Archaeopress (2020) p/b 272pp £25 (ISBN 9781789693430)
Few who have investigated the world of classical archaeology over the past 60 years can have failed to benefit from consulting John Boardman’s many and varied publications. His central position continues to be paramount, and in this book we have his spirited account of his career, the researches he has carried out, the travels he has undertaken, and the home life and friendships he has enjoyed over the past 90 years.
The fact that he has ‘not been helped much by diaries’ makes his feats of memory astonishing. His reminiscences of his youth and home life in Ilford before WWII are vivid, including his unachieved ambition to tap-dance like Fred Astaire. His attendance at Chigwell Grammar and his advance to Magdalene, Cambridge, where he graduated in 1948 at the age of 21, shine brightly with personalities and incidents. There then follow the early years at the British School of Archaeology (1948-50), two years on military service, marriage to Sheila, and a second beginning as the Assistant Director of the BSA (1952-55, living in a single room, ‘less than ideal’). There is much fascinating detail of BSA life in those years when Greece was still in turmoil with civil war. He took part in various excavations (Knossos in Crete, Emporio on Chios and later Tocra in North Africa) but decided that was enough digging for him. The photograph of him riding a Delos lion (p. 134) shows an unexpected side to his character.
The move to Oxford in 1955 as Assistant Keeper in the Ashmolean and his rapid rise following the early deaths of Tom Dunbabin and Llewellyn Brown found Boardman as Reader in Classical Archaeology, then rising to Professor in 1978. As Oxford features now as a fixture, there is much about personalities, colleagues and pupils. Academic resources in the Ashmolean, later the Sackler, Library are discussed, and the alterations that have taken place over the succeeding years are dissected. He confesses that ‘I feel more at home academically outside Oxford (indeed outside Britain)’. Domestic life, house and location moving, and children’s successes are woven into the tapestry.
Foreign travel bulks large, with a long section devoted to the different centres in the United States, and to the Far East. Chicago appeared to have accorded him a special welcome: ‘The road to the city was decorated with arches bearing the motto WELCOME TO JOHN. Pope John Paul was visiting.’ The invitations extended to him to deliver public lectures, receive awards and prizes, and sit on various international committees for such major publications as LIMC find him ceaselessly moving to and fro. His travels to the Far East chimed with his interest in Greeks and the spread of their influence eastwards that led to such publications as Persia and the West (2000) and The Greeks in Asia (2015). In his later excursions he was often accompanied by his daughter Julia.
A later part concentrates on what has always been one of Boardman’s major interests: gems. He had already shown his attraction for gems and cameos when in Athens in the 1950s that led to his major early work Greek Gems and Finger Rings (1970; second ed. 2010). More recently he has studied and published major private collections with Diana Scarisbrick and Claudia Wagner.
The book is enhanced by an amazing variety of black-and-white and coloured photographs, stretching from babyhood in a pram to Buckingham Palace for the receipt of a knighthood. Most helpful for fellow researchers are the final pages (234-254) where the bibliography of his multifaceted publications (books, edited volumes and articles) is listed, with the addition of ten ‘forthcoming’. One notes that the title of this book includes the words ‘so far’, even though (p. 233) the author pleads that ‘a combination of déjà vu, memory loss, and a degree of lameness militates against sharp memory of detail’. All in all, a remarkable life!
Brian A. Sparkes