Joyce Reynolds, who has died aged 103, was an honorary fellow at Newnham College, Cambridge, a classicist specialising in Roman historical epigraphy and the first woman to be awarded the Kenyon medal by the British Academy in 2017.
The high noon of a stellar academic career that saw Joyce actively engage with the ancient world in the Middle East and North Africa came in 1982 when she published Aphrodisias and Rome. This groundbreaking book focused on the Archive Wall uncovered in the theatre at Aphrodisias in Turkey’s western Anatolia and inscribed with letters between Roman authorities and the eastern city.
Joyce’s painstaking work with these ancient texts involved the location of stones that had been moved, the piecing together of numerous small fragments, and the inclusion of inscriptions from earlier travellers. The result was a published account that proved transformative for the understanding of Roman imperial history, in particular the relationship between the eastern provinces and the empire.
Aphrodisias and Rome was also innovative for its use of full English translations and exploration of the texts in their historical setting – and a fitting testimony to a lifetime of pioneering research in a man’s world. A former student and emeritus professor, Charlotte Roueché, recalled arriving on site in 1970s Anatolia with Joyce. The excavation of Aphrodisias was overseen by Kenan Erim, “a fascinating, terrifying character” who was unpredictable and anti-women. Few lasted the course; Joyce proved an exception.
“She just kept her head down and was one of the last women standing.”
Joyce’s modus operandi contrasted with the many on-site NYU colleagues who clashed with Erim, an old-fashioned Ottoman Turk. In comparison, Joyce was culturally sensitive and characteristically hardy. She would later admit: “I was often the only woman on a site. But I knew things men didn’t. I would tell them things, show them things, I would educate them in a way.”
She had form. If, by the 80s Joyce was one of the world’s leading epigraphists, her on-site research began in 1949, when she was selected by John Ward-Perkins, director of the British School at Rome, to accompany his archaeological expedition to Tripolitania (part of present-day Libya).
In the subsequent publication The Inscriptions of Roman Tripolitania, Ward-Perkins insisted that Joyce’s name came first in a book that remains relevant today. It was the beginning of a career that never ended.
In deep old age Joyce could be found surrounded by piles of jottings in her Cambridge home, grappling with the transition to online publications. She understood the value of reaching as wide an audience as possible and helped establish early online standards. Once more her influence proved transformative.
Born in Highams Park on the Essex-London border, to a schoolteacher, Nellie (nee Farmer), and civil servant, William Reynolds, Joyce’s parents benefited from opportunities available in early-20th-century Britain and made sure their daughter enjoyed the same.
Unusually for the period, they made no distinction between their younger son David’s education and Joyce’s. Exempt from domestic chores, Joyce won a scholarship to St Paul’s girls’ school, where her name is still on the honours board for winning a classics exhibition to Somerville College, Oxford. “I was aware that there were a series of female firsts, that women could do things between the wars. That gave me ambition. One had a goal.”
Joyce left Oxford University with a first-class degree in 1941 and became a temporary civil servant with the Board of Trade. Her job was to assess the nationwide distribution of essential goods, in a micro-example of Britain’s wartime socialism.
The role, which took her all over Britain, suited Joyce’s precise mind and she endeavoured to stay on post-1945. However, with the promotion of returning men a priority in the civil service, she failed to clinch a permanent job and took up a scholarship at the British School at Rome.
By 1951 Joyce was appointed the director of studies at Newnham College, then just one of two Cambridge colleges for women. She became a university-wide lecturer in classics, was elected to the fellowship of the British Academy in 1982, and remained at Newnham College throughout, latterly as an honorary fellow.
A rigorous academic, her teaching was equally impactful and always a priority, the reach of which is perhaps best exemplified by the achievements of her former Newnham students, three of whom also became fellows of the British Academy: Pat Easterling, the first female regius professor of Greek, MM McCabe, emeritus professor of ancient philosophy, and, most famously, Dame Mary Beard, who has done so much to transform the understanding of classics.
As Roueché, pointed out: “All three are outstanding for the combination of scrupulous scholarship and independent thought which characterised Joyce.”
Beard explained: “Joyce had terribly high expectations, but she gave a huge amount back ... I realised, even for that time, it was extraordinary.”
Joyce could be intimidating, all her students testified to that; with long grey hair pulled back and always dressed in “Reynolds blue” she did not suffer fools or foolish questions and had exacting standards. She wanted the best from her pupils and invariably got it.
I met Joyce in her twilight years while researching a book – The Century Girls – in which she featured. I was struck by her precise thinking, deep kindness and extraordinary resilience, and the devotion and respect she was held in by Newnham College and her former students, for whom she paved the way.
Joyce is survived by a nephew, Greg.
• Joyce Maire Reynolds, classicist and epigrapher, born 18 December 1918; died 11 September 2022
• This article was amended on 3 October 2022. In 1951 there were only two, rather than three, colleges for women at Cambridge University.