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Hector W. Catling

1924 - 15 February 2013

Appreciation by
Bill Cavanagh

Hector and Elizabeth Catling
Hector and Elizabeth Catling

Hector Catling, who died on 15 February 2013 aged 88, was one of the great archaeologists of his generation. He made major contributions to our understanding of the past of Greece and Cyprus. He served successively as Archaeological Survey Officer for Cyprus, Assistant Keeper at the Ashmolean and Director of the British School at Athens. Always an innovator, he became a distinguished leader at the BSA and an inspiring mentor to the many young archaeologists who passed through his hands.

After service in the navy in WWII he read Greats at Oxford and had his first experience of digging in Cyprus with Joan du Plat Taylor at Myrtou Pigadhes, which period also saw his introduction to 'surface investigations'. This inspired Hector to set up the Archaeological Survey of Cyprus, 'a brilliant, pioneering idea' (as Gerald Cadogan characterised it) to record all archaeological sites and monuments on the island from earliest times until 1700. This was, in retrospect, wildly ambitious but bequeathed a succession of new waves of intensive survey celebrated in Maria Iakovou's Archaeological Field Survey in Cyprus (2004). His ground-breaking 'Patterns of settlement in Bronze Age Cyprus' Opuscula Atheniensia 4 (1962) 129-69, demonstrated the power of the approach. The 1950s also saw his first publications on bronzes, notably 'Bronze cut-and-thrust swords in the eastern Mediterranean' PPS 22 (1956) 102-25, which culminated in his magisterial Cypriot Bronzework in the Mycenaean World (1964). The book's title belies its ambitious theme 'to give a general account of the part taken by Cyprus in the Mycenaean world in the last half of the second millennium BC'. His meticulous work set a very high standard and his opinions on the metal industry, on Cypriot prehistory and on the island's material culture are still felt; the work is very widely cited. His wife Elizabeth drew the superb illustrations for this volume as for so many more of his publications.

The early 1960s also saw his engagement with science and archaeology; the publication of 'Correlations between composition and provenance of Mycenaean and Minoan pottery' BSA 58 (1963) 94-115 with E. E. Richards and A. E. Blin-Stoyle was the first of a number of pioneering studies, producing a flood of new evidence on trading patterns, the palace economy of Bronze Age Greece and the organisation of production. It was to have long heritage. The analyses were carried out at the Oxford Research Laboratory for Archaeology and the History of Art, under its director E. T. Hall, who was to help Hector in setting up the Fitch Laboratory at the British School at Athens a decade later.

In 1971 he was appointed Director of the British School at Athens: a new start in his career. One of his first and most significant initiatives was the establishment of the Fitch Laboratory, a major addition to the archaeological armoury of the BSA; the presence of facilities on Greek soil made the analysis of samples more efficient and the Laboratory now has programmes in materials science, geophysical prospection and bioarchaeology. It has contributed greatly to putting science to the fore initially in Greek prehistory and now increasingly in Classical archaeology as well.

In 1973, guided by a suggestion from Katie Dimakopoulou (later Director of the National Museum at Athens, she had studied with him at Oxford) Hector started excavations at the site of the Menelaion, a hilltop with a panoramic view over the Eurotas and Sparta to Mt Taÿgetos. In the 1900s the BSA had started a major initiative exploring Sparta and Laconia and the new campaigns revived that tradition. The hill was the site of an Archaic and Classical sanctuary dedicated to Helen of Troy and her husband Menelaus, and of an earlier Bronze Age settlement. The excavations concentrated on a major Mycenaean complex, the 'Mansion', and the later sanctuary. His interpretation of the Mansion's development, an early example of Late Bronze Age architectural sophistication, shed much new light on the early history leading to the establishment of the first palatial states during the 15th and 14th centuries BC. The current excavation of the major site at Ayios Vasilios a few miles to the SW, begun thanks to the discovery of Linear B tablets there, gives added significance to the Menelaion. The recent publication of the full final report Sparta: Menelaion I — The Bronze Age (2009) is a land-mark and a monument to years of dedicated study in Hector's retirement.

A second, and an equally demanding excavation project, was that of the North Cemetery at Knossos. Within a few months during 1978 this excavation pressed ahead of the construction of the University of Crete's Medical Faculty; it uncovered a cemetery of nearly 100 complex early Greek tombs, plus well over 100 Hellenistic graves, Classical remains, a Roman cemetery and an important Early Christian church. Once the excavation was completed, the huge challenge of post excavation study was taken up very largely by Nicolas Coldstream and Hector himself, Nicolas dealing with, in particular, the great quantities of ProtoGeometric and Geometric pottery, Hector editing the excavation narrative, the account of the contents of the earliest tombs and the bronzes — they also edited and collated the contributions of numerous other colleagues. The monumental four-volume report on the Knossos North Cemetery: Early Greek Tombs was published by the British School in 1996.

He continued an active programme of excavation up to the end of his tenure of the BSA directorship in 1989 including that at the sanctuary of Zeus Messapeus at Tzakona near Sparta. Occasionally his very engagement with the evidence would lead him to very unconventional views, such as arguing that obsidian blades from Tzakona were used for circumcising the youths of Classical Sparta. During his years in Athens, he also shouldered production of Archaeological Reports, the annual digest of archaeological work throughout Greece and contributed numerous other scholarly publications, which it has not been possible to list in this appreciation. He was still writing up to the very end.

As Director he was also active in furthering the teaching and outreach activities of the BSA — he supported his Assistant Director, Robin Barber, in setting up a course for undergraduates, which celebrated its 40th anniversary last year, and he himself established and taught on a parallel course for teachers. He was a brilliant and entertaining lecturer.

His austere appearance masked a warm and humane man — he inspired great affection among his own students and the many who came under his tutelage at the BSA, where he acted as a second supervisor to a succession of postgraduates. His academic distinction and contributions to archaeology were recognised through the award successively of OBE and CBE and he was also elected as a foreign member to the Academy at Athens and was made an honorary citizen of the city of Sparta. His research was marked by a pioneering and, to my mind, modern approach, though he had little time for post-modernism and its jargon. His insistence on the importance of exchange among and movement between groups of people and individuals, although criticised in the past, may well, in these days of isotope and DNA analysis, come to be vindicated through archaeological science. Certain it is that his outstanding achievements guarantee his place as one of the great archaeologists of his time.