This afternoon was going quite well. The sun was shining, a few irritating administrative loose ends had been tied up, there was gravadlax for lunch. Then the news came that Don Brothwell had died.
Don was one of the pioneers in the field of archaeological science, trained as an anthropologist but with an ability to turn his mind to whatever ideas and techniques might help to answer questions about the past and present of humanity. I was aware of him as a name at what was then the British Museum (Natural History) almost as soon as I became involved with archaeology as an obnoxious teenager. We first met, I think, when Don joined the staff of the Institute of Archaeology, University of London, on the retirement of another great pioneer, Ian W. Cornwall. As a student with an interest in bones, I took a number of courses with Don and came to appreciate, if not always to understand, his eclectic fund of knowledge and capacity to link ideas and information across disciplines. When the UK’s Department of Education and Science (yes, the UK believed in such things in the 1970s!) saw fit to award me a Major State Studentship, Don became my PhD supervisor, which was quite a voyage of discovery for both of us.
Memories and anecdotes could fill many pages. There was the time we were briefly locked in a cell at Covent Garden police station following a misunderstanding over some freshly-excavated human bones. That was my first and, to date, only experience of being banged up, though as a young man Don served a spell in Lincoln prison for refusing to attend for National Service. Then there was the time we were on a small island in Orkney in foul January weather, collecting bones of the local sheep. Towards the end of a long day, we found a useful carcass and decided to cut off the feet, only to realise that my trusty penknife had fallen out of my pocket somewhere along the shore. Don was unconcerned. From the tideline he picked up a large pebble and a broken Carlsberg Special bottle. “Go on, knap a cutting edge onto that”. I did, and it served the purpose very well. Returning from that collecting expedition, we drove South through a snowy Scotland in Don’s erratic Hillman Imp. Arriving in Inverness at dusk, with light snow falling, Don said “Go find us tea and cake and I’ll book a room for tonight”. Minutes later he came into the café smiling. “That’s arranged. We just have to get to Perth in a couple of hours”. Readers familiar with Scottish roads and Scottish Januaries will appreciate the impracticality of that!
Don was a hobby artist, an atheist, a pacifist and a humanitarian, someone who really cared about people and what the world did to them, individually and collectively. His forensic work in the former Yugoslavia grew out of that concern, as did his willingness to explain the reprehensible behaviour of others as a consequence of the pressures on them rather than something inherent in the person themselves. I can only recall one occasion when Don was less than generous to a colleague. On hearing that a particularly eminent archaeologist had just died, he said to me “He was a brilliant man. Pity he was such a shit”. That is not how Don will be remembered: rather, I recall what he said on several occasions regarding his own funeral “When I go, just put me out with the bins”.