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Magdalena Midgley

Archaeologist.

Born: November 4, 1952; Died: July 21, 2014

Magdalena Midgley, who has died aged 61, discovered a passion for archaeology during her childhood in Poland but it was a visit to Scotland that was the catalyst for an international career in the field.

She arrived as a teenager with the fairly modest intention of brushing up her English and found work as an au pair. However, the course of her life over the next 40 years was soon to be shaped by a meeting at a birthday party with a modern languages teacher.

Though the young Magda, as she became known, would never return to live in her homeland, she found love, support and encouragement in her marriage to teacher Stephen Midgley that provided the impetus for her to enter academia and reach the top of her profession, resulting in a personal chair as professor of the European Neolithic at Edinburgh University.

Born and raised in the city of Bydgoszcz in northern Poland, a country with a rich trove of prehistoric archaeology, she was always interested in history and archaeology as a youngster.

The daughter of industrial designer, Bruno Appelt, and his wife Bronislawa, she was educated at local primary and high schools and was already showing a talent for languages when her cousin Bernard, who was living in Edinburgh, visited the family with his Scottish wife Kathleen.

Bernard, who had joined the British Army during the Second World War after being liberated from German captivity by British troops, had settled in Scotland. During the trip to Poland, Magda acted as his wife's translator and got on so well with the couple they invited her to Edinburgh. A couple of years later she took up their offer, arriving in the Scottish capital in 1972, hoping to improve the English she had been taught at school. She took an English course at Stevenson College in the city and also did some au pair work. When she met Stephen Midgley at a birthday party that October, it sparked a love affair that led to marriage the following spring.

With the encouragement of her husband and family she went on to take several Highers and by 1974 had amassed enough qualifications to be accepted to study archaeology at Edinburgh University.

There she was greatly influenced by Professor Stuart Piggott, an eminent expert on the Neolithic period, who was in his last couple of years of teaching before retiring. As a result she went on to specialise in prehistoric archaeology, with a particular interest in the northern and central European Neolithic.

She graduated MA Hons in 1978 and was awarded a PhD for her research on the north European long barrows, or Neolithic tombs, in 1985. Numerous archaeological excavation projects followed and in 1989 she was appointed a lecturer in prehistoric archaeology at Edinburgh University, where she spent her entire academic career until it was cut short by ill health.

She also undertook a number of administrative posts at the university over the years: from 1993 to 1999 she was quality assurance adviser to the old faculty group of arts, divinity and music, was an integral member of the school in its new home in the Old Medical Building; from 2000 to 2003 she was associate postgraduate dean. Promoted to senior lecturer in 1997, she was appointed to her chair of the European Neolithic, in the school of history, classics and archaeology, in August 2013 but retired in June this year after being diagnosed with cancer 18 months ago.

She principally taught and researched the early farming cultures of Europe, publishing numerous papers throughout her career, in particular on the funerary monuments of the North European plain and neighbouring areas. Her participation in excavations took her from the Czech Republic to Burgundy and east-central Scotland and her fieldwork covered the Spanish Pyrenees to southern Scandinavia and the forests of her native Poland.

She also contributed to journals and collective works and wrote several books: Trb Culture: The First Farmers Of The North European Plain; The Monumental Cemeteries Of Prehistoric Europe And The Megaliths Of Northern Europe.

A member of the Society Of Antiquaries, she was particularly interested in the early antiquarians of the 18th century and latterly had been enthusiastically researching the early history of archaeology and its relation to romanticism, work that would no doubt have translated into another book.

Earlier, she had done the groundwork to set up a major collaborative project examining the country's prehistoric monuments, Neolithic Scotland: Making Monuments, Creating Communities, in which she would have been expected to play a key part.

However, her legacy is not just her body of work as an expert in the European Neolithic but the passion she inspired in her students, fuelled by her own knowledge and an undimmed curiosity for megalithic monuments.

She also left a lasting impression on many with her innate sense of compassion, which made her a natural dispenser of pastoral care.

Candid, forthright and determined, she was a warm and engaging personality, always concerned about the teaching and learning needs of her students, evidenced by tributes paid by colleagues and former students from across Europe in recognition of her unique contribution to her field, both academically and personally.

"She was an amazing character and a first rate archaeologist in the field and in the study," said one. "Where she blazed the trail, it will now be far easier than it was for her, for other younger scholars to follow."

In her personal life she and her husband shared many interests, including cats, classical music and fast cars. She also loved literature, walking in the mountains and travelling, particularly to their holiday home in the Pyrenees.

Though she never returned to live in Poland, Professor Midgley visited many times, keeping in constant touch with family and events there. She is survived by husband Stephen and sister Krystyna.

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