Neil Faulkner obituary

Archaeologist who explored the histories of a Norfolk village and of TE Lawrence in the Middle East

Neil Faulkner, who has died aged 64 of lymphoma, was an archaeologist and writer, editor of Military History Matters and a political activist. He described his pioneering archaeological work the Great Arab Revolt Project (Garp) in southern Jordan and the Sedgeford Historical and Archaeological Research Project (Sharp) in Norfolk as “grounding truth”.

Faulkner founded Sharp in 1996 as an exercise in “democratic archaeology”, in which everyone involved, from professional experts to amateur volunteers, worked together. The project, based around the north-west Norfolk village of Sedgeford, initially focused on the remains of the Anglo-Saxon settlement, but excavations widened and the entire history of the parish is being investigated from the Mesolithic to the first world war.

The most important discovery has been a large malt-processing complex, with evidence of at least three grain-drying ovens and associated features from around AD800. Faulkner was heavily involved in the excavation of these features, rare for this period, and his research into traditional malting processes made it possible to understand how they worked.

The site of a complex of Anglo-Saxon malting houses at Sedgeford, Norfolk, excavated by Neil Faulkner as a member of Sharp.
The site of a complex of Anglo-Saxon malting houses at Sedgeford, Norfolk, excavated by Neil Faulkner as a member of Sharp. Photograph: Gary Rossin/Sharp

Though the site is stronger on such structural features rather than specific finds, in 2003 an iron age hoard of 32 Gallo-Belgic E gold coins known as “staters” came to light, buried in a cow bone. This community-based fieldwork at Sedgeford is now one of the largest independent archaeological projects in Britain, and has provided courses and research opportunities for thousands of trainee archaeologists since its inception.

Garp was cutting-edge modern conflict archaeology, a 10-year project co-directed with Nicholas Saunders of the University of Bristol, excavating the Arab revolt against the Turks during the first world war.

Faulkner admired the mischievous, precocious figure of TE Lawrence, and his brilliance as a military commander and writer, lamenting that the British myth-making machine had turned Lawrence of Arabia into “a metaphor for the imperialism that tore the region apart a century ago”.

Stone tool plus spoons, button and padlock found by the Garp project during the excavation of a first world war Turkish army camp
Stone tool plus spoons, button and padlock found by the Garp project during the excavation of a first world war Turkish army camp. Photograph: Nicholas Saunders

He empathised with Lawrence’s shattered psyche after the Sykes-Picot agreement that carved up the Middle East after the first world war and betrayed everything the Arabs had fought for. He also admired Lawrence’s skill in uniting previously warring desert clans into a unified fighting machine, seeing in this an analogy for the warring tribes of today’s sectarian left, who would rather argue than take on a common enemy.

Lawrence was a liminal character, moving between spaces and cultures. To him, the tribes were a vapour “moving without front or back” that could win against the “rootedness of a standing army”. Faulkner, who knew and understood the importance of landscape, terrain and military strategy, pointed out that Lawrence’s famous war memoir, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, was studied by the Vietcong, the Taliban and even the US army.

I recall working with Faulkner and his team in Jordan, excavating Ottoman tent rings, circles of stones that had weighted down the tents of soldiers in 1917: boy soldiers known as Mehmetçiks – little Mehmets, the equivalent of the British army’s Tommys, conscripted into a war not of their making. Scraping away at sand and soil revealed the detritus of men living together: bits of playing card, tunic buttons, boot leather, cigarette packets, oil lamps. For Faulkner archaeology was about people, whichever side they were on. He drew on his field research for his 2016 book Lawrence of Arabia’s War: The Arabs, the British and the Remaking of the Middle East in WW1.

He published about 20 books altogether, including The Decline and Fall of Roman Britain (2000), Apocalypse: The Great Jewish Revolt Against Rome AD 66-73 (2004), Rome: Empire of the Eagles (2008); Digging Sedgeford: A People’s Archaeology (2014, co-edited with Gary Rossin and Keith Robinson), Creeping Fascism: What It Is and How to Fight It (2017), and his last book, Empire and Jihad: The Anglo-Arab Wars of 1870-1920 (2021).

Neil Faulkner in an excavated section of a first world war trench in the Soča Valley, Slovenia, 2013.
Neil Faulkner in an excavated section of a first world war trench in the Soča Valley, Slovenia, 2013. Photograph: Emily Glass

Archaeology and writing were integral to his life as an activist. For Faulkner, theory and knowledge were of little use without practice, and he was a committed revolutionary socialist. His articulate clarity, whether at one of the Brick Lane Debates, which he set up in the East End of London (believing that debate and discussion face to face was more motivating and transformative), or at any of the other meetings he addressed, could up your political game. He was passionate but not messianic – a mentor and inspiration to many young activists. Faulkner wore his learning and authority lightly, listening to and encouraging others.

In 2020 he was on the co-ordinating committee of Anti-Capitalist Resistance – its mission statement “revolutionary transformation to meet the compound crisis of ecological disaster, economic collapse, social decay, grotesque inequality, mass impoverishment, growing militarisation, and creeping authoritarianism”.

Faulkner was also an accomplished broadcaster, appearing notably on the BBC’s Timewatch, Channel 4’s Time Team and the recent series of YouTube programmes – The History Fix – for Housmans bookshop. This was based on his 2018 book A Radical History of the World, published by Pluto Press and issued by the new Left Book Club in its series of radical books sent to its membership. Faulkner, with others, was instrumental in re-establishing the LBC, originally set up in the 1930s by Victor Gollancz, and now run by Pluto Books.

As a supporter of the Stop the War coalition and an advocate of the tradition of the political pamphlet and its place in activism, Faulkner, at the time of the first world war centenary, launched the pamphlet No Glory: The Real History of the First World War, regarding the conflict as “a rich man’s war in which 15 million poor men died”.

His writing is beautifully accessible, as at the start of No Glory: “The last veteran of the trenches is dead. This is fortunate for our rulers. Were he still alive, Harry Patch’s voice would be heard denouncing their jingoism and warmongering as we enter the centenary of the First World War ... He told Tony Blair to his face that ‘war is organised murder’.”

Faulkner studied the state mechanics and human psychology of war – to understand how it builds, the class basis of war, as well as its inverse, revolution.

Born in Walthamstow, north-east London, brought up in the Weald of Kent and educated at the Skinners’ school in Tunbridge Wells and at King’s College, Cambridge, where he studied social and political sciences. He taught history and sociology at Fullbrook school in north-west Surrey from 1984 to 1988 and was then head of sociology at the Frances Bardsley school, in Romford, east London for two years before retraining as an archaeologist at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London, where he was joint winner of the Petrie prize. He lived in St Albans, Hertfordshire.

He is survived by his partner, Lucy, their three children, Tiggy, Rowena and Finnian, his sister, Maura, and mother, Mary.

Neil Martin Faulkner, archaeologist, born 22 January 1958; died 4 February 2022


Jan Woolf

The GuardianTramp

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