John Evans

John Evans was President of the Society of Antiquaries of London from 1984 until 1987.


John Evans

On 27 July 2011, The Times published the following obituary for our former President, Professor John Evans OBE (born on 22 January 1925; died on 4 July 2011, aged eighty-six; picture courtesy of Stuart Laidlaw)

‘John Evans was one of Britain’s leading prehistorians and the scholar who first made sense of prehistoric Malta and its megalithic temples. He was for many years the Director of the Institute of Archaeology, now part of University College London, and had a key role in developing its central position as a place of teaching and research.

‘John Davies Evans was born in 1925 in Liverpool of Welsh parents. He was the first in his family to go on to university, winning an open scholarship to Pembroke College, Cambridge, at seventeen. After a first year reading English he began his war service, working at Bletchley Park, Buckinghamshire, on the task of breaking each day’s new Enigma code as it was changed by the German Army and the Luftwaffe. On returning to Cambridge in 1947 he qualified for the BA degree in English and then turned to archaeology, taking Part II of the archaeology and anthropology tripos in one year. Then, with a state studentship for doctoral research, he spent a year in Spain and then a year as Fellow of the British Institute in Ankara.

‘In 1952 he was appointed by the Archaeological Survey of Malta to prepare a corpus of Malta’s prehistoric antiquities. Decades of excavations in the great stone monuments of early Malta had produced much material but little enlightenment. Evans began with a careful study of the pottery and this allowed him to unravel the developmental sequence of the temples (aided by some small, well-judged stratigraphic excavations of his own) and to show how they had developed locally out of the earlier Maltese prehistoric culture without the aid of some hypothetical “invasion” from the supposedly more civilised Orient. His book Malta, published in 1959 in the “Ancient People and Places” series, edited by Glyn Daniel, established his reputation as a researcher, and was followed by his definitive The Prehistoric Antiquities of the Maltese Islands in 1971.

‘The soundness of his approach was confirmed by later work at the newly discovered temple at Skorba by Dr David Trump and then by the application of radiocarbon dating. This showed the Maltese temples to be earlier than the pyramids of Egypt, and vindicated Evans’s anti-diffusionist approach.

‘He was appointed Professor of European Prehistory at the Institute of Archaeology in London at thirty-one, and went on to excavate the deep Neolithic levels underlying the Palace of Minos, at Knossos, in Crete, first investigated by Sir Arthur Evans (not a relative) at the beginning of the century. Radiocarbon dating confirmed the status of the early Neolithic remains there as one of the earliest farming settlements of Europe. His meticulous quantitative study of the pottery, greatly aided by his wife Evelyn, has again been upheld by later work. He also excavated with Colin Renfrew, then a research student, in 1964 and 1965 at the first early farming site in the Cycladic Islands of Greece, in Saliagos near Antiparos.

‘When he joined the Institute in 1956 there were no undergraduate courses, only a postgraduate diploma in archaeology. It was, as he put it, “all chiefs and no Indians”, with four professors, practically no lecturers, and few students. Starting its degree course in archaeology only in 1969, London was slower off the mark than newer universities such as Southampton or Sheffield. He became director of the Institute in 1973, and, despite the financial constraints then operating after the university expansions of the 1960s, he consolidated its position, regretfully (but wisely) sacrificing its independent status and accepting a more secure place within the larger organisation of University College. It now has a staff of more than seventy, the largest department of archaeology in the country.

‘Recognising the growing importance of rescue archaeology, he was one of the founders of the Sussex Field Archaeology Unit, now incorporated within the Centre for Applied Archaeology at the Institute. He was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 1973 and was President, successively, of the Prehistoric Society, the Society of Antiquaries of London and of the International Union of Pre- and Proto-historic Sciences (IUPPS). He also became President of the National Committee of the 1986 World Archaeology Conference at Southampton, but, with great regret, felt obliged to resign that position when the International Executive Committee of the IUPPS declined to endorse the National Committee’s anti-apartheid policy of excluding South African representatives from the conference, an issue with provoked considerable controversy.

‘He served as Chair of the Treasure Trove Reviewing Committee of the Department of National Heritage from 1988 to 1996 when he was appointed OBE. He retired in 1989 to Shaftesbury, Dorset, with his wife. He will be remembered as a distinguished scholar, as a central figure in British archaeology in the 1970s and 1980s and as a kind and helpful man.’

An obituary was also published in The Telegraph.