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Christopher B. Mee

14 August 1950 – 21 December 2013

Appreciation by
Paul Halstead

Christopher B. Mee.
Christopher B. Mee.

Chris Mee, a leading figure in Aegean prehistory and Mediterranean survey archaeology, died in December 2013 after a characteristically courageous battle with illness.

After growing up in Herefordshire, Chris studied Classics at Bristol University before moving to London University's Bedford College for doctoral research on the Bronze Age in the Dodecanese, an undertaking that involved first-hand study of ceramics in the Aegean and periods of study in both Athens and Ankara. Chris completed his PhD promptly, establishing a pattern that continued throughout his career, and in 1976 became Assistant Director under Hector Catling at the British School at Athens. This was Chris' first chance to demonstrate his extraordinary capacity for calm efficiency under pressure, again a quality that he retained throughout his career. The post also brought responsibility for leading the BSA's summer course that introduced undergraduates from Britain to the landscapes of Greece and to the archaeological sites and museums that inform understanding of the country's early history. The experience helped shape Chris' approach to teaching at Liverpool University, where he was appointed Lecturer in Classical Archaeology in 1978, Senior Lecturer in 1994 and Charles W. Jones Professor of Classical Archaeology in 2000. His classes in Classical archaeology and Aegean prehistory proved highly popular at all levels. As external examiner, I witnessed Chris' trademark superlative organisation, his ability to stimulate students, and his genuine personal interest in those he supervised. Unsurprisingly, Chris' administrative talents were quickly recognised and he served as Head of Department and Head of School, held several Faculty offices, was a member of many university and external committees, and for several years edited the Annual of the British School at Athens. What is more remarkable is that, at the same time, Chris maintained a very active research profile and an exemplary record of prompt publication.

Early papers included a substantial study of ceramic evidence for Bronze Age interaction between the Aegean and Anatolia and, in 1982, a version of his doctoral thesis was published as Rhodes in the Bronze Age. From 1982 to 1987, Chris directed a survey project on the Methana peninsula in southern mainland Greece, published in 1997 as A rough and rocky place with his then Liverpool colleague, Hamish Forbes. The steep and heavily terraced volcanic terrain of Methana, which is very different from that explored in other early intensive surveys in the Aegean, posed distinctive problems of methodology but the solutions adopted, and justified with commendable clarity, yielded an invaluable record of changing human exploitation of the peninsula. The following year saw publication of A private place: death in prehistoric Greece (1998), the fruit of long-term collaborative research into Aegean mortuary studies with Nottingham prehistorian Bill Cavanagh. Meanwhile, from 1992 to 1995, Chris was co-directing the Laconia Rural Sites Project with Bill Cavanagh and Liverpool geographer Peter James. This collaboration used a combination of surface survey, geophysical prospection and analysis of soil samples to develop a deeper and more nuanced understanding of the variability in form and function of the enigmatic small rural sites found in strikingly large numbers by intensive survey projects in Methana, Laconia and other regions of Greece. The Laconia Rural Sites Project duly appeared as a monograph in 2004, but once again Chris was already running a new field project at the prehistoric settlement of Kouphovouno near Sparta in partnership with Bill Cavanagh and Josette Renard of Clermont-Ferrand and the CNRS. Following intensive surface investigation in 1999, to determine the extent of occupation, five seasons of excavation investigated the remains of Neolithic and Early Bronze Age habitation, with a principal aim of clarifying why the Neolithic settlement record from southern Greece is so much sparser than that from central and northern mainland Greece. Post-excavation work is ongoing, but substantial preliminary reports, synthetic papers and specialist studies have already appeared in print. Cooking up the past: food and culinary practices in the Neolithic and Bronze Age Aegean (2007, co-edited with Josette Renard) illustrates how Chris' study of the Kouphovouno ceramics had again inspired inter-disciplinary collaboration—focused on human diet and foodways. In the most recent publication (2014), Petra Vaiglova and Amy Bogaard from Oxford with Chris and other collaborators shed radical light on early farming in Europe, presenting stable isotope evidence for selective manuring of crops at Neolithic Kouphovouno.

In addition to conducting and publishing innovative field and museum projects in the Aegean, Chris was committed to disseminating academic knowledge to other professionals, students and the wider public. With Jenny Doole (1993) and Louise Steel (1998), respectively, he published the collections of Aegean and Cypriot antiquities housed in Liverpool museums. With Tony Spawforth of Newcastle, his successor as Assistant Director of the British School at Athens, Chris published Greece: an Oxford archaeological guide in 2001, followed in 2003 by three regional Greek-language guides. These guidebooks had their origins in shared teaching of British students in Greece. A similar emphasis on grounding the teaching of archaeology in close familiarity with the material record underpinned Chris' classes at Liverpool and is strongly evident in his 2011 textbook Greek archaeology: a thematic approach. This, his last book, also stands out in boldly bridging the long-standing divide between Aegean prehistory and Classical archaeology, by covering the nearly seven millennia from the beginning of the Neolithic to the eve of Roman rule.

Despite his commitment to teaching, his unflappable capacity for organising himself and others, and his impressively full research schedule, Chris was a devoted husband to Christa and father to Cathy, Matthew and Jamie and in August 2013 became a proud grandfather. He was a generous host and his 'bottleneck' guitar renditions of blues classics are fondly remembered. Chris remained active to the last, attending a conference in Paris and completing a Kouphovouno study season in his final months. He was only 63 at the time of his death and his funeral predictably drew family, friends and colleagues in large numbers from many parts of Britain and Europe and warm tributes from around the world. He was, in the words of one former student, 'the best of men'.

References

  • CAVANAGH, W. & C. MEE. 1998. A private place: death in Prehistoric Greece (Studies in Mediterranean Archaeology 125). Uppsala: Paul Åström.
  • CAVANAGH, W., C. MEE & P. JAMES. 2004. The Laconia Rural Sites Project (Annual of the British School at Athens supplementary volume 36). Athens: British School at Athens.
  • MEE, C. 1982. Rhodes in the Bronze Age: an archaeological survey. Warminster: Aris and Phillips.
    - 2011. Greek archaeology: a thematic approach. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell.
  • MEE, C. & J. DOOLE. 1993. Aegean antiquities on Merseyside: the collections of Liverpool Museum and Liverpool University. Liverpool: Museums and Galleries on Merseyside.
  • MEE, C. & H. FORBES. 1997. A rough and rocky place: the landscape and settlement history of the Methana peninsula, Greece. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press.
  • MEE, C. & J. RENARD. 2007. Cooking up the past: food and culinary practices in the Neolithic and Bronze Age Aegean. Oxford: Oxbow.
  • MEE, C. & A. SPAWFORTH. 2001. Greece: an Oxford archaeological guide. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • MEE, C. & L. STEEL. 1998. Corpus of Cypriote antiquities 17: the Cypriote collections in the University of Liverpool and the Williamson Art Gallery and Museum (Studies in Mediterranean Archaeology 20(17)). Uppsala: Paul Åström.
  • VAIGLOVA, P., A. BOGAARD, M. COLLINS, W. CAVANAGH, C. MEE, J. RENARD, A. LAMB, A. GARDEISEN & R. FRASER. 2014. An integrated stable isotope study of plants and animals from Kouphovouno, southern Greece: a new look at Neolithic farming. Journal of Archaeological Science 42: 201–15. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jas.2013.10.023