Nicolas Coldstream, 1927-2008

Mar 26, 2020 | Bible Archeology | 0 comments

Professor Nicolas Coldstream was one of the world’s leading Classical archaeologists, and a pianist of distinction. His chief field of interest was Greece in the early Iron Age, that is the centuries leading up to the full flowering of the Greek city state. From this central focus his work ranged throughout the Mediterranean. His clarity of thought, outstanding knowledge of his material, based on handling large quantities of it, and the humane spirit in which he wrote and taught guarantee an enduring legacy. 5

But Coldstream did not confine himself to issues of classification, placing his account of pottery design within a historical context. He developed the historical dimension further in Geometric Greece (1977), which remains the standard work on a period which saw the rise of the great Panhellenic sanctuaries, the evolution of the Greek city state, the composition of the Homeric poems and the colonisation by Greek settlers of southern Italy and Sicily. 1

As a field archaeologist Coldstream conducted excavations at Knossos, at Motya in Sicily (where he studied Greek imports of the 8th century BC), and on the Aegean island of Kythera where, with George Huxley, he led excavations at a putative Cretan colony at the port of Kastri in Palaiopolis. Although he never made any sensational discoveries, his thorough, systematic approach and his ability to synthesise the knowledge based on archaeological finds into a coherent and readable account greatly added to the scholarship of ancient Greece. 1

In 1957 Coldstream began his long association with the British School at Athens, eventually becoming chairman of its then managing committee and ultimately a vice-president. From this research base he studied the disciplined Greek pottery of the Geometric Period, that is the 10th to the early 7th centuries BC. He mastered all its local styles and their distribution, from the Near East to Sicily. Greek Geometric Pottery was published in 1968 and remains a large and irreplaceable masterwork. Fortunately he was able to complete a revised edition recently, incorporating abundant new discoveries. 5

His subsequent seminal book, Geometric Greece (1977), remains, in the words of a senior Greek scholar, unsurpassed by any other study of the period. This too has a revised, updated edition (2003). The richness of its engagement with the complex, multi-ethnic material culture of the Greek, eastern and central Mediterranean Iron Age worlds, based on acute observation, very wide knowledge and perceptive historical judgment, is precisely what enables new questions to be asked of the material. 5

Coldstream returned to a lectureship at Bedford College, London, which led eventually to a chair, before moving to University College in 1983 as the Yates Professor of Classical Art and Archaeology. In both places he was renowned as a brilliant lecturer, teacher and supervisor, patient, clear and kind. If in his writing and lecturing he quietly emphasised the importance of not being a determinist but allowing for human quirkiness in explaining ancient culture and behaviour, he was the same teaching his students in encouraging them, and showing them how, to look at the evidence for themselves and realise that their ideas could be quite as valid as any professor’s. Many were from Greece and Cyprus, whose people and places he loved. Many have contributed greatly to scholarship, thanks to his starting them off. Many now have senior posts. 7

Coldstream tended to view changes in pottery and other design as a reflection of changing taste and fashion or as a matter of individual choice. This brought him some criticism from proponents of a more ideological “New Archaeology” looking for deeper social or economic explanations. But, as Coldstream’s admirers tended to point out, this was unfair – not least because, without his painstaking works of description, classification, chronology and so on, the theoreticians would have had little on which to construct their theories. Moreover, although he himself never strayed into the ideological – always emphasising the “provisional” nature of his interpretations – he encouraged his students to develop their own theoretical or methodological approaches. 1

The second place is Knossos, where his heart lay. He published many fundamental papers and books on Knossian pottery, some of which he had himself excavated and all of which he had personally laid out and studied. The culmination was his co-editorship with H. W. Catling of the four volumes (1996) devoted to the publication, a magisterial work, of the large Iron Age cemetery excavated by the British School for the Greek authorities on the site of what was to become the medical faculty of the University of Crete near Knossos. The publication of Cretan pottery requires high-quality technical drawings, sometimes hundreds. Many of those in Coldstream’s publications were done by his wife Nicola, the historian of medieval art. They had married in 1970 and Nicolas took as much delight in travelling for her studies as she in support of his work. 5

After four years teaching at Shrewsbury School, he worked for a year as a temporary assistant keeper at the British Museum’s department of Greek and Roman Antiquities, where he published his first monograph, An Etruscan Neck-Amphora, in 1958. By now fascinated by the archaeology of the Mediterranean world, he went on to carry out research into Geometric pottery as a Macmillan Student at the British School at Athens from 1957 to 1960. He published the results of his first excavation, A Geometric well at Knossos, in 1960. 1

As a person Nicolas Coldstream was a delight to know. Tall and dignified, wholly unpompous, modest and ever with a gentle twinkle or a good laugh, he was, in a recent Greek tribute (and Greeks know what they mean), the archetypal English gentleman. 5

Though in many ways Coldstream was an archetypal dignified English gentleman, he was totally unstuffy and unsnobbish, and was as happy travelling by bus or mucking in with student communal life on a dig as he was being feted by academies and embassies. A talented pianist, he took an unaffected pleasure in life and got on particularly well with children, treating them with the same seriousness or humour that they themselves showed him. 1

He served as a member, and chairman from 1987 to 1991, of the managing committee of the British School at Athens and edited the school’s Annual from 1968 to 1973. He went on to become vice-president of the school. He died on March 21, shortly before it was due to hold a celebration to mark the publication of a second edition of Greek Geometric Pottery. 1

Coldstream enjoyed a high reputation abroad, and was a member or honorary member of academies and institutes around the world. He was elected a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries in 1964 and of the British Academy in 1977. In 2003 he was awarded the academy’s Sir Frederick Kenyon Medal for Classical Studies. 1

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