them inexorably into his beloved Palaeolithic and inspired a new generation of researchers. In 1995 he left Nottingham and moved to a curatorial position at the British Museum, anxious to escape increasing levels of university administration and get back to what he loved most, research. This was a huge risk, with a lack of a permanent and ongoing position at the British Museum, but it was one that Roger knew he had to make.

Between 1995 and 2001, times were tough, but in 2001, fortune smiled and he became involved in a new research project with his old friends and colleagues Chris Stringer, Andy Currant and Nick Ashton, among many others, in the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain (AHOB) project. Roger was the project archaeologist. Chris Stringer says his selection was automatic simply because Roger knew so much about everything! Of course Roger had worked with both Andy and Chris for many years, at Gough's Cave in Cheddar, for instance, where they excavated between 1987 and 1992. AHOB offered Roger the opportunity to pursue his research agenda, focusing on the archaeology of Britain from the early Middle Palaeolithic all the way to the Late Glacial. In collaboration with colleagues in Oxford, at the Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit, Roger worked steadily at redating key sites and objects from this wide period to build up a more reliable chronology. At the heart of the work was an improved method of AMS dating bone using an 'ultrafiltration' technique, which provides more reliable and accurate ages than previously had been possible. Roger worked initially on the analysis of the Poulton-le-Fylde elk, the 'Red Lady' of Paviland, bones from Kent's Cavern, Creswell Crags, and many other sites. He had significant interests in the Late Glacial sequences of the north of England too, recognising that this was the key to understanding the pattern of movement of people as the recolonisation of the northern part of Europe took place during the climate warming at the end of the Devensian. Later, in 2006, with Tom Higham in Oxford, funding was received from a large UK NERC grant to work on the Middle to Upper Palaeolithic sequences of Europe, using ultrafiltration. It was this project that Roger was working on to the end of his life.

In 2004, Roger's magnificent contribution to the work at Gough's Cave was recognised with The Bagueley Award of the Prehistoric Society for his paper 'The Late Upper Palaeolithic lithic collections from Gough's Cave, Cheddar, Somerset, and human use of the cave'. This beautiful publication illustrates the essence of Roger's careful and methodical approach. At a time when academics rather pump out brief and often data-poor publications, his work presented a contrasting picture. It was careful, methodical and hugely detailed; the product of years of careful observation and basic hard work.

Roger's ability to extract information from old collections stemmed from his wide knowledge of museums, people, collectors and objects. Roger had a mathematical knowledge of what was where, how it got there and by whom. He was a careful recorder of information and took copious notes in his careful and distinct long hand. Many of these notes may still be found amongst the museums of the British Isles, correcting prior mis-identifications of bones, pointing to a missing item or listing where other material relating to a collection could be found by others. His wide knowledge of collections allowed him to make several stunning correlations and rediscoveries. Chris Stringer relates how he found parts of refitting flint artefacts from different collections in separate museums. His discovery of the bone or antler lozangic point from Uphill (west Somerset) amongst the lithic corpus in the Bristol Museum, delivered to us one of only two diagnostic Aurignacian organic bone objects found thus far in the British Isles.

Roger visited many key sites spanning the Middle to Upper Palaeolithic in the British Isles, retaining an encyclopaedic knowledge of them throughout his life that he passed on to other colleagues, whose brains sadly could not retain the same detailed degree of information. Thankfully, Roger's detailed knowledge was matched with a huge generosity and a spirit of sharing freely his thoughts, opinions and help. He was an absolutely tremendous person to collaborate with. He always made time for people, especially students, who he never talked down to or in a condescending manner. He was hugely approachable, even when busy.

In the last months of his life, Roger worked like a man possessed, with an urgency borne of the inevitability of the cancer he had been diagnosed with, yet a steadfast refusal to let it cow him. He wrote copiously. He received many visitors to his home in Rickmansworth and he travelled where he could, to finalise work on collections, to update records and meet friends. He was at the intellectual peak of his powers in 2009 and it is hugely sad that he was not able to finish what remained on his large desk. Despite this, we are hugely fortunate that several key publications he was working on to the end of his life will appear over the next year. They will stand testament to his genius and commitment to the Palaeolithic archaeology that drove him.

Roger left no family. His parents moved from Germany before the start of the Second World War and Roger was born in England, an only child. Although he was married once, he had no children. Roger did, however, have a wide family of many friends, colleagues and acquaintances, all of whom will miss his warmth, kindness, humility, friendship and fabulous, dry sense of humour. Margaret Chapman was with him regularly and often, and provided invaluable help, love, support and scholarly assistance.

Roger donated his body to science, an action that says much about him. On what would have been his 63rd birthday, the 16th of February 2010, friends and colleagues gathered at the Society of Antiquaries in London to remember him, talk, hear about his life and work and toast him with a glass of merlot, his favourite tipple. It was a lovely occasion. He will be greatly missed, but his work touched perfection and will live on and serve to inspire others still working, and yet to work, in this exciting field.