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Alan Vince

30 March 1952 - 23rd February 2009

Appreciation by
Derek Hall

Alan Vince was one of those rare examples of an archaeologist who was also a capable scientist and could combine the two skills to great effect. In the days following the announcement of the terminal nature of his illness most of the colleagues I spoke to across the country were at a complete loss as to how Alan's specialist skills were going to be replaced. The last time I spoke to Alan was on an Italian train from Sienna to Pisa returning from the Medieval Pottery Research Group conference, we spent most of the journey discussing Will Self's 'The Book of Dave', a reflection of Alan's interest in the more esoteric side of English literature. The day before he passed away a group of us from the MPRG spent the afternoon laughing and joking in his company I think all of us present were so glad that we were able to do so, he will be sadly missed.

We also reproduce here the obituary of Alan Vince, FSA, published in the Society of Antiquaries of London's online newsletter (SALON 209 2 March 2009), by kind permission of the Society of Antiquaries. It is available at:

Friends of the late Alan Vince have combined their recollections to produce the following appreciation of his life and achievements.

'Alan Vince (born 30 March 1952; died 23 February 2009, aged 56) was one of Britain's leading experts on the ceramics of the medieval and early modern periods and also at the forefront of Anglo-Saxon studies. Eschewing the art-historical approach that had dominated studies of such pottery for so long, he rigorously applied the geological and archaeological techniques in which he was equally accomplished. Reduced to its essentials, his method was to examine the petrological composition of a pottery vessel, comparing its constituents with rocks from known geological deposits. Working from microscope slides, and later also with chemical analysis of the clay itself (for which he developed the application of ground-breaking new techniques), he could deduce the geographical origin of the vessel - and sometimes even the precise kiln that had produced it centuries ago.

'Whereas in many hands such information would have been of limited, purely academic, value, Alan analysed and compared tens of thousands of potsherds, from dozens of sites of all periods across the United Kingdom and beyond, so transforming our understanding of social and economic conditions in English towns. Sometimes the results were surprising. In London, for example, it emerged that the Norman Conquest of 1066 made no significant difference to the supply of pottery, to the types of vessel in use or, by inference, to the domestic way of life of most Londoners.

'Born in Bath in 1952, Alan was educated at Keynsham Grammar School. For eight years he studied at the University of Southampton, where he came under the influence of David Peacock, who pioneered the application of geological techniques to the study of Roman pottery. His doctoral thesis on the medieval ceramic industry of the Severn valley was a large-scale survey of the region of his birth and covered, besides pottery vessels, tiles and ceramic building-materials - a subject upon which he would become a leading authority. 'Never purely a specialist in artefacts, however, Alan also spent time as a site supervisor both at the Eastgate excavations at Gloucester with Carolyn Heighway, FSA, and at St Albans Abbey, where Fellows Martin Biddle and Birthe Kølbye-Biddle were directing excavations prior to the construction of a new chapter house. Prophetically, as things were to turn out, that dig was notable for locating, for the first time, remains of early to mid-Saxon St Albans, on the hill slope between Roman Verulamium and the medieval town.

'After a short period directing excavations in Newbury during 1979, Alan took up a post in the Museum of London's Department of Urban Archaeology (DUA). There he remained until 1988, eventually taking charge of research and the publication of artefacts of all periods. At the time of his arrival, the DUA had already explored over fifty sites in the City of London and had devised a system for classifying ceramics that was based on geological principles. It required someone with Alan's towering managerial skills, however, to tackle the enormous logistical problem of classifying thousands of broken potsherds and interpreting them in the context of the buildings and other remains that also had been discovered.

'Fortunately, much of the pottery had been dumped in common household rubbish behind the timber riverside walls by which medieval Londoners reclaimed ever-increasing tracts of land from the Thames. The walls could be given a precise calendar date by the nascent science of tree-ring dating, and this enabled Alan to produce a detailed type-series of all the pottery that had been in use in London from the mid-ninth to the mid-fifteenth centuries. The results were published in a series of books and journal articles that remain, to this day, the essential foundation for medieval ceramic studies, not only in London but also in much of Britain and on the continent.

'Delegating routine ceramic analysis to a team of able assistants, Alan was soon managing the production of books on other medieval artefacts, such as knives, shoes or clothing. Though largely written by specialists in the field, they followed his rigorous methods, paying attention to the details of the materials used, craft techniques and chronology; all have been reprinted several times. Perhaps his most memorable single contribution, however, relates to the discovery of Saxon London. Because the medieval city lay within the walls of Roman Londinium, it was generally assumed that occupation of the site was continuous - albeit at a humble level - during the four centuries from AD 400 to 800. Yet, despite numerous digs, archaeologists had failed to find the slightest shred of supporting evidence.

'Then, in the summer of 1984, both Alan and Martin Biddle, working entirely independently, published articles proposing that previous scholars had been searching in the wrong place. Saxon Lundenwic lay not within the Roman walls but to the west, along the Strand and Aldwych, 'the old wic'. Almost immediately, excavation proved them right. Whereas Biddle had marshalled much of the requisite historical and place-name data, Alan, typically, had drawn his conclusion from a meticulous study of the artefacts that had been dug up over centuries and largely disregarded. His book, Saxon London (1990), was a wonderfully readable reassessment of this fascinating episode in London's history.

'In 1988 Alan was ready for a fresh challenge and moved to Lincoln, where, as a key figure in the City of Lincoln Archaeology Unit, he mentored a team through a major programme of research and publication. The resulting volumes, on sites excavated between 1972 and 1987, are a fitting testament to Alan's inspirational leadership. Lincoln's archaeology provided him with the opportunity to explore the history of a city through multi-period activity dating from the Late Bronze Age, through Roman and Saxon occupation to the important medieval ecclesiastical centre it became, and even into the growth of the industrial town in the mid-nineteenth century. His enthusiasm for ICT applications enabled a team of archaeologists to work concurrently on stratigraphical, artefactual and environmental information, culminating in an integrated approach to archaeological research and publication. Alan could be seen at his happiest in front of a computer exploring desktop publishing programmes or talking with colleagues about the Saxon pottery of Lincolnshire. His joint publication The City by the Pool: assessing the archaeology of the city of Lincoln (2003) has been acclaimed as the last word in urban archaeological assessment.

'In 1995, Alan took up a part-time post in the Department of Archaeology at the University of York. He was one of the first to recognise that the personal computer would transform the day-to-day processing of archaeological data, and had created the Urban Archaeological Database for Lincoln, which was a model of its kind. Therefore it was natural that, from 1995 to 1999, he should serve as the first editor of a new on-line journal, Internet Archaeology. Insisting that traditional standards of scholarship must be upheld, but at the same time encouraging authors to make original use of the new technologies available, he laid the foundations for a series that now runs to twenty-five issues.

'The need for scientific analysis and characterisation studies of ceramic fabrics was increasingly being recognised across Britain and beyond. It was therefore natural that someone with Alan's unique gifts and experience should step into the breach to provide a much-needed service for the profession. In 1997, he founded his own company, Alan Vince Archaeological Consultancy, while continuing to work at York. As a ceramic petrologist, the demand for his specialist input into archaeological projects around the world had, by 1999, became so great that he decided to focus entirely on his flourishing consultancy work. In this capacity, he continued to play a crucial role in developing our understanding of pottery and building materials, as well as of their wider significance. His programmes of scientific analysis were of major importance in a wide and diverse array of projects from centres across Britain and Europe, even extending as far as Taiwan and Madagascar. Based on data collected from sites across mainland Britain, he established the AVAC Ceramic Chemical Composition Database, which provides an invaluable on-line resource.

'Alan served as President of the Medieval Pottery Research Group between 1996 and 1999, and as Secretary of the Society for Medieval Archaeology between 1988 and 1993. His interests ranged widely beyond ceramics to include glass (he excavated a seventeenth-century glasshouse at Newent, Gloucestershire), clay tobacco pipes and decorated floor tiles. A superb teacher, whose critical acumen was mixed with extraordinary warmth, humour and generosity, he trained and encouraged a succession of assistants, many of whom have become distinguished ceramics experts in their own right. His list of publications is immense, but provides only a small measure of the far-reaching importance of a career curtailed far too early.

'Alan was that very rare being, a man of vision who could see clearly the larger picture, but who was also intensely practical and knew how to achieve what he wanted. Alan's loss to the archaeological world will be felt for many years to come. His wife, Joanna, whom he met on a dig in Coddenham, Suffolk, in 1973 and married in 1976, survives him, along with their three children, Leon, Amy and Kate.'