Geoffrey William Dimbleby

By Harris, David | Antiquity, December 2000 | Go to article overview

Geoffrey William Dimbleby

Harris, David, Antiquity


Professor G.W. Dimbleby was a pioneer in the study of environmental archaeology. Like many other archaeologists of his and earlier generations, he was trained as a scientist -- in his case in botany -- and brought an interdisciplinary approach to bear on his archaeological research. He moved from the Oxford Forestry Department in 1964 to the Chair of Human Environment at the London Institute of Archaeology, where he remained until his retirement in 1979.

No environmental archaeologist will dispute Geoff Dimbleby's scholarly significance, nor doubt that the influence of his work reached well beyond Britain. Nor was it limited to archaeology, being significant too in soil science and forestry. With his death on 8 April 2000 at the age of 82, the scientific community lost a pioneer in the ecological study of human environments, past and present.

Geoffrey Dimbleby's scientific career, and his lifelong concern with environmental questions, stemmed from his love of the countryside. Born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, educated at Cheltenham Grammar School, he read Botany at Magdalen College, Oxford, before serving in the RAF in the Second World War, there contributing his botanical skills to aerial photographic interpretation. In 1945 he returned to Oxford as Demonstrator, then from 1947 as Lecturer in Forest Ecology. His research on forest soils, first reported in his D.Phil. on `The ecology of some British podzol formations' (1950), showed that pollen could survive sufficiently well, especially in acid soils, to allow inferences to be drawn about soil development and vegetation history; and he went on to resolve the question of whether British lowland heaths and upland moors had been forested in the past.

In a recent retrospective article (Dimbleby 1998/99), he recalled how this research introduced him to environmental archaeology `in a dramatic way'. Investigating the soils of the North Yorks Moors, he faced the much debated question of whether the soil there had always been too poor for tree growth. It occurred to him that the prehistoric burial mounds on the moors might have ancient soils preserved beneath them, so `I cut a section in one from its present surface down to the old land surface beneath'. This revealed a fertile brown soil containing pollen of deciduous trees, very different from the infertile moorland soil of today with its cover of heather and grasses -- a discovery that proved to be a turning point in Geoff's career. It opened his eyes to the importance of prehistoric human activity in shaping the present landscape and spurred him to examine soils buried beneath other earthworks. A series of papers followed, culminating in the appearance in 1962 of his benchmark monograph on The development of British heathlands and their soils (1962).

This research led to Dimbleby's involvement in what was, and remains, a unique field experiment: the Experimental Earthworks project. It drew together a group of archaeologists, ecologists and other specialists to build two artificial earthworks, one on chalk at Overton Down in Wiltshire and one on sandy podzolic soil at Wareham in Dorset. By burying in them a variety of organic and inorganic materials, and sectioning them at intervals over the next 100 years, it was hoped to obtain data on the movement and degradation of materials within the mounds that would aid interpretation of past human impacts on the landscape. Dimbleby chaired the Experimental Earthworks Committee from its creation in 1959 until 1972, helped design the project, co-edited the first report and, towards the end of his life, was delighted to receive the monograph that reports and synthesizes the results of the first 32 years of the project (see Bell et al. 1996 for references).

While at Oxford, Dimbleby investigated the role of deciduous trees in soil regeneration and gradually refined the technique of soil-pollen analysis. Soil pollen had been avoided by most palynologists, who preferred to work on the better-preserved and more stratigraphically stable pollen found in peat deposits, and it is largely through his perseverance that soil-pollen analysis has come to be more widely accepted by palaeoecologists (Dimbleby 1985). …

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