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Professor Nicolas Coldstream

Professor Nicolas Coldstream

Professor Nicolas Coldstream, who has died aged 80, was a leading scholar of Greek archaeology and one of its greatest teachers.

His work on the Early Iron Age in Greece, Crete and Cyprus and on the impact of Greek civilisation on the Mediterranean world broke new ground and had a huge influence on generations of scholars. His magnum opus, Greek Geometric Pottery (1968), a painstaking work of description, classification, chronology, and attribution of geometric pottery styles from the entire Greek world, became the ultimate reference work for anyone studying the Geometric period.

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.

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.

As a writer and lecturer Coldstream ranged widely and, although it was for his work on the 9th and 8th centuries BC that he became famous, he took an interest in periods from the Minoan and Protogeometric to the Orientalising and Archaic. His inaugural lecture at Bedford College, where he was appointed lecturer in 1960, was on Aegean religion; and he also wrote or lectured on such diverse subjects as hero cults, nature goddesses, architecture, Homeric epic, the Aristotelian polis, the invention of the Greek alphabet and social status.

At Bedford College, and later at University College London, where he was appointed Yates Professor of Classical Art and Archaeology in 1983, his lectures, always witty, illuminating and jargon-free, attracted students from other universities who, when queried on their attendance would often admit: "We just don't get anything like this."

He encouraged his students to acquire a disciplined and thorough familiarity with the full range of Greek archaeological material as their starting point, and many went on to make notable careers as scholars of Greek and Minoan archaeology and civilisation.

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.

John Nicolas Coldstream was born on March 30 1927 at Lahore, in what was then British India, where his father, Sir John Coldstream, was serving as a judge. After Eton and National Service in the Buffs and the Highland Light Infantry in Egypt and Palestine, he went up to King's College, Cambridge, to read Classics, graduating in 1951.

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.

After six years as a lecturer at Bedford College, London, in 1966 he became a reader, and in 1975 Professor of Aegean Archaeology. He remained at Bedford until his appointment to the chair at UCL in 1983. He retired in 1992.

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.

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.

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.

Nicolas Coldstream married, in 1970, Nicola Carr, an eminent historian of medieval architecture and art, who survives him.


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