Jim Coulton: an appreciation

JOHN James (Jim) Coulton’s long association with, and love of, Greece began at the British School at Athens in the 1960s. Its hostel and library provided an academic base for virtually all archaeological fieldworkers in the country.

His bond with Greece then became personal when, in 1969, he married Mary Burness, who had Scottish and Greek parentage. They had first met when she was a student of archaeology at Athens University.

Jim Coulton, who has died in Edinburgh at the age of 80, revolutionised the study of ancient architecture by bringing to the forefront the work and responsibilities of the architects themselves.

His most influential book, Ancient Greek Architects at Work: Problems of Structure and Design (1977), used an immense range of sources to show how building projects were organised, practical problems faced and solutions found – from initial design, to the quarrying of stone and its transport, to lifting, placement and finishing.

Gathering evidence of traditional building methods and equipment, often in the vicinities of archaeological sites where he worked, helped him assess those of Classical times, when power tools and machinery were also lacking.

It also ensured that his drawn reconstructions, which brought to life ancient buildings and settlements as verbal descriptions and pictures of sketchy remains cannot, were plausible in terms of locally available material and techniques.

An early instance came with his participation in work at the 8th century BC settlement at Zagora on the Cycladic island of Andros (1967-) where he met Mary.

Among the numerous other excavations and surveys for which he produced meticulous plans and reconstructions were a unique hero-shrine (c. 1000 BC) at Lefkandi on the island of Euboea; a fort at Phylla-Vrachos (c. 500 BC) on the same island; and a stoa (colonnade; 4th century BC) at Perachora near Corinth, the subject of one of his first major studies (1964).

He was the only British scholar to take part in scientific meetings on the conservation of the Akropolis buildings in Athens. The President of the Committee for the Conservation of the Monuments of the Akropolis, Professor Manolis Korres, recalls both Coulton’s technical expertise and his ability to make rapid, clear and almost simultaneous translations of papers given by Greek colleagues.

In Turkey, between 1985 and 1993 he directed a comprehensive survey of the little-known site and district of Balboura, in the highlands of southwest Anatolia, and was also involved in fieldwork at Oinoanda and Aphrodisias.

His project at Balboura, as well as traditional archaeological methods, also encompassed the investigation of climate history and vegetation in the area and study of its pre-industrialised agricultural practices.

Coulton was born in February, 1940, in Pentney, Norfolk, the third of four children of Gordon Francis Coulton and Annie Goldie (née Denny), who herself had Glasgow ancestry.

Like many bright pupils of his time he was encouraged to study Classics (he won a scholarship to Winchester). He then took a degree at Cambridge, where his interest in archaeology was stimulated by a fellow-student (later Professor) Malcolm Colledge, with whom he travelled in the Middle East, as far as Petra.

His doctoral research, also at Cambridge, under W. H. Plommer, eventually resulted in The Architectural Development of the Greek stoa (1976). Supplemented by a long series of articles, this became a standard work of reference for architectural historians.

A first academic job in Australia (1964-8), was followed by a post at Manchester (1968-9). He spent 10 happy and productive years in the Department of Classical Archaeology at Edinburgh University, where his teaching inspired a wide range of students, and the mutual stimulus to research gained from interaction with colleagues in other departments is extensively acknowledged in his books.

From 1979 until his retirement in 2004 he was a Reader in Classical Archaeology at Oxford (1979-2004). A colloquium on Architecture and Archaeology in the Cyclades (2004, published 2005) was held to mark his retiral. He and Mary lived in her family home in Athens for several years prior to his illness.

In university life he had been much in demand for committee and administrative jobs, unsurprisingly in view of his practical attitude to problem-solving and organisational capacity, and his calm ability to reconcile conflicting views and personalities.

He was a Corresponding Member of the German Archaeological Institute (1982), Visiting Professor at Canberra (1984), and Geddes-Harrower Professor at Aberdeen (1988-9).

An account of Jim’s academic career and achievements gives only an inkling of the man himself whom those who knew him – as teacher, colleague or simply friend – remember with exceptional warmth.

The Coultons’ hospitality and friendship, offered to students, colleagues and expatriate Greeks in all the places they lived, are legendary and, together with Jim’s personal concern for his students, have generated innumerable vivid and grateful memories.

Generations of students (including his postgraduates, many of whom went on to occupy exalted academic positions) will remember his constructive habit of worrying away at problems (often theirs rather than his) with a persistency which could sometimes be rather alarming but whose sole intention was to elucidate the matter in hand.

This approach and his avoidance both of sweeping generalisations and of easy solutions undoubtedly contributed to setting his academic achievements, in which stimulating teaching must certainly be included, in the first rank.

He was a scholar of distinction, a considerate and inspiring teacher, and a man of great integrity, steadfast in his concern and affection for family and friends. He is survived by Mary, daughter Joanna, and son Richard.

R. L. N. Barber, British School at Athens