Lisa French obituary

Archaeologist involved all her life with Mycenae and an authority on the ancient Greek culture’s terracotta figurines

Lisa French, who has died aged 90, was the leading authority on Mycenaean ceramics. The first archaeologist to study systematically the culture’s terracotta animal and human figurines – “dollies”, as she called them – she was also the first female director of the British School at Athens (1989-94).

Mycenae, situated in the Argolid region in the eastern Peloponnese, 120km south-west of Athens, is one of the principal archaeological sites of the late bronze age in mainland Greece, and now possesses Unesco world heritage status. Ancient Greek legend had it as the home of Agamemnon, who led the Greeks in the war against Troy; and it was where in 1876 Heinrich Schliemann first put spade to earth.

He went on to claim in a telegram to King George of Greece that he had discovered the tombs that the tradition recorded by the 2nd century AD geographer Pausanias pointed to as the graves of Agamemnon and his companions. In the Iliad and Odyssey of Homer, Mycenae is described as both well built and rich in gold. The Mycenaean civilisation named after the ancient site, with its prominent walled citadel and imposing beehive tombs, flourished between c1650 and c1100 BC.

Lisa French at the age of 8 in the entrance to the so-called Treasury of Atreus, a beehive tomb at Mycenae.
Lisa French (then Lisa Wace) aged 8 in the entrance to the so-called Treasury of Atreus, a beehive tomb at Mycenae. Photograph: Faculty of Classics Archives, University of Cambridge

Lisa’s extensive involvement with Mycenae began in 1939, when at the age of eight she and her mother, Helen (nee Pence), went there with her father, Alan Wace, director of the British School (1914-23) and later a Cambridge professor. His first period of excavation was 1920-23, and after the 1939 visit he returned from 1950 until his death in 1957. Lisa participated in virtually every excavation and study season from 1950, continuing after her father’s death to excavate in collaboration with Lord William Taylour and the Archaeological Society of Athens from 1959 until 1969. She returned to study the site and its finds for many years after that.

In 1960 she married David French, who was to become director of the British Institute of Archaeology at Ankara in 1968; and she was soon accompanied each season at Mycenae by her two small daughters.

Lisa’s work on the distinctive and characteristically stylised handmade small clay figurines, which she completed as a PhD thesis at University College London (1961) and published as an article in the Annual of the British School at Athens 10 years later, included a catalogue of examples from some 116 sites. These, of which the human varieties are overwhelmingly female and on average around 10cm (4 inches) in height, were discussed by types resembling three letters in the Greek alphabet and ordered by date, which demonstrated their development between the 14th and 12th centuries BC.

In addition to her work on the figurines, Lisa adopted a systematic approach to the classifying of pottery found at Mycenae, which she had used in order to help her date the contexts in which figurines were found and which provided a framework for relative dating generally. In articles in the 1960s she identified and detailed the various sub-phases of pottery from the 14th to early 12th centuries BC by examining associated groups of pots or pot fragments from well defined contexts at Mycenae.

A terracotta figurine from Mycenae
A terracotta figurine from Mycenae, one of Lisa French’s ‘dollies’. Illustration: British School at Athens

These studies enabled her to inject empirical detail into the hitherto often cursory and selective pottery reports from Mycenae and other excavated sites, or the essentially stylistically based and unrealistically over-analytical approach of Arne Furumark’s Analysis of Mycenaean Pottery of 1940, up to then revered as the bible of Mycenaean pottery. They led to Lisa becoming the recognised “guru” of Mycenaean ceramics, and over many years she initiated countless archaeological students into their mysteries.

Lisa was born with the name Elizabeth in London, where her father was deputy keeper in the department of textiles at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Her mother was a classicist specialising in Roman history, and came from the US. That was where mother and daughter were compelled to go by the outbreak of the second world war following Lisa’s single first summer at Mycenae.

After her eventual return to Britain, she went from Cheltenham Ladies’ college to Newnham College, Cambridge, where in 1952 she gained a degree in classics. While teaching the subject in a London school she undertook her PhD.

From the early 1970s into the 80s Lisa helped and encouraged Taylour in preparing the results of their excavations on the south-west side of the Mycenae citadel for publication. These included the so-called cult centre and its “temple”. In 1981, she, Taylour and Kenneth Wardle started the Well Built Mycenae series of publications, initially supplementing printed texts with microfilm images on CD-Roms, going on to DVDs in later instalments. In 2003, together with Spyridon Iakovides she published the Archaeological Atlas of Mycenae, a survey of all the remains in the wider area around the Citadel; and in the following year she received an honorary doctorate from Athens University.

After Lisa’s divorce in 1976, she and her daughters moved to Manchester, where she took on the wardenship of Ashburne Hall, a Manchester University hall of residence. She lectured at the university, presented papers at international conferences and continued work on the Mycenae material. The very successful conference that she organised at Manchester in 1986 on some of the issues currently exercising archaeologists of the Greek neolithic and bronze ages resulted in the book Problems in Greek Prehistory.

Lisa’s move to Athens in 1989 as director of the British School saw a number of practical modernisations of which she was particularly proud. She introduced the extensive use of computers, organised the digitisation of the library catalogue, developed a watering system for the school’s garden and brought systematic order to its collections.

Lisa French and her colleagues started the Well Built Mycenae series of publications (its title echoing Homer), and the ancient city is now a Unesco world heritage site.
Lisa French and her colleagues started the Well Built Mycenae series of publications (its title echoing Homer), and the ancient city is now a Unesco world heritage site. Photograph: Bougiotis Vangelis/EPA

Her academic work continued there and from 1994 in Cambridge. In 2013 she donated the Mycenae archive, containing records of all the British excavations at Mycenae, to the classics faculty at Cambridge.

Lisa could typically be described as feisty, and on occasion somewhat fierce. This was not surprising given the struggles she faced in what was predominantly a man’s world, while fulfilling the duty she felt to expand the heritage of her father’s work.

Nevertheless, a heart of gold lurked beneath this sometimes intimidating facade, and she was invariably good fun to be with. Her final year was a sad one, with the loss of her younger daughter, Catharine, but she remained bright and determined.

She is survived by her other daughter, Ann, and grandchildren, Olivia and Will.

Lisa (Elizabeth) Bayard French, archaeologist, born 19 January 1931; died 10 June 2021


Susan Sherratt

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Ian Jenkins obituary
Archaeologist who oversaw the Parthenon marbles and other sculpture from ancient Greece at the British Museum

Andrew Burnett

15, Dec, 2020 @6:24 PM

Article image
Neil Faulkner obituary
Archaeologist who explored the histories of a Norfolk village and of TE Lawrence in the Middle East

Jan Woolf

15, Mar, 2022 @5:42 PM

Article image
Aubrey Burl obituary
Archaeologist who wrote extensively on Britain’s stone circles

Mike Pitts

12, Jun, 2020 @4:56 PM

Article image
Zara Steiner obituary
Brilliant historian of international relations in Europe between the two world wars

Richard J Evans

23, Feb, 2020 @1:21 PM

Article image
Christopher Taylor obituary
Landscape archaeologist who deepened understanding of the changing English countryside

Christopher Dyer

09, Jul, 2021 @5:09 PM

Article image
Joyce Reynolds obituary
Classicist and academic who transformed our understanding of Roman imperial history

Tessa Dunlop

29, Sep, 2022 @4:10 PM

Article image
Gustav Born obituary
Prominent pharmacologist whose pioneering work on how the body stops bleeding improved the detection of thrombosis

Rod Flower

26, Apr, 2018 @5:37 PM

Article image
Nigel Weiss obituary
Astrophysicist who studied the interaction between the rotation and magnetic field of the sun behind sunspots and solar flares

Michael Rowan-Robinson

05, Aug, 2020 @4:21 PM

Article image
Larissa Wakefield obituary
Other lives: Research scientist and gifted potter, with a keen love of nature and her native home in the Isles of Scilly

Stephen Kearsey

20, Oct, 2020 @5:20 PM

Article image
Michael Coe obituary
Archaeologist who explored the ancient civilisations of Mexico and Central America

Stephen Houston

03, Oct, 2019 @12:29 PM