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Tony Wilkinson

14 August 1948 – 25 December 2014

Appreciation by
Graham Philip

Professor Tony Wilkinson, who died on 25 December 2014, aged 66, revolutionised archaeology in the Middle East. His achievement was in applying a diverse range of approaches to the ancient landscape and to a discipline that had traditionally formed its accounts of the past around the excavation of individual sites, linked through a combination of material culture studies and documentary evidence. Tony's interpretation of landscape was broader, including settlement, modes of subsistence, routes and frontiers, and the impact of both human activity and natural processes upon the environment. The extent to which the discipline has been transformed in recent decades testifies to the quality and impact of Tony's research and teaching.

Tony Wilkinson
Tony Wilkinson

Born on 14 August 1948, Tony grew up in Essex. He read geography at Birkbeck College, London (1966–1969), before undertaking an MSc at McMaster University in Ontario that focused on the hydrology of overland flow in arctic Canada. Returning to the UK, Tony worked at Francis Pryor's excavations at Fengate, before joining the Central Excavation Unit—a mobile field team led by Geoff Wainwright, then chief inspector of ancient monuments for England and Wales—renowned for their hard living conditions and equally hard living. This led him to undertake an intensive study of the coastal estuarine landscapes of Essex in the 1980s, including excavations at a Neolithic site in the inter-tidal zone known as The Stumble. The resulting publication—The archaeology of the Essex coast, volumes one and two, known respectively as The Hullbridge Survey (with P.L. Murphy 1995) and Excavations at the prehistoric site of The Stumble (2012)—was Tony's major contributions to British archaeology. However, the combination of fieldwalking and fine-grained analysis of landscape development and geomorphology that was required to understand the history of these mutable English landscapes was to inform much of Tony's subsequent, and better-known, work in the Middle East.

Tony's connection with the region began in the 1970s at Siraf in Iran. Here, working with David Whitehouse, he investigated off-site scatters of abraded material, raising the possibility that they might be the result of manuring, an idea subsequently developed in influential publications. This period also fired Tony's interest in the archaeology of Arabia, beginning with work in Oman with Paola Costa and moving on to fieldwork in Yemen, activities that were to continue alongside his research on ancient Mesopotamia. Based for many years in the cathedral city of Lincoln with his first wife Judy, an archaeologist and photographer, Tony combined his initial Middle Eastern fieldwork with continued activity in the UK, including performances across the east of England, as a harmonica player in the Bamboo Beat Band—a reflection of his longstanding love of the blues.

His appointment as assistant director of the British Archaeological Expedition to Iraq in 1989 allowed Tony to complete fieldwork on the North Jazirah Project (published in 1995). As the first large-scale, systematic survey in the region that considered both on- and offsite material, the North Jazirah Project was to have an enormous impact on subsequent survey work. Following the cessation of fieldwork in Iraq in 1991, Tony moved to Chicago in 1992, where he was appointed as research associate and, later, associate professor at the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago. While here, he undertook the surveys in Syria, south-eastern Turkey and Yemen that were to feed into his magisterial volume Archaeological landscapes of the Near East (2003). A hugely influential statement of his approach to landscape archaeology, the book won awards from the Society for American Archaeology and the Archaeological Institute of America, and it will remain the standard point of reference on the topic for years to come.

During this period, Tony made important contributions to several project monographs, and met and married Eleanor Barbanes, who became a regular academic collaborator and co-author. Although Tony had first realised the potential of satellite imagery for landscape archaeology in the late 1980s, the real step change came with the declassification of the Corona programme of satellite photography in the early 1990s. The acquisition and analysis of this data was taken forward by the establishment at the Oriental Institute of the CAMEL (Center for Ancient Middle Eastern Landscapes) Laboratory, of which Tony was director. Chicago also offered Tony his first real opportunity to promulgate the ideas and techniques of landscape archaeology among graduate students. His success in this regard is apparent in the presence of his Chicago students in anthropology departments across North America, just as his subsequent cohort of students at Durham are now forging independent research careers across Europe. Equally indicative of his influence is the massive growth in articles in leading journals dealing with aspects of landscape archaeology in the ancient Near East.

Another long-term collaboration, this time involving colleagues from Argonne National Laboratory, was the Modeling Ancient Settlement Systems (MASS) project. Funded by the National Science Foundation in 2002, and published as Models of Mesopotamian landscapes. How small-scale processes contributed to the growth of early civilizations (2013), this was a highly innovative attempt to use settlement, environmental and documentary sources as inputs to drive a mathematical model of the development, and contraction, of communities in ancient North Mesopotamia.

Tony returned to the UK in 2004 to take up a lectureship, and subsequently a chair at the University of Edinburgh, before moving to a professorship at Durham University in 2006, where collaboration between archaeology and geography had already established a tradition of research in remote sensing. Tony saw in Durham's technical capabilities an opportunity to capitalise on his vast reservoirs of knowledge and field data; at the same time, recent changes to the funding environment gave academics in the humanities access to grants capable of funding both research associates and doctoral students for the first time. Within a few short years, Tony had launched a series of major research collaborations, each of which used landscape evidence to make high-level statements about societies in the ancient Middle East. The wide geographical and chronological reach of these projects demonstrate the breadth of Tony's scholarship. They include the Fragile Crescent Project (2008–2012), funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, which is creating an understanding of developments in the northern and western parts of the 'Fertile Crescent', on a par with that obtained through Robert Adams's seminal fieldwork in southern Iraq. The Land of Carchemish Survey undertaken in collaboration with Eddie Peltenburg, explored the hinterland of a major urban centre in the Euphrates Valley: the publication of Carchemish in context: the Land of Carchemish Project, 2006–2010 is imminent. The Gorgan Wall survey in northern Iran, supported by the AHRC and undertaken jointly with Eberhard Sauer (2006–2008), resulted in the 2013 monograph Persia's imperial power in Late Antiquity: the Great Wall of Gorgan and the frontier landscapes of Sasanian Iran, while at the time of his death, Tony was involved in a second collaboration with Sauer, Persia and its neighbours, which was funded by a major grant from the European Research Council.

I first encountered Tony in 1983 when working on Leon Marfoe's excavations at Kurban Höyük, where, engaged in the excavation of a cramped deep sounding—in the classic tradition of Near-Eastern archaeology—I could only envy his freedom to traverse the countryside, finding new sites and studying the geomorphology exposed by wadi sections and canal cuts. As a recent graduate, I was impressed by Tony's integrity, kindness, good humour and bad jokes, all very welcome in what could be a rather intense environment. It was these qualities, alongside his academic reputation, that were to make him so many friends among the international research community, local archaeologists and administrators, and within the communities in which he worked. It was more than luck that made it possible for Tony to spend 40 years walking across the terrain of countries where security concerns would normally trump both archaeological research and heritage protection.

In fact, while rarely overtly political, Tony was seriously committed to the Middle East, and felt very deeply the tragic wars that have convulsed the region in recent decades. He was a member of the first group of western archaeologists to visit Iraq in 2003, seeking to investigate damage to the country's heritage caused by the war and subsequent looting. He and Eleanor organised a workshop at St John's College in Durham in 2008, which brought to the UK many of the archaeologists he had worked with in northern Iraq, and which supported the exchange of new information and the renewal of old friendships. During the recent problems in Syria, Tony tried as far as was humanly possible to maintain contact with, and support, his local partners, against a rising tide of chaos and broken communications. It was therefore no surprise that a truly impressive range of individuals and organisations from the Middle East took the time, despite current political and security problems, to send their condolences to his wife and colleagues.

Notwithstanding his eminence in the field, exemplified by his election to a fellowship of the British Academy in 2008 and the award of the John Coles Medal for Landscape Archaeology in 2009, Tony took 'academic citizenship' seriously. He was supportive of his colleagues, always willing to offer advice or feedback, continued to evaluate grant applications and articles for a wide range of funders and publishers, willingly taught students at all levels and served for a period as a trustee of the Council for British Research in the Levant. At an institutional level, he played an important part in raising the profile of Durham University by serving as a director of the Institute of Advanced Studies, by shaping its annual research themes and by encouraging and selecting the institute's visiting scholars. It is easy to forget that in the 1970s landscape analysis was seen by some scholars as a sideshow, able at best to provide a little context for the major excavations that then dominated the field. That views have changed is, in large part, attributable to Tony's fieldwork and publications. Tony's deep knowledge and vast of body of data were amassed over several decades through fieldwork projects funded by a mosaic of small grants. We might ask whether, in more recent years, when academic lives consist of squirming through a succession of tightly spaced hoops, a geographer without a doctorate but with a passion for fieldwork and a superb eye for landscape, would be afforded the opportunity and resources to build such a career. If the answer is anything other than a resounding 'Yes!', then our discipline is the poorer for it. Tony Wilkinson's influence was global. His wisdom, scholarship and humour will be sadly missed.