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Derek Arthur Roe

24 September 2014

Appreciation by
Nick Barton & Jill Cook

Derek Arthur Roe

Derek Roe, the renowned British Palaeolithic scholar, died on 24 September 2014 after a short illness. He was educated at St Edward's School in Oxford. He undertook his National Service with the Royal Sussex Regiment and the Intelligence Corps in Berlin. He went on to study Archaeology and Anthropology at Cambridge University, where he was a member of Peterhouse College, graduating with a First Class Honours degree in 1961. His PhD thesis and subsequent Gazetteer of British Middle and Lower Palaeolithic sites, published in 1968, were landmark studies on the metrical analysis of Acheulean handaxe industries, and remain invaluable reference works for scholars of the British Palaeolithic. Before he had completed his postgraduate studies at Cambridge he was appointed University Lecturer at Oxford University in 1963, where he remained until his retirement in 2003.

Early in his tenure at Oxford, he conceived the idea of setting up a Quaternary research facility for teaching and research of Palaeolithic archaeology and related quaternary sciences. He raised the funding by approaching Francis Baden-Powell for a generous benefaction in the memory of his father, the geologist Donald Baden-Powell. The Donald Baden-Powell Quaternary Research Centre was opened in 1975, and until his retirement he held the position as its Honorary Director. At Oxford he was also a founding Fellow of St Cross College, where he served as Vice-Master of the college between 1988 and 1990. He maintained strong links with the college and used his considerable knowledge of antiques and fine art to the great benefit of the college; he was chairman of the College Arts committee until illness intervened.

In addition to his early work on British handaxes, Derek Roe's major interests were in the older Palaeolithic of Africa. He was a frequent visitor to Olduvai Gorge, where an early friendship with Mary Leakey and mutual interest in its rich archaeological record resulted in the co-editing of an important volume on the industries from Beds III, IV and the Masek Beds (Leakey & Roe 1994). He also played a key role in the autobiography of Mary Leakey and, though there was later to be a parting of the ways, Derek was able to write about some of these experiences with great wit and personal affection in an amusing volume entitled The Year of the Ghost: an Olduvai Diary (Roe 2002). Roe also went on to apply his methods of morphometric description and analysis of handaxes and cleavers to other sites in sub-Saharan Africa, including Kalambo Falls. He was instrumental in getting a third major volume of this site to publication (Clark 2001) despite the failing health of its editor, Desmond Clark.

Apart from his teaching and research activities, and the supervision of numerous doctoral and Master's degree students, Derek Roe was also a member of various external committees, including the Archaeology Committee of the National Museum of Wales from 1982 to 1999. He also served on the Scientific Advisory Panel of the Irene Levi-Sala CARE Foundation for Prehistoric Research in or related to Israel, as well as on the editorial advisory boards of Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society, World Archaeology, L'Anthropologie, Geoarchaeology and The Review of Archaeology. In recognition of these many roles, Derek Roe was awarded a DLitt by Oxford University in 1983, and other honours included his election as a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London in 1978, and the award of the Henry Stopes Medal by the Geologists' Association of London in 1985. In 1997 he was conferred the title of Professor of Palaeolithic Archaeology at Oxford University.

In addition to his many deserved honours and outstanding scholarship, Derek Roe will probably also best be remembered for his achievements as an exceptional teacher and for his generosity to all of his students, colleagues and the many visitors who came to The Donald Baden-Powell Quaternary Research Centre at 60 Banbury Road. To all, he was extraordinarily kind and welcoming, and found the time in his busy schedule to help those who sought his advice. The more-or-less constant flow of visitors, including international scholars from abroad, often meant that there was little time for his own work, though he read very widely and kept himself well informed of the latest ideas and discoveries in archaeology. Above all, it gave him great pleasure to bring together students and scholars to discuss the latest ideas in the congenial atmosphere of No. 60. Though Derek Roe was a very private person, he was able to share his outside interests in fly-fishing and cricket and had well-practised baking skills which he was able to show off in the form of beautifully constructed cakes, adorned with exquisitely shaped replicas of handaxes in icing sugar.

Derek Roe wore his scholarship lightly, he was one of the pre-eminent Palaeolithic specialists of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, he was a dedicated teacher and prolific writer and had a great influence on scholars working throughout the world.