OBITUARY: PROFESSOR JOHN G. EVANS ; Environmental Archaeologist
Limbrey, Susan, The Independent (London, England)
John G. Evans was an environmental archaeologist. At a very early stage in his career he changed radically our understanding of the vegetational and land-use history of the chalklands of southern and eastern Britain. By detailed study of snail-shells preserved in the soils buried under prehistoric monuments, he showed that, contrary to prevailing opinion, the chalk uplands were largely wooded until prehistoric farmers came along and cleared the trees to create farmland.
The difficulty had been that suitable sites for pollen analysis, the standard way of studying past vegetation, are scarce in the chalklands, so there had been no challenge to the idea that the soils were too thin and droughty for trees, and that the importance of the chalklands in the prehistoric settlement of Britain was that early farmers sought open land.
John Gwynne Evans was born in St Albans in 1941, the son of the microbiologist David Evans. After attending University College School in London, then taking a degree in Zoology at Reading University, John Evans joined the Institute of Archaeology, London University, to study under F.E. Zeuner. He remained at the institute after Zeuner's early death in 1963 to work for his PhD, taking up the study of sub-fossil land snails, advised by M.P. Kerney of Imperial College, who had developed the methodology in the study of naturally formed deposits, focusing mainly on changing distribution of species and climatic conditions.
Evans's innovation was to concentrate on structures built by people, and to look for sequences within the buried soils and ditch fills. By grouping species into shade-loving, open-country, those of disturbed ground, and so on, he could show how, with local variations, the snail fauna had changed as forest developed in the early post-glacial period, was cleared for cultivation, and the land later used for pasture.
By working with excavators, getting permission to dig small holes in monuments and conducting excavations himself, he got enough material to complete his PhD in a very short time, and, with a period of research funding, to write his first book, Land Snails in Archaeology (1972), which is both a research monograph and, still, the only textbook on the subject.
In 1970, Evans was appointed to a lectureship in environmental archaeology at University College Cardiff, the first such post outside London. He became involved in the subject more widely through the Experimental Earthworks project, and through the Council for British Archaeology, jointly with myself organising and then publishing the proceedings of two seminal conferences on 'The Effect of Man on the Landscape', 'The Highland Zone' in 1975 and 'The Lowland Zone' in 1978. His book The Environment of Early Man in the British Isles (1975) provided essential reading for archaeologists and for students in a field becoming much more widely taught, and he followed this with a textbook, An Introduction to Environmental Archaeology (1978).
He extended his research into areas such as coastal dunes where shell sand provided good sequences, and in the 1980s, partly in response to challenges to interpretations which hinged on the poorly defined processes by which his sequences could have formed within stable soils subject to worm action, he began to focus on the chalkland river valleys. …