John Wacher

John Wacher (1927-2012)

We are very grateful to our Fellow Geoffrey Dannell for the following obituary for our late Fellow Professor John Stewart Wacher, who died on 26 February 2012, at the age of eighty-five.

‘John Stewart Wacher was one of the foremost archaeologists of his generation. He was particularly interested in the development of towns in Roman Britain and published a number of works on the subject, eventually becoming Professor of Archaeology in the University of Leicester, a remarkable achievement for one whose formal academic training was not founded in classics or indeed history.

‘Wacher was born in Canterbury in 1927, the son of a GP who had previously been an army surgeon. He was evacuated from his preparatory school in 1938, and spent time in Dorset, where his housemaster encouraged him in the joint interests of butterflies and archaeology. In 1941 he went on to Tonbridge School, where he was the Gustavus John Low scholar, and rowed. It was from there that he took part in excavations in Canterbury, directed by Sheppard Frere and Audrey Williams. He postponed going to university to do his national service in the Royal Marines, returning to civilian life to take a degree in chemistry as an external student of Gillingham Technical College. The next five years were spent as an industrial chemist, first with British Bitumen Emulsions, and then with British Soya Products.

‘Frere took over responsibility for the Canterbury excavations and Wacher continued his interest in archaeology by digging as a volunteer for him, becoming a site supervisor, before following Frere to Verulamium in 1955, where a seminal series of excavations began. His growing expertise led him to a crossroads: whether to continue working in industry, and use his holidays (which in those days were far shorter than is the custom now) to pursue his interests, or to make the risky leap into full-time archaeology as a jobbing and itinerant director of excavations. Luckily for Romano-British studies, he chose the latter course, and he began operating free-lance, during which time he garnered a wealth of expertise working on a variety of sites for the Inspectorate of Ancient Monuments of the Ministry of Works (now English Heritage), and was appointed to direct the excavations for the Southampton Excavation Committee from 1956 to 1958. His professional advance was recognised by his peers and he was elected Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London in 1957.

‘The invaluable experience of having been trained by Williams and Frere, the latter a mentor whose style was formative and enduring, added to Wacher’s scientific training and showed in his strengths as a director. He enforced carefully calculated discipline on his site supervisors, which was offset by an impish sense of humour, founded in the anarchic, logic of “The Goon Show”.

‘Equally valuable in his training was the wide range of sites then on offer, from the Neolithic to deserted medieval villages. In 1957 he carried out investigations at the Iron Age Fort of Breedon Hill, while in 1958 he worked on the Roman site of Brough-on-Humber. The results of both excavations were published by the Society of Antiquaries. His work in Roman Leicester was even more revealing, where an extensive redevelopment scheme cleared an area in the centre of the Roman town in what was then Blue Boar Lane. The excavations were the largest to take place in this capital of the native British tribe of the Corieltavi since those of the renowned Kathleen Kenyon in the 1930s. They not only revealed how much was lost by the redevelopment, at a time when planning and resources failed to match archaeological need, but revealed a large public building overlying a town-house. The destruction of its walls left large quantities of decorated wall plaster scattered around, but Wacher had the advantage of knowing the techniques developed for Frere at Verulamium in similar circumstances by Norman Davey (of the Building Research Establishment), and the whole is now reassembled as an impressive display in the Jewry Wall Museum.

‘The decision to build a bypass for the A1 around Catterick village required very large-scale excavations, the site of 14,000 sq metres comprising densely packed building structures, including a mansio for the imperial courier service. The depth of the sequences can be judged from the walls of a third-century bath-house, which survived to a height of 2.5 metres. Work was also done on parts of the fort, and the defensive ditches. Perhaps one of the most intriguing elements to emerge as a historical story, although its full implications could not be known at the time, was an extensive dense black midden of organic material containing many shoes and what appeared to be substantial parts of tents. It seems that artisan civilian cobblers made use of discarded leather from the fort. The appearance of leather on this scale at Catterick was later to be linked to a passage from one of the world-famous Vindolanda writing tablets, which mentions animal hides that the Roman writer knew to have been at Catterick (Tab Vindol II 343). The inference has been drawn that Catterick was a consolidation point for skins and hides drawn from the vales of Mowbray and York. The Catterick area continued to be investigated over the next forty years (Wacher returned there in 1972) and all of this work was collated by the indefatigable Pete Wilson (Fellow) in 2002 and published as Cataractonium, by English Heritage.

‘During these excavations, Wacher was to employ his military training: some of the labourers came from a local correctional establishment, and on one occasion a fight broke out, and a knife was produced. Wacher promptly disarmed the miscreant, to loud applause.

‘In 1960, the University of Leicester appointed Wacher to an assistant lectureship in British Archaeology, with the tasks of teaching a course in Roman Britain, and archaeological technique. This permanent employment allowed him to choose sites which really interested him, and he subsequently worked at ad Pontem and Lincoln, and returned to both Breedon and Catterick.

‘In the early 1960s the programme of large-scale urban activity at Verulamium came to and end, but a similar redevelopment threat to the one at Leicester emerged, this time at Cirencester. The chairman of the excavation committee there was Sir Ian Richmond and, with the support of Sheppard Frere, Wacher took on the responsibility for the archaeological work, which lasted five years, from 1964, in co-operation with the late Alan McWhirr, another Verulamium veteran. In fact many of Frere’s Verulamium team joined in the Cirencester excavations, which encompassed work on the town defences, the early fort, the forum and basilica, the amphitheatre and shops and houses. The results were contained in a series of reports published from 1982 onwards.

‘By this time Wacher was fully established in his profession, and eventually his university created a separate department with a full degree in archaeology, Wacher being appointed first to a Readership in 1970, and then to a Chair in 1982. He was greatly in demand as a committee member, serving those of the university, the Society of Antiquaries and the Roman Society, and he was a founding member of the Institute of Field Archaeologists. He also turned to using his knowledge and experience to produce synthetic works. His first foray was to organise a conference on the “Civitas Capitals of Roman Britain” at Leicester in 1963. Everyone who was anybody in Romano-British studies attended, some 280 in all, and Wacher marked its success by producing edited papers of the conference by 1966 (reprinted in 1975). In that year he also produced The Towns of Roman Britain for Batsford which, as the title suggests, surveyed the topography and archaeology of all of the major Romano-British conurbations. This was followed by The Coming of Rome (1978), describing the Roman invasion and colonisation of Britain, Roman Britain (1979) and The Roman Empire (1987), both general historical surveys, and The Roman World (1987), a two-volume encyclopaedia which he edited covering all aspects of the Republic and the Principate. In 1990 he edited the publication of the doctoral thesis of his student, Barry Burnham, in a volume, The Small Towns of Roman Britain, which complemented the earlier Batsford title.

‘After a gruelling academic life, Wacher took early retirement in 1987, and was rewarded by being appointed Professor Emeritus. He moved from Leicester to Cornwall, there to rejoin lepidopterology as a member of the Cornish branch of Butterfly Conservation; he was the joint author of A Cornwall Butterfly Atlas (2003). He also found time to extend his lifelong interest in gardening to a study of those kept by public houses (he had always been studiously interested in their beers).

‘His last publication, A Portrait of Roman Britain (Routledge, 2000), aimed to provide an insight into the lost landscape of Roman Britain, to examine the features left by the Roman army, the remnants of farms, the field systems and, as might be expected, the urban topography. It was very much a valedictory to his rich and enlightening career. He was honoured by his friends with a dedicatory volume, The Archaeology of Roman Towns, which was published in 2003.’

On a more personal level, Geoff Dannell adds the following ‘reminiscences of an extraordinary excavation’.

‘I first met John during the Verulamium excavations in the 1950s, and we often lunched together when I was at the LSE and he was working in London. Later he invited me to meet his first wife Anna and welcomed me into their delightful home at Strand-on-the-Green, fronting the Thames.

‘Those who stayed at Catterick with JSW and Anna will remember that he was unapproachable until after his first cup of morning coffee. He would remove part of the Times and drape it over the budgerigar’s cage to maintain silence, until he was caught red-handed by the housekeeper, who remarked tartly “Thou doesn’t like that bird, do ye”. It was promptly removed to a place of safety.

‘The excavations that JSW carried out at Catterick in 1959 were extremely demanding, and affected all who were involved. John was a disciplinarian, but pressures of work led to the need to “let off steam” from time to time, and there were various victims, including some of our own Fellows.

‘Those who remember John Hamilton, the kindest and mildest of men, might be surprised to learn that he was ambushed. He came to inspect the site on behalf of the Ministry of Works, and was seen from afar, crossing the wasteland created by the heavy machinery, involved in the road construction, immaculately dressed in bowler, suit and carrying the mandatory civil service briefcase and umbrella. He arrived at the site hut, to enquire after the Director, only to be confronted by Tony Pacitto, hanging upside down like a bat from the cross-beam, knitting a long and narrow scarf from a ball of sisal string using two six-inch nails. The Director then appeared on all fours, being led by a site supervisor holding a site notebook, and barking. The inspection must have been the shortest on record: perhaps its contents will one day be revealed.

‘A potentially more serious episode involved one of the unemployed miners, who was digging as a labourer. Very small, squat, and inseparable from a red parachutist’s beret, he was convinced at the beginning of the excavation of the bath-house that once the earth was removed, we would find it as it was in Roman times with soldiers running around inside. The bath-house drain fascinated him, and one day, at morning tea-break, he went missing. JSW held a roll-call; the toilets were scoured (the usual place for a quiet smoke), but without success. Some time later the wanderer was seen as a distant figure at the far northern end of the site. Totally unperturbed, he returned to tell us that the drain was clear: he had navigated it right to the bank of the Swale. Even JSW’s sang-froid was tested!

‘John was a great companion and ideal teacher. He will be sorely missed.’