Don Brothwell Remembered


Inspirational teacher and mentor… A giant in Bioarchaeology… Proof that some successful academics can be genuine nice guys … Many things will be said about Don Brothwell (born 1933), who sadly passed away on Monday 26th September 2016.

Don was my favourite professor when I did my undergraduate studies at the Institute of Archaeology (1982-85). I signed up for all the courses he taught there at that time including Introduction to Environmental Archaeology, Vertebrates in Archaeology and Food in Antiquity. Each class he taught was an inspirational journey… He would spend ages in his office beforehand preparing each lecture, in those pre-powerpoint days, arranging hundreds of slides into a series of round carousels that he would use to tell a special story in each class. His wide ranging knowledge and enthusiasm for a wide range of subjects was infectious.

Besides myself there were two other students attending these same classes, Louise Martin (now Reader in Zooarchaeology, UCL Institute of Archaeology) and Simon Parfitt (now Principal Research Associate, UCL Institute of Archaeology, currently on secondment to the Natural History Museum). Don inspired all three of us to continue in archaeology and gave us a passion for studying bones.

Some years later I was fortunate enough to have a second chance to learn from Don. When I conducted my Phd research at the University of York between 1997-2001, Don became my supervisor. I have fond memories of eating lunch with him in the Kings Manor canteen. He had an extraordinary mind and always had some useful suggestions for what I should read, who I should contact, or what other approaches might be useful to consider. It was usually best to catch him over lunch as he was so much in demand, even when “retired” and as a Emeritus Professor… Scholars from all over the world would be visiting him, and TV people were always chasing him for the latest story about bog bodies, mummies, human skeletal analysis or palaeopathology. I was amazed by his capacity to deal with all these things and yet remaining cheerful and calm.

In late July this year I was back in the UK on my annual summer holiday from the Middle East to escape the intense summer heat of Abu Dhabi. I was attending the Seminar for Arabian Studies at the British Museum. I could not resist purchasing from a bookstand at the conference a copy of one of Don’s latest books, “A Faith in Archaeological Science: Reflections on a Life” (2016, Archaeopress Publishing Ltd, Oxford). Reading this book brought back many happy memories of the classes I attended in the early 1980’s and reminded me of Don’s philosophy and approach to bioarchaeology, archaeological science and life. He was really a special human being.

Don will be missed by the many students and colleagues with whom he worked over his long career. I send my sincere condolences to his family.

Rest in Peace Don.