In Memoriam Don Brothwell


Don Brothwell with members of the BioArCh team

‌Don Brothwell with members of the BioArCh team

Remembering Don Brothwell

This afternoon was going quite well. The sun was shining, a few irritating administrative loose ends had been tied up, there was gravadlax for lunch. Then the news came that Don Brothwell had died.

Don was one of the pioneers in the field of archaeological science, trained as an anthropologist but with an ability to turn his mind to whatever ideas and techniques might help to answer questions about the past and present of humanity. I was aware of him as a name at what was then the British Museum (Natural History) almost as soon as I became involved with archaeology as an obnoxious teenager. We first met, I think, when Don joined the staff of the Institute of Archaeology, University of London, on the retirement of another great pioneer, Ian W. Cornwall. As a student with an interest in bones, I took a number of courses with Don and came to appreciate, if not always to understand, his eclectic fund of knowledge and capacity to link ideas and information across disciplines. When the UK’s Department of Education and Science (yes, the UK believed in such things in the 1970s!) saw fit to award me a Major State Studentship, Don became my PhD supervisor, which was quite a voyage of discovery for both of us.

Memories and anecdotes could fill many pages. There was the time we were briefly locked in a cell at Covent Garden police station following a misunderstanding over some freshly-excavated human bones. That was my first and, to date, only experience of being banged up, though as a young man Don served a spell in Lincoln prison for refusing to attend for National Service. Then there was the time we were on a small island in Orkney in foul January weather, collecting bones of the local sheep. Towards the end of a long day, we found a useful carcass and decided to cut off the feet, only to realise that my trusty penknife had fallen out of my pocket somewhere along the shore. Don was unconcerned. From the tideline he picked up a large pebble and a broken Carlsberg Special bottle. “Go on, knap a cutting edge onto that”. I did, and it served the purpose very well. Returning from that collecting expedition, we drove South through a snowy Scotland in Don’s erratic Hillman Imp. Arriving in Inverness at dusk, with light snow falling, Don said “Go find us tea and cake and I’ll book a room for tonight”. Minutes later he came into the café smiling. “That’s arranged. We just have to get to Perth in a couple of hours”. Readers familiar with Scottish roads and Scottish Januaries will appreciate the impracticality of that!

Don was a hobby artist, an atheist, a pacifist and a humanitarian, someone who really cared about people and what the world did to them, individually and collectively. His forensic work in the former Yugoslavia grew out of that concern, as did his willingness to explain the reprehensible behaviour of others as a consequence of the pressures on them rather than something inherent in the person themselves. I can only recall one occasion when Don was less than generous to a colleague. On hearing that a particularly eminent archaeologist had just died, he said to me “He was a brilliant man. Pity he was such a shit”. That is not how Don will be remembered: rather, I recall what he said on several occasions regarding his own funeral “When I go, just put me out with the bins”.

-Terry O'Connor


Don Brothwell sorting charnel from the excavations in St Colman's Church, Portmahomack

Don sorting charnel from the excavations in St Colman's Church, Portmahomack, assisted by Stuart Buchanan and Donna Signorelli 1997. Photo: Martin Carver


Don Brothwell beachcombing on the Yorkshire coast 2011

"Beachcombing on the Yorkshire coast 2011. Dad in classic scrutiny pose."

-Jamie Brothwell

BABAO obituary comments

Having first met Don in the late 1980s at a science conference, I became a mature student at the Institute of Archaeology at UCL in 1991.  With a specific interest in biological anthropology including the study of human skeletal remains, Don’s office door was always open to my enquiring mind and research interests.  In my second year, at his suggestion, I visited the British Museum (Natural History) to examine some skulls.  Having provided me with a series of acquisition numbers for skulls, I was confident of spending an informative day behind the scenes of the museum. To my dismay, it soon became evident that Don’s acquisition numbers did not correspond with the museum’s 1992 cataloguing system.  Instead of trepanned skulls, I discovered a series of Don’s personal papers.  Reporting this information back to him at the Institute of Archaeology, he seemed pleased that a part of him was still ‘in situ’ at the museum.

It was with great sadness in 1993, that Don’s office door at the Institute was closed and locked.  With a few lectures cancelled or rearranged, I feared – as a nurse who had previously specialised in occupational health – for his health and wellbeing. To hear, through the academic grapevine, of his appointment as Professor of Human Palaeoecology at the University of York was indeed reassuring!

I will always remember Don for his gift of presence – he was always attentive and available to answer questions, - and his gift of resource; If Don personally couldn’t help, then he always seemed to know someone, somewhere who could, and he would kindly provide the appropriate contact details.

Doubtless, Don’s memory will live on through, not just his writings, but through his former students and academic colleagues who will continue to advance the discipline of biological anthropology and palaeoecology across the globe.

If you could send me details of the proposed celebratory event in York in December, I would be more than grateful.  Although I am currently awaiting surgery, hopefully I will be available to attend. 

In the short term, I would be most grateful if you could convey my heartfelt sympathy and best wishes at this time to his family.

-Susan Ward



Don's 80th surrounded by his six children (Jamie, Morag, Jane, Judith, Nina, Dad and Shona) 2013

Don's 80th surrounded by his six children (Jamie, Morag, Jane, Judith, Nina, Dad and Shona) 2013


I wanted to pay tribute to a man who, to all intense and purposes, has shaped me as a bioarchaeologist. He has also been the leading light for so many years in so much in archaeological science. Even though he was such a modest man, his immense intellect constantly shone through; he indeed was a polymath, something that many of us will never be, including me. I learnt about Don’s death while in Mongolia on holiday. This was perhaps a fitting place to hear about this very sad loss to our community. Why? It is because I was experiencing a culture of nomadic communities, a culture that Don would definitely have been fascinated with; he had interests in so much.

I first “came across” Don when I was an undergraduate at the University of Leicester. While I had not really thought about any particular “specialism” of archaeology that I might be interested in (fully expecting to return to nursing after my degree), I happened upon a dissertation on bones from the crypt of Rothwell Church, Northamptonshire. The only book that I found to guide me was an early edition of “Digging up Bones” by Don, a book that must be on the shelves of anybody studying archaeological human bones. I do not recall really having much supervision for my dissertation at Leicester and just muddled through, although being a nurse helped (as did contacts with Keith Manchester at Bradford). Don’s book was therefore my “Bible” as I did my analyses. I even wrote to him about platymeric and platycnemic indices, trying to find out more about how these indices could be interpreted for populations in the past. As was the norm for him, he handwrote a letter back to me with further information (nearly as quickly as email!). As an aside, I admired him for shying away from email – ‘why bother with email when you have letters, fax, and telephone for communications’, he often said – indeed why bother! Don was also my PhD examiner, as he was for some of my PhD students, and I had a thoroughly pleasant time being “grilled” in my viva! Who wouldn’t if it was Don?

Following my undergraduate days, I intermittently kept in touch with Don over the years I was an academic at the University of Bradford before coming to work at Durham University in 2000. Developing and instigating the MSc in Palaeopathology in 2000, and because Don was relatively close at hand in York, I quickly decided that having him talk to our students about some of his favourite topics would be such a bonus for the students. I was not disappointed, and nor were the students. Until a couple of years ago he came up every year and provided great lectures to students (animal palaeopathology and syphilis – of course!); they really valued his input to their careers. Of course, we had to provide a slide projector for his lectures because of “working in the power point presentation mode generation”. Again, I commend him for “sticking to his guns” on presentation modes!

Don was an inspiration to us all. A genuinely lovely man, he constantly had new research ideas, gave people time – something we are all short of (and hand wrote personalized letters!), and was open to discussions and debates; established scholars and students alike loved him. It just goes to show that the older academic generation can continue to offer considerable insights to the younger generation. They also have a sense of the historical development of their discipline, and know about those dim and distant papers published years ago that may not be accessed by students today. Having that sense of history, older academics that are officially “retired” contribute so much to so many.

I last saw Don in Hovingham last September. I am so glad I did. I was on a cycling holiday around that area and we stayed at the Worsley Arms in his village overnight. We took him to dinner that night and had a wonderful time; his eyes sparkled as he talked about what research he was currently doing. He told me about the book he was writing on syphilis - I hope it is published because I think he had nearly finished it – I would hazard a guess that it will be the most sensibly written “ode” to the history of syphilis we will have ever seen.  Here’s to Don – he will be terribly missed by us all but he has left a huge legacy to archaeological science.

-Charlotte Roberts

Department of Archaeology

Durham University


October 3rd 2016


Don and Jamie at a family wedding 2013

Don and Jamie at a family wedding 2013


Don and Jamie at a family wedding 2013

Don and family at Morag's wedding. He had this picture framed in his house. 2011


Don at Shona's Cambridge PhD graduation 2010

Don at Shona's Cambridge PhD graduation 2010


Don and students on a field trip to Wiltshire, 1997


I was a student at the Department of Archaeology at the University of York in the late 1990s, and Don’s lectures and classes were always my favourites – I have fond memories of his teachings on syphilis, tales of working on mass graves in the former Yugoslavia, and of course the infamous ossified cat (which even had its own Facebook page at one point!).

In the summer of our first year, we were all put into minibuses and driven down to Wiltshire for a week of visiting henges, long barrows, Avebury and Salisbury. It was a fantastic week, but the most enduring memory is of Don having to visit the police station in Avebury while we were there, to pick up a box of human bones which he had left in the attic of his former house there! One can only imagine the reaction of the new owners on finding them, and I suspect Don was lucky not to be arrested as a suspected serial killer!

It was Don’s enthusiasm that inspired me to change my degree path to the BSc, and write a bone-related dissertation. Don became my dissertation supervisor, and it was down to him that I ended up with boxes of sheep leg bones in my living room as I wrote about the buttressing that was present on some of them.

Although I did not continue in archaeology after my undergraduate degree, when I re-joined the Department as an administrator in 2011, it was lovely to see Don again, and find that he was exactly the same as I remembered him from my student days. He was a true gentleman with a brilliant mind, and will be sadly missed.

-Vicky Moore


Don at graduation day, 1999


A Fossil History-Chris Stringer (PDF  , 345kb)

A‌nthropology Group Meeting, 1969. (L to R) Theya Molleson, Bob Parsons, Chris Sinclair, Rosemary Powers, Kenneth Oakley, Carlyn Spencer, Chris Buckland-Wright, Don Brothwell and Chris Stringer


An unusually sophisticated moment (with the family)  while teaching in Berkeley, California, 1966


In Hovingham with Rebecca & Kate, 2008


With Sophie, 1995


Don Brothwell

It’s hard to think of Don in the past tense – for so long he’s been a permanent fixture in both our lives, the author of works we followed as students and then as a colleague and friend who gave us help, advice, support (the occasional gift from his collection of books and samples), but above all his precious time.

Privileged to work alongside him since 1999 when together we founded the University’s Mummy Research Group to look at body preservation across the ancient world, we’ve travelled with him to some pretty diverse places – from the mountains of Yemen to the La Brea tar pits of Los Angeles, from the storerooms of the Smithsonian to the basements of Bolton Museum, and in 2003 to Egypt’s Valley of the Kings. Here we were given access to a group of C.14th BC royal mummies we concluded were most likely Queen Tiye, her son Prince Tuthmosis and female pharaoh Nefertiti, examining them all in great detail using digital X-rays and Don the first to point out what he described as a "snowflake effect" visible throughout the mummies’ soft tissue. As a curious feature none of us could explain at the time, it was with his constant help and encouragement that we embarked on a lengthy quest to find out what this "snowflake" could be, and once we had, realising it meant re-writing what we thought we knew about mummification. This of course meant trying to replicate it in the lab before finally undertaking the ultimate replication using a human body donor, again at Don’s suggestion. And having mummified the body successfully using this newly discovered albeit very ancient technique, its potential benefits for soft tissue preservation for medical purposes is something we’re currently working on with our colleagues at Kings College London, only one of so many projects resulting from Don’s unique ability to encourage, support and most of all to inspire.

The world is a much emptier place without him.

-Jo Fletcher & Stephen Buckley


Don and co CT-scanning one of the Egyptian mummies at Hull Museum


Don in King’s Manor examining a South American mummy on loan to the university’s Mummy Research Group  


Don pointing out the ‘snowflake effect’ in digital X-rays of royal mummies in Valley of the Kings


Don Brothwell Remembered

Inspirational teacher and mentor… A giant in Bioarchaeology… Proof that some successful academics can be genuine nice guys … Many things will be said about Don Brothwell (born 1933), who sadly passed away on Monday 26th September 2016.

Don was my favourite professor when I did my undergraduate studies at the Institute of Archaeology (1982-85). I signed up for all the courses he taught there at that time including Introduction to Environmental Archaeology, Vertebrates in Archaeology and Food in Antiquity. Each class he taught was an inspirational journey… He would spend ages in his office beforehand preparing each lecture, in those pre-powerpoint days, arranging hundreds of slides into a series of round carousels that he would use to tell a special story in each class. His wide ranging knowledge and enthusiasm for a wide range of subjects was infectious.

Besides myself there were two other students attending these same classes, Louise Martin (now Reader in Zooarchaeology, UCL Institute of Archaeology) and Simon Parfitt (now Principal Research Associate, UCL Institute of Archaeology, currently on secondment to the Natural History Museum). Don inspired all three of us to continue in archaeology and gave us a passion for studying bones.

Some years later I was fortunate enough to have a second chance to learn from Don. When I conducted my Phd research at the University of York between 1997-2001, Don became my supervisor. I have fond memories of eating lunch with him in the Kings Manor canteen. He had an extraordinary mind and always had some useful suggestions for what I should read, who I should contact, or what other approaches might be useful to consider. It was usually best to catch him over lunch as he was so much in demand, even when “retired” and as a Emeritus Professor… Scholars from all over the world would be visiting him, and TV people were always chasing him for the latest story about bog bodies, mummies, human skeletal analysis or palaeopathology. I was amazed by his capacity to deal with all these things and yet remaining cheerful and calm.

In late July this year I was back in the UK on my annual summer holiday from the Middle East to escape the intense summer heat of Abu Dhabi. I was attending the Seminar for Arabian Studies at the British Museum. I could not resist purchasing from a bookstand at the conference a copy of one of Don’s latest books, “A Faith in Archaeological Science: Reflections on a Life” (2016, Archaeopress Publishing Ltd, Oxford). Reading this book brought back many happy memories of the classes I attended in the early 1980’s and reminded me of Don’s philosophy and approach to bioarchaeology, archaeological science and life. He was really a special human being.

Don will be missed by the many students and colleagues with whom he worked over his long career. I send my sincere condolences to his family.

Rest in Peace Don.

-Dr Mark Jonathan Beech



Images from Jane Erret, Don's eldest daughter

Some photos of Dad on the Newark dig in Deerness, Orkney.  They are late 60's early 70's, please note the same style tweed jacket that he has worn most of his life and the black beret hat that you can see me wearing in the scanned photo of me sitting on his knee as a little girl.  Please ignore the other scanned photo of me, unfortunately I am terrible at technology and my printer/scanner is not working, so this is an old scan copy. 

The picture of Dad in a black wig was sent to his granddaughter Eleanor when she was in hospital, to cheer her up, it was annotated with this - "Don Brothwell Age 16 (I think) just after sitting his 'O' Levels and thus he looks very tired, and has aged about 50 years.  He still has his lovely black curly hair."









Don Brothwell

My association with Don goes back into the mists of almost archaeological time itself, way back to my days as an undergraduate at the Institute of Archaeology (now of University College) London in the 1970s. During the earliest fieldwork phases for my doctoral work in Ecuador, Don was also (briefly) a part of the same joint Institute of Archaeology and British Museum archaeological expedition called ‘The Jubones River Valley Project’, Ecuador.

Although I saw him infrequently across the many intervening years, we always had a ‘connection’ and he was always very supportive of my commitment to South American archaeology. I have him to thank for carrying out the formal identifications of the human remains from the archaeological site at Puerto Lopez, coastal Ecuador, where I worked throughout the 1990s.

Most recently, I have him to thank in large part for his support in offering me his office space in Kings Manor, which formed the fertile context of my eventual successful application to the European Commission for a Marie Curie Global Fellowship. I write this now from Ecuador again, and offer him (wherever he is!) my sincerest thanks for his unfailing support.

-Elizabeth Currie