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David Whitehouse

15 October 1941 - 17 February 2013

Appreciation by
Richard Hodges

David Whitehouse image
David Whitehouse welcomes Princess Alexandra to the British School at Rome, October 1976. © British School at Rome Photographic Archive (BS 467)

For twenty years between 1963-83 David Whitehouse was the leading English-speaking advocate of medieval archaeology in Italy. During these two decades he made a paradigmatic impact upon the discipline, signally helping to shift it from an antiquarian to a professional discipline. During this same period, before joining the Corning Museum of Glass (in 1984) and becoming a distinguished museum curator, he also significantly contributed to the beginnings of Islamic archaeology with his excavations at Siraf on the Persian Gulf as well as undertaking the first systemic excavation of a (Fatimid) mosque in Libya at Ajdābīyah. Fifty years on from his earliest work, it is hard to grasp the intellectual leap that Whitehouse injected into the discipline, such is its normalcy to our reading of medieval archaeology today.

Born in 1941, Whitehouse studied Archaeology and Anthropology at Cambridge University, having already participated in excavations while at high school. It is important to note that he graduated three years after two young lions of medieval archaeology, Peter Addyman and Martin Biddle, and enjoyed the support of Glyn Daniel, the charismatic and well-connected prehistorian then fellow at St. John's, Cambridge. Whitehouse, in other words, belonged to an exceptional era of young archaeologists tutored by Daniel whose work has come to dominate the discipline worldwide. With such peers it is hardly surprising that he looked beyond Britain's shores to seek a doctoral thesis. Already fascinated by medieval archaeology (in his native Worcestershire), at Daniel's instigation he sought the advice of a leading figure in medieval archaeology in Great Britain, the benign J.G. Hurst. Hurst recommended that he study the pottery recently found at the 8th- to 9th-century papal farm, domusculta, at Santa Cornelia by John Ward-Perkins's South Etruria survey and excavated by Charles Daniels. To do this Whitehouse won a scholarship to the British School at Rome for two years and by 1966 had completed his thesis, entitled The Medieval Pottery of Southern Italy (under the supervision of Brian Hope-Taylor and John Ward-Perkins). Before its completion Whitehouse submitted a groundbreaking article to Medieval Archaeology on the 9th-century type glazed ware that he effectively named, Forum Ware, and a longer review of all the early (to high medieval) glazed wares in Central Italy to the Papers of the British School at Rome. Shortly afterwards, Whitehouse was the first to identify the typological characteristics of Central and Southern Italian red-painted wares as chronological indicators for differentiating 9th-century decorated vessels from high medieval ones. These three studies essentially now made it possible to identify the settlement sites of post-Roman Italy and, along with John Hayes's Late Roman Pottery (published in 1971), facilitated the prospect of a dialogue between settlement archaeologists and historians on the end of Roman antiquity and the origins of the Middle Ages. In the following years further ceramic studies ranged widely as he brought definition to a variety of high and late medieval Italian glazed wares, again enabling archaeologists to date their sites more accurately.

These first ceramic studies paved the way for his many excavations concerned with cornerstone sites belonging to the end of antiquity and the makings of the Middle Ages. So, as Director of the British School at Rome he excavated important late antique stratigraphic deposits at the Scuola Praeconum in the Forum of Rome, as well as the tower-house at Anguillara. No less important were his excavations of early medieval phases of the port of Otranto, the monastery of Farfa, and the hilltop village of Nepi. Added to this were his major excavations of later medieval villages such as Satriano, an Umbrian castle above Gubbio and a spectacularly rich late medieval townhouse at Tarquinia. These excavations, though, reflect only one side of a prodigiously energetic archaeologist. His large-scale excavations in Iran between 1966-73 of the Abbasid port at Siraf on the Persian Gulf, the first systematic stratigraphic excavations made of an Islamic urban site, were equally important in opening up a new window on historical archaeology that in this case related to commerce reaching across the Indian Ocean to Tang China. The reach of Islam must have been in his mind as he accepted an invitation to collaborate in an excavation of a Fatimid mosque at Ajdabiyah, Libya in 1971-72. Like so many of Whitehouse's scoping missions, this one begged as many questions as it answered, but it also illustrated his restless curiosity to document the potential of medieval archaeology and use the results to write a kind of 'Grand Narrative' history. Notwithstanding his numerous reports and short studies describing each of these projects, the intellectual thinking behind his fieldwork and ceramic studies is best captured in his chapters on late antiquity and the commerce of the Abbasid caliphate in our joint book, Mohammed, Charlemagne and the Origins of Europe (1983). Using archaeology to challenge the canonic (fifty-year old) historical thesis of Henri Pirenne summed up the driving spirit of Whitehouse's mission in these years.

His commitment to archaeology (and 'Grand Narrative' history) perhaps overshadowed his early administrative roles as Director of the British School at Afghanistan (1973-74) and then Director of the British School at Rome (1974-84) (where he was confronted by challenging financial circumstances). Once at the Corning Museum of Glass in upstate New York, however, first as a Curator, then as Deputy Director and, then from 1992-2011, as its Director, he demonstrated a remarkable ability to champion an entirely new vein of academic studies — principally ancient, Islamic and medieval glass. At Corning he not only edited the Journal of Glass Studies, establishing it as the journal of record for the international field, but published a sequence of major catalogues devoted to the museum's peerless glass collection. These publications are all the more prodigious given the intelligent attention he gave to remodelling the museum as its Executive Director. From the startling entrance atrium dominated by an extraordinary artwork by the contemporary glass sculptor, Dale Chihuly, to the carefully contrived sight and light lines in the galleries concerned with ancient and medieval glass and its technology, once more he conveyed a romantic grasp of 'Grand Narrative', this time of a singularly important aspect of material culture.

David Whitehouse was a genuinely creative force in making medieval archaeology and glass studies the international disciplines they are today. In his discreet and precise manner, he was quintessentially English, but his intellectual contribution to archaeology was entirely devoted to a genuinely international history, ambitiously mapped out in Iran, Italy, Libya and the USA. Over the course of fifty years he has been an inspiration to many who have followed each of his pioneering research ventures.