David Oates 1927-2004

By Crawford, Harriet | Antiquity, June 2004 | Go to article overview

David Oates 1927-2004


Crawford, Harriet, Antiquity


David Oates, Professor Emeritus of the Archaeology of Western Asia at the Institute of Archaeology in London, Fellow of the British Academy, and President of the British School of Archaeology in Iraq, died on 22 March 2004.

Professor David Oates who died on 22 March 2004 was an archaeologist of outstanding ability and great charm. A former fellow of Trinity College Cambridge, Professor Emeritus of the Archaeology of Western Asia at the Institute of Archaeology in London, Fellow of the British Academy, and President of the British School of Archaeology in Iraq, he could be described as the last of the great quasi-imperial Middle Eastern archaeologists, but that would be to underestimate his achievements. Like so many of his generations he came to archaeology via a first degree in classics. He was awarded a Rome scholarship and undertook survey work first in Libya and then in north Mesopotamia, where he had been entrusted by the Secretary of the British Academy, Sir Mortimer Wheeler, with bringing to fruition some of Sir Aurel Steins unpublished work. The results were published in what is probably his best book Studies in the ancient history of Northern Iraq (1968), a brilliant treatise on landscape archaeology twenty years or more before the term was invented.

His first experience of excavation in Mesopotamia was at Nimrud with Professor Max Mallowan whose digs were certainly run on somewhat nineteenth-century lines. The team usually consisted of the director and his assistant, an epigrapher, a architect, a photographer, and perhaps a couple of students. This team oversaw the work of gangs of local workmen sometimes several hundred strong, each headed by an experienced pick-man, usually from the village of Shergat, who had cornered the market in this field. Animal bones were rarely collected, flotation for seeds was unheard of and the emphasis was oil the search for architecture and for inscribed material. It was at Nimrud that Oates began his life-long love affair with monumental architecture and with mudbrick. He worked initially on the citadel mound unravelling the stratigraphy of the Nabu temple. After Mallowan's retirement he took over the direction of later seasons, working most notably in Fort Shalmaneser in the lower town. In this massive building, part palace, part arsenal, he uncovered the famous throne base and the magnificent collection of ivories which had been stored there. It was also at Nimrud that he met, and later married, Joan Lines, herself a distinguished prehistorian whose support and help became crucial to his future work.

In 1964 Oates began his own major project at Tell Rimah in northern Iraq, not far from Tell Afar. This relatively small site flourished in the early second millennium BC when a fine temple and ziggurat complex was built. This complex threw new light on the architectural history of the period and on the relationship between north and south Mesopotamia in this poorly known period. The engaged pillars which were found the length of the temple facade were decorated with patterns which Oates showed represented the marks left on the trunk of a palm tree after trimming. His reconstructions of this sophisticated architecture are a striking testimony to his understanding and his skill as a draughtsman. Later levels at the site provided new evidence for glass manufacture and gave weight to the theory that this was an indigenous rather than an imported craft.

David Oates, or Shaikh Daoud as he was known, spoke excellent Arabic, his third language as he was also fluent in Italian. …

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