2018-06-03 02:28:28 UTC
Vera Evison obituary
Expert on Anglo-Saxon graves and glass
Catherine Hills and Leslie Webster
Thu 31 May 2018 13.00 EDT
The archaeologist Vera Evison, who has died aged 100, expanded knowledge of the crucial period in British history that saw the transition from Roman Britain to Anglo-Saxon England, the fifth to seventh centuries AD. She did this by pioneering the introduction of continental methods to develop the systematic study of Anglo-Saxon cemeteries.
Connections between Anglo-Saxon England and Germany and Scandinavia have long been recognised, but Vera showed that there was also considerable interaction between southern Britain and northern France and the Low Countries, the areas under Frankish control in the post-Roman period.
Her excavation at the large, richly furnished Buckland Anglo-Saxon cemetery in Dover (1951-53) marked a turning point in the recognition of the strong element of Frankish material culture in Kent. Among the many finds from the Dover graves were imports from France and the Rhineland, as well as locally made copies : silver and garnet brooches, wheel-thrown pots and above all glass vessels.
Vera improved the approach to excavating and recording burials, participating in the excavation of almost every grave herself. Each day she took a train from London to Dover, excavated graves all day with the help of a few workmen, put the finds into a suitcase, caught the train back, lectured at what is now Birkbeck, University of London, in the evening, and then catalogued the finds, which eventually went to the British Museum, ready to start again the next day.
Through the exercise of such energy, dedication and a steely will she rose to the top of her profession at a time when this was very difficult for a woman who had entered university as a mature student and did not possess independent means. Anglo-Saxon archaeology in the 1940s and 50s was dominated by a small number of Oxbridge-educated men, and it took boldness and determination to break into this charmed circle.
Born in Lewisham, south-east London, Vera was the youngest of five children of Francis Evison, a cabinetmaker and woodwork teacher, and his wife Emily (nee Scott), a specialist dry cleaner and restorer of fine textiles and furs. She lived all her life in London, first in a flat over the family business in Lewisham High Street, and then, from 1940, in a house in Harrow.
On leaving Lewisham Prendergast school in 1937, Vera attended evening classes in many subjects including archaeology and then studied for a London BA in English language and literature, supporting herself by working as a secretary for Kathleen Kenyon at the London University Institute of Archaeology.
In 1947 she went to Stockholm and studied archaeology with Nils Åberg, beginning her interest in the European Migration period of the fourth to seventh centuries AD, and acquiring knowledge of Scandinavian languages. She also worked as a volunteer assistant at the British Museum, helping to unpack Anglo-Saxon objects, including the finds from the burial mounds at Sutton Hoo, near Woodbridge, Suffolk, when they were returned from storage to London after the second world war.
Though she worked on Kenyon’s excavations at Sabratha in Tripolitania (now Libya) in the summer of 1948, Vera’s stories about this did not relate to the archaeology but to her social life, suggesting a more sociable and light-hearted younger woman than her later students encountered. She had a sense of humour, but also a fairly critical and at times caustic wit.
Vera had a long teaching career at Birkbeck, from appointment as a part-time lecturer in 1947 to professor in 1979, retiring in 1983. Her reputation has perhaps been stronger abroad than at home: the festschrift The Evidence of Material Culture (2016) appeared in a French series, with articles in both English and French, while some reviews of her 1965 book The 5th century Invasions South of the Thames (1965) were hostile concerning her “frankophilia”.
Her single-minded devotion to her subject was communicated with encouragement and enthusiasm. Former students can still recall elements from her lectures in the early 60s to this day – not least her fascinating descriptions of working with glass-blowers: she paid great attention to the precise details of archaeological evidence, especially of artefacts, and broadened the horizons of those she taught beyond the limits of the British Isles. Her study of early medieval vessel glass culminated in a Catalogue of Anglo-Saxon Glass in the British Museum (2008), including vessels that were not designed to sit neatly on a table: they had small unstable bases, ensuring that their contents had to be drunk at a sitting, or passed around.
She kept herself fit through tennis and swimming. Taped on the mirror in her office at Birkbeck was a large notice which informed her students that smoking was not allowed in the room, at a time when smoking was ubiquitous and allowed in most places. She never took the lift, and preferred walking to travelling by bus.
She respected people prepared to defend their position, and would be prepared to concede the point if robustly argued; but she had no time for those who did not.
Vera’s stated aim when she was 95 years old was to reach 100, which she duly achieved.
• Vera Ivy Evison, archaeologist, born 23 January 1918; died 19 March 2018