Coldstream, (John) Nicolas (19272008), archaeologist and historian, was born on 30 March 1927 in Lahore, India, the only son of Sir John Coldstream (18771954), a member of the Indian Civil Service then serving as a judge at the High Court in Lahore, later chief minister of Kapurthala state, and his wife, Phyllis Mary, née Hambly (18961972). The family returned to England in 1939, settling in St John's Wood, and in 1952 took up residence at 180 Ebury Street, the eponymous house of what was later to be christened Mozart Terrace.
Coldstream attended St Cyprian's School, Eastbourne, then became a king's scholar at Eton College. Before progressing to King's College, Cambridge, he did his national service in the canal zone and Palestine with the Highland light infantry. He graduated from Cambridge with a double first in the classics tripos in 1951. He then taught classics at Shrewsbury School for four years before commencing a more archaeological career with a post in the Greek and Roman department of the British Museum in 1956. He had already visited Cyprus during his military service, and Greece then became another focus of his interest when he took up the MacMillan scholarship at the British School of Archaeology in Athens in 1957. There he commenced work on the material that was to become his own, the pottery of the Geometric period of Greek culture, c.1000700 BC.
In 1960 Coldstream gained a post in the University of London, where he spent the rest of his career, initially at Bedford College, as a lecturer in Greek, rising to a personal chair in Aegean archaeology in 1975; he then transferred to the Yates chair of classical archaeology at University College in 1983, during a period of considerable turbulence in the area of classical studies both in the country and in the university. He remained in post there until retirement, becoming emeritus professor in 1992 and honorary fellow in 1993. On 4 July 1970, at Oxford register office, he married a historian of medieval art and architecture, and fellow university lecturer, (Imogen) Nicola Carr (b. 1942), daughter of Charles Francis Carr, factory inspector. There were no children of the marriage.
As an excavator Coldstream worked at Motya on Sicily, at the port site of Kastri on Kythera (with George Huxley), and on various occasions at Knossos, in particular in the sanctuary of Demeter, on the hillside south of the palace. All such work was promptly published and gave clear evidence of his mastery of areas well beyond the narrower range of his acknowledged speciality. His publications amounted in all to some 140, many of them highly influential. Among his more general works, Greek Geometric Pottery (1968, second edition 2008) was an indispensable tool for those working in the field, and Geometric Greece (1977, second edition 2003) placed the pottery and other artefacts in the fuller setting of the period, so poorly provided with other sources.
Coldstream's wish was to write history, and is exemplified in the many articles he wrote devoted to the relationships between the Greek world, Cyprus, and the biblical Near East during the earlier first millennium BC. In this area in particular he was at pains to stress the importance of considering all the evidence, not the individual piece which might point in a different direction. Plus or minus a decade or two, his chronological scheme for this period came to be widely accepted. With respect to Greeks further west, his study of a well-known Greek amphora of the eighth century from Kourion on Cyprus was one catalyst in a reassessment of their role; his new address for the piece, as a work from the island of Euboea, connected with further historical, and ever increasing archaeological sources, to confirm the role of the Euboeans in travelling beyond Greek frontiers in the tenth to eighth centuries BC, first to the east, Cyprus and Phoenicia, and then west, to Italy.
Coldstream's work at Knossos was dedicated to the millennium or so after the fall of the Palace of Minos. His studies of the pottery of the early Iron Age, summarized well in his contribution to the Knossos Pottery Handbook: the Iron Age (2001), included treatment of much material excavated since 1950, notably a number of pots with precocious figured scenes, a group often neglected in broader studies of Greek art of the periodthough not his ownwhich concentrated on the dour scenes of battle and funerals on the burial vases made in Athens.
Coldstream's teaching was always careful and clear. The theoretical aspects of modern archaeology were of no interest, although he was happy to embrace scientific evidence where relevant; his second-best subject at school was mathematics. The efficacy of such teaching and the general acknowledgement of the quality of his work were reflected in the large number of postgraduate students he attracted; successful students at that, for there were few who did not succeed in gaining employment in or around the profession, from Atlanta to the Dead Sea. Two publications illustrate this well: a Festschrift, Klados (1995), composed largely of articles by former students, some twenty-five in all, and the writing up of a tomb group from Cyprus housed in the Institute of Archaeology, written, under guidance, by the group of students taking his MA course in Cypriot archaeology and published in the Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies for 19913. The course was the only such one in Britain at the time, encouraged and materially nurtured by another, contemporary, fellow of University College, Vassos Karageorghis, director of Cypriot antiquities.
Coldstream was Geddes Harrower visiting professor at Aberdeen in 1983 and visiting fellow at the Australian Institute of Archaeology in Melbourne in 1989. He was elected a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries in 1964 and a fellow of the British Academy in 1977. He was an honorary or corresponding member of archaeological institutes in Germany, Greece, and the USA. In 2003 the British Academy awarded him the Kenyon medal for classical studies. When the tenth International Conference of Classical Archaeology was held in London in 1978, he stepped into the breach when the original chairman of the organizing committee withdrew, not only pulling irons from the fire but even making a profit. He kept up lasting connections with the British School at Athens; he edited its Annual between 1968 and 1973, and was chairman of its managing committee from 1987 to 1991.
Nicola Coldstream's professional status as a historian of medieval architecture happily fitted in with Nicolas Coldstream's own interest in travel. His other main interest was music, fittingly for the occupier of the house where Mozart composed a few early pieces. He played the piano with the University College chamber orchestra from his joining the college until the end. The Kreutzer sonata was in rehearsal when he fell ill, and he died of heart failure at his home, 180 Mozart Terrace, Ebury Street, on 21 March 2008. He was cremated at Putney Vale crematorium. Memorial meetings were held at the British School at Athens on 29 March 2008 (originally planned as a symposium to mark his eightieth birthday) and at St Mary's, Bourne Street, on 17 April. He was survived by his wife, Nicola.
Daily Telegraph (4 April 2008) · The Times (9 April 2008) · The Independent (15 April 2008) · The Guardian (4 July 2008) · PBA, 166 (2010), 10316 · WW (2008) · personal knowledge (2012) · private information (2012) [Nicola Coldstream, widow] · m. cert. · d. cert.
British School at Athens
photograph, c.1950, repro. in The Guardian (4 July 2008) · photograph, c.1985, repro. in PBA, 103 · photograph, c.1991, repro. in Klados: essays in honour of J. N. Coldstream (1995), ix
Wealth at death
£219,699: probate, 25 June 2008, CGPLA Eng. & Wales