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Popham, Mervyn Reddaway (1927–2000), archaeologist and prehistorian, was born on 14 July 1927 at 5 Fairfield Terrace, St Thomas, Exeter, the second son and younger child of Richard Popham (1900–1943), marine engineer, and his wife, Lily May Rowland (1901–1941), milliner. He attended the John Stacker School, Exeter, before moving as a scholar to Exeter School (1938–45). Both his parents died during this time. His schooldays presaged his future: he was prefect, librarian, and founder of an archaeological society. An inspirational classics master, H. Bagnall, roused his interest in antiquity. He did his national service (1945–7) as a Royal Navy photographer, and then a degree in arts at St Andrews University (1948–52). The classical archaeologist T. B. Mitford fired his enthusiasm for epigraphy and love for Cyprus: Mitford co-directed an excavation at Palaepaphos, and took Popham there as photographer.

Popham was powerfully drawn to Cyprus, though archaeology was initially only a hobby. In 1953 he returned, a colonial officer, initially assistant district commissioner, Nicosia, visiting villages with an experienced inspector to discuss their problems. Everything changed when the Cypriot nationalist EOKA emergency began on 1 April 1955. Popham, now in the secretariat, had some grim duties. In 1958 he became commissioner of Tröodos, the most mountainous—and intransigent—district. Roads were difficult and dangerous, and a near accident in a helicopter could have proved fatal. The resolution of 1960 brought compensated redundancy to the expatriate administrators, and Popham found a new direction.

Archaeology had occupied his spare time in Cyprus, and his interest switched from epigraphy to the late Bronze Age. He became a ceramic authority: Professor Paul Åström commissioned his ‘The proto-white slip pottery of Cyprus’ for Opuscula Atheniensia, 4 (1962), 277–97. A career needed stronger foundations. He chose the Oxford diploma in classical archaeology and Minoan studies; Dorothea Gray, David Lewis, and John Boardman taught him. Boardman was disputing with the philologist L. R. Palmer the date of the Linear B tablets from Knossos. At Knossos, Popham examined for Boardman the pottery found with the tablets. This vindicated the established date: Palmer was wrong. Popham's important The Last Days of the Palace at Knossos, 1964, and The Destruction of the Palace at Knossos, 1970, resulted.

Popham rejoined the British School at Athens for Sinclair Hood's Knossos excavation. He was elected a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries in 1960. He won the Macmillan and British School studentships for 1961–2, an achievement heralding the most productive part of his career. He became assistant director of the school (1963–70) under A. H. S. Megaw, formerly director of antiquities, Cyprus, who promoted his research.

Popham earned his acclaimed reputation by intellectual rigour, unerring field instincts and support from talented colleagues. He excelled at marshalling, interpreting, and presenting material. With Hugh Sackett he returned to the Minoan town at Palaikastro, eastern Crete (‘Palaikastro VI’, Annual of the British School at Athens, [BSA], 60, 1965, 248–305). They worked on Euboea, producing a catalogue of sites (‘Prehistoric Euboea’, BSA, 61, 1966, 33–113), and in 1964 began excavations at Lefkandi; those constantly recurred—dramatically in 1981–3 with the discovery of a unique tenth-century BC building containing a warrior's elaborate burial complex (Antiquity, 56, 1982, 169–74; Lefkandi II, 1993). Lefkandi's light on Greece and the east in the tenth century has revolutionized Dark Age study.

Equally important was work at Knossos, to which his exceptional understanding of Late Minoan pottery (1600–1050 BC) was crucial. Sadly his planned synthesis of Late Minoan pottery never materialized. Two important papers show its potential—‘Some LM III Pottery’, BSA, 60 (1965) 316–42, and ‘Late Minoan pottery: a summary’, BSA, 62 (1967), 337–51. A landmark was the excavation (with Sackett) of an untouched Knossos building (‘The unexplored mansion’), which yielded quantities of Late Minoan II decorated pottery (c.1420–1390 BC) (The Minoan Unexplored Mansion at Knossos, 1984).

Popham was briefly (1970–72) associate professor of classics in Cincinnati, under J. L. Caskey. In 1972 came the new lectureship in Aegean archaeology in Oxford (with a fellowship at Linacre College). Even as lecturer his research remained central. Vacations and sabbaticals were spent in Greece. In 1988 he was made a fellow of the British Academy. In 1996 came a Festschrift (D. Evely, I. S. Lemos, and S. Sherratt, eds., Minotaur and Centaur). He retired in 1994, but continued his working visits to Greece, publishing (with M. A. V. Gill) The Latest Sealings … from Knossos (1995) and (with I. S. Lemos) Lefkandi III (plates) (1996), both works illustrated by his photographs. Ill health was increasingly taking its toll. He died in his Oxford home at 110 Woodstock Road on 24 October 2000, and was cremated on 4 November.

Popham was slight, below average height, expressive face pocked in adolescence, brown hair turned white, neat in person and habit. After Cyprus he suffered intermittent periods of dark depression. He never married. Innovative in youth, he became unsympathetic to many of archaeology's recent developments. He was uncomfortable with archaeological science, though fascinated by the potential of gadgets. He was a ‘hands-on’, excavator, student of material, and publisher of prime evidence. Current fascination with methodology, anthropological techniques, and the flight from object study deeply disappointed him, for all his sardonic amusement.

H. W. Catling

Sources  

private information (2004) [Richard Popham] · b. cert. · monuments, U. St Andr. L. · successive Annual Reports of the British School at Athens' managing committee (1961/2–1999/2000) · personal knowledge (2004) · WW · The Independent (21 Nov 2000)

Archives  

British School at Athens Library, papers, drawings, and photographs


Likenesses  

photograph (while at Oxford Institute of Archaeology), repro. in D. Evely, I. S. Lemos, and S. Sherratt, eds., Minotaur and centaur (1996)

Wealth at death  

£250,000: private information (2004) [Richard Popham, brother]