The late Sir John Boardman was a leading academic but also a supporter of the trade.

Image courtesy of the Classical Art Research Centre (C. Wagner), University of Oxford

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Sir John, who died on May 24, aged 96, published numerous notable works, including The Greeks Overseas (1999), Persia and the West (2000), World of Ancient Art (2006), and Archaeology of Nostalgia (2002).

Born in 1927, and educated at Chigwell School and Magdalene College, Cambridge, his early career included three years as Assistant Director of the British School of Archaeology at Athens, while later he served as an Assistant Keeper in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, and then Reader in Classical Archaeology and Fellow of Merton College, Oxford.

By 1963, Sir John had become a fellow of Merton College, Oxford, going on to succeed John Beazley as Lincoln Professor of Classical Archaeology and Art. Having been knighted in 1989 and frequently cited as ‘Britain’s most distinguished historian of ancient Greek art’, he retired in 1994, his long life bringing him another 30 years of research, study, and influence.

This influence included the development of a simple, logical and compelling assessment of the ancient world as being divided into three geographical zones, with accompanying characteristics that did much to inform their art. These were the nomadic peoples of the north, the farming and city peoples of the temperate zones and the inhabitants of the hotter zone at the tropics. As the Telegraph obituary noted: “Nomads, he found, whether in Asia, Europe or America, tend to have an art based on small, portable figures, often animals; monumental architecture is largely confined to the temperate zone, while in the tropics art largely based on the human form, with an emphasis on ancestors.”

He took part in excavations in Smyrna, Crete, Chios and Libya, and his awards included the Kenyon Medal (1995) from the British Academy and the Onassis Prize for Humanities (2009).

Sir John was especially concerned with the art and architecture of ancient Greece, particularly sculpture, engraved gems, and vase painting.

When it came to the sensitive and combative debate surrounding antiquities in the context of Middle Eastern conflict - especially over the past 10 years - Sir John was a robust defender of the trade and argued that we all have a responsibility to prevent looting and smuggling, including those nations from whom artefacts are removed. Article 5 of the 1970 UNESCO Convention puts the primary burden on the country of origin, as he reminded us. As the Convention summarises: “It is essential for every State to become increasingly alive to the moral obligations to respect its own cultural heritage and that of all nations,” he said.

In recent years he considered the merits of antiquities whose find context could not be traced and the relentless drive towards the reversal of the burden of proof when it came to the legitimacy of objects.

In 2017, he wrote an article for Cahn’s Quarterly, titled Academic Censorship, that touched on the subject, beginning: “A majority of the books published in the last 50 years about ancient art have depended on illustration of objects which are not from controlled excavations, and to pretend that they are therefore illegal, useless and misleading is, of course, absurd, yet this is the logical conclusion to be drawn if the extreme view about ‘academic’ or ‘moral’ integrity is accepted, and all objects not from controlled excavations are ignored.”

In the article Sir John argued that it was very doubtful whether sites could ever be controlled effectively. As an example of an artefact that is out of context but useful, he gave a silver chalice of no known provenance in the Bible Lands Museum, Jerusalem of around 500 AD.

“It is no doubt from the Palestine area and its Latin inscriptions show it to have been made for a Eucharist ceremony - “Holy is God, holy the mighty one, holy the immortal one, have mercy on us” - typical for the Eastern Orthodox Church. Its lack of detailed provenance cannot disqualify it as a record of Antiquity.”

Unlike so many other academics, Sir John proved himself impartial in search of history and the truth: “Some years ago it was said that in Turkey boys who found antiquities on an ancient site could sell them to dealers who would then supply them with forgeries to sell on to tourists/collectors. Yet the recent publication of some 500 Roman seals, gems and rings, picked up over some 30 years by a family walking over the fields concealing the ancient city of Caesarea (S. Amoral-Stark & M. Hershkovitz, Ancient Gems, Finger Rings and Seal Boxes from Caesarea Maritima: the Hendler Collection, 2016) shows how much is still on the surface, and no less valid as evidence than excavated material.”

Demonstrating just how relevant the study of Ancient Greece remains to this day, less than 24 hours after Sir John’s death, a new study using volunteer marines from today’s Hellenic Forces to test the effectiveness of Greek Bronze Age body armour revealed just how good it would have been in protecting Mycenean soldiers 3500 years ago.

Longstanding ATG columnist and former Christie’s specialist Richard Falkiner still owns a Greek scarab that Sir John published when he first became acquainted with him in 1963.

“He was very easy to have discussions with, even those to those who knew infinitely less than him,” he said.