Archaeologist who was an expert on all aspects of the Roman roads of Asia Minor
David French, right, with a Turkish government representative taking a break on a Roman road in eastern Turkey
In the early 1970s, a short article by a little-known US scholar reported the discovery of an ancient road near the site of Gordion, the capital city of the ancient kingdom of Phrygia. This article, and his own chance encounter on a family picnic with a batch of undocumented Roman milestones next to a stretch of Roman road west of the modern Turkish capital, Ankara, inspired the archaeologist David French, who has died aged 83, to start the project that occupied him for the rest of his life. This was a comprehensive study, based on field work which took him to every corner of Turkey, of all aspects of the Roman roads of Asia Minor: milestones, road surfaces, bridges, the imperial road stations, and military installations.
He combined classical training with archaeological experience and an intimate knowledge of Turkey to acquire a more profound understanding of the topographical history of Anatolia – Asiatic Turkey – than any other scholar past or present. His passion for roads and routes extended from the Roman empire back to its Hittite and Persian predecessors and forward to the Ottoman period. At the start of his project, about 450 milestones were known from Asia Minor; by 2016, his discoveries had raised this number to more than 1,200. The research, carried out single-handed in the company of a series of Turkish government representatives, was a perfect match for his skills and character.
Born in Bridlington, east Yorkshire, French was the younger son of Harry, a police officer, and his wife, Muriel (nee Frank). David’s brother, John, and his mother were killed in 1941 when a German plane dropped leftover bombs over Hull before heading off over the North Sea. David went to Pocklington school as a direct grant pupil, and thence, thanks to a gifted classics teacher, to St Catharine’s College, Cambridge, before completing a PhD in the mid-60s on connections between the Aegean region and Anatolia in the early Bronze Age.
Through survey work in Greece and Turkey aimed at the identification and dating of prehistoric sites, he rapidly established himself as one of the outstanding field archaeologists of the region. He also excavated widely in Greece, Iraq, Iran, Jordan, and at Hacilar and Gordion in Turkey; before undertaking between 1961 and 1970 the Neolithic and Chalcolithic sites at Can Hasan in south central Turkey, designed as a complement and in some respects a corrective to the more famous British excavation of 1961-65 of Çatal Höyük, directed by his older colleague James Mellaart.
Both scholars were tenacious field workers but fundamentally different in their temperament and intellectual approach. In sharp contrast to Mellaart, French combined his brilliant skills of field observation with an ascetic style of publication, in which he rigorously distinguished between the accurate and precise recording of primary data and the articulation of interpretative hypotheses.
He became director of the British Institute at Ankara in 1968. In the same year, inspired by new theoretical approaches that were emerging in Cambridge, he began an interdisciplinary archaeological project at Asvan, near Elaziğ, in eastern Turkey, involving rescue excavations on four sites due to be flooded by Keban Dam lake and a comprehensive environmental study of the threatened region that placed special emphasis on archaeobotany.
The Asvan project finished in 1973, and was followed during the 80s by another rescue excavation on the west bank of the Euphrates at Tille Hüyük near Adıyaman. French’s exemplary skills and high standards as an excavator attracted younger archaeologists to work with him. They took responsibility for publishing the rescue projects and subsequently developed important careers of their own in field archaeology.
After his retirement from the British Institute in 1994, the scholarly emphasis of his life shifted from field work to publication, although he continued active research in Turkey until he was 80. The culmination of his life’s work his takes the form of 10 volumes in the series Roman Roads and Milestones of Asia Minor, his main published legacy produced in a phenomenal burst of energy between 2012 and 2016.
French had a deep affection for Turkey and its people, above all in the villages and small towns of the Anatolian hinterland. A fine linguist, he mastered modern Greek and Turkish as a postgraduate student, and Turkey for much of his life was not merely an adopted but his real home. It is a matter of good fortune that he carried out much of his field work before the accelerating developments of modern Turkey erased many traces of its historical heritage.
In 1959 he married Elizabeth Wace, also an archaeologist. The marriage ended in divorce and in 1977 he married Pamela Pratt, a conservator. She and their son, John, survive him, as do Ann and Catherine, the two daughters of his first marriage.
David Henry French, archaeologist, born 30 May 1933; died 19 March 2017