Archaeologist who led groundbreaking excavations in Scotland

Born: September 12, 1944;

Died: December 3, 2018

PROFESSOR Roger Mercer, who has died aged 74, was an archaeologist who led several groundbreaking excavations into neolithic sites throughout the UK and especially in Scotland. He was a renowned academic, an authority on ancient burial grounds and from 1990 until 2004 was a reforming secretary of the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland (RCAHMS).

The appointment at the RCAHMS proved inspired with Mercer bringing a fresh sense of drive and energy to the organisation. He opened it up and made it more available to, and its work more understood by, the public. He installed a comprehensive IT system which increased the quality of its research and allowed the information from the many valuable archaeological digs to be documented in greater detail. Throughout his carrier he carried out scrupulous research into prehistoric warfare, landscape development and, principally, the neolithic and bronze age.

Roger James Mercer was born in Hendon, North London but he often visited his grandfather in the countryside who collected flints for a hobby. The visits created a life-long fascination with ancient history and led to his desire to become an archaeologist. He attended Harrow County Grammar School and joined local archaeological societies. In 1956 he joined various teams excavating remains especially on the Roman Ermine Road in Cirencester.

In 1964 he came to Edinburgh to read archaeology at the University and became an enthusiastic member of the OTC, ultimately achieving a TAVR Commission in the Royal Scots.

On vacations he continued to pursue his love of archaeology and often worked on historic sites in Wiltshire and around Stonehenge. He spent the summer of 1964 at Ardwall Isle in Galloway where the team found a lay cemetery dating from the 5th century and burials up to the 11th century. All the discoveries are now in Dumfries Museum. In his final year as a student Mercer toured museums on the continent and wrote an influential paper on bronze age archery (Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society, 1970).

From 1969-74 Mercer was inspector of ancient monuments in the south west of England where his work included digs around Stonehenge and excavations at early military defensive sites and at Fountains Abbey.

From 1974 (until 1989) Mercer was attached to Edinburgh University’s department of archaeology as lecturer then as reader. For much of his time at the university Mercer was acting head of the archaeological department and oversaw the substantial expansion of the premises. In 1988 he organised an exhibition celebrating the 60th anniversary of the department in the main library. His enthusiasm for his subject was infectious and much appreciated by the students.

His important excavations in Scotland included The Balfarg henge in 1977. The henge was uncovered by Mercer prior to the development of a new housing estate attached to Glenrothes. The two extant standing stones were part of a circle that stood within the henge.

At Sketewan in Perthshire, Mercer excavated a cairn dating from the early bronze age in 1988 and after intense digging he uncovered a site with a fascinating history: below the cairn was a deep layer of cultivated soil with charcoal remains.

In 1990 Mercer was appointed secretary of the RCAHMS – effectively the chief executive – with a brief to improve the management structure and reform the financial system. He achieved both these and many other goals. He broadened the scholastic base and the understanding of the work undertaken by the RCAHMS and pioneered schemes to preserve threatened architecture throughout Scotland; he also obtained lottery funding to support Accessing Scotland’s Past and published informative periodicals.

Other excavations in Scotland included Bowmont Valley, Cheviot, Cnoc Stanger and Keiss, Caithness and Kirkpatrick Fleming, and Dumfries & Galloway. At the latter Mercer carried out detailed work on a Roman camp and the surrounding roads. In his report he wrote, “much of the success of the excavation was due to the good nature of the inhabitants of the parish … and the outcome was a quite outstanding document of interest and complexity.”

He wrote an account of the dig, Kirkpatrick Fleming, Dumfries and Galloway: An Anatomy of a Parish in South West Scotland, and gave a fascinating lecture to the local Antiquarian society in 1997.

On his retirement he continued to work on digs in Arran and the Highlands and published an account of the iron age in Scotland. He served as president of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, was appointed OBE in 2005 and was a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

In 1970 he married Susan Fowlie, with whom he had a son and a daughter. They all survive him.