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Frere, Sheppard Sunderlandlocked

  • Michael G. Fulford

Frere, Sheppard Sunderland (1916–2015), archaeologist and historian, was born on 23 August 1916 at Withy Cottage, Graffham, near Midhurst, Sussex, the eldest of three sons of Noel Gray Frere (1885–1955), colonial civil servant, and his wife, Agnes Barbara, née Sunderland (1884–1986). His father served as a district commissioner, and later a provincial commissioner, in Sierra Leone.

Frere was educated at Lancing College, where his passion for archaeology was nurtured, and Magdalene College, Cambridge, where, in the absence of undergraduate degrees in archaeology, he read classics. After graduating in 1938 he accepted a teaching position in classics at Epsom College. The holidays gave ample opportunity for him to engage in archaeological activity, learning the techniques of excavation from two very experienced archaeologists: Gerhard Bersu, former director of the German Archaeological Institute (expelled by the Nazis in 1935), at the Iron Age settlement at Little Woodbury in 1938; and Kathleen Kenyon, at the Iron Age hillfort at the Wrekin in 1939. He also excavated locally, at an Iron Age site at Carshalton, Surrey, and, in his home county, a Romano-British village at Needham, Norfolk. Following the outbreak of the Second World War, he joined the National Fire Service in London (1940–4) but continued to excavate, mostly in Surrey, in his free time. The quality of his work contributed to his being elected a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries in 1944 at the age of twenty-eight.

After the war, Frere returned to teaching, at Lancing College (1945–54), where he taught ancient history to sixth form pupils and, outside the classroom, took charge of cross-country running and swimming. At the same time he took up an appointment (unpaid) as director of excavations in bomb-damaged Canterbury, a post he retained until 1960, spending six to ten weeks a year excavating on a total of twenty-four separate bombed sites in advance of their development. This work contributed enormously to knowledge of the origins and development of the city through to the later medieval period: notably, an extensive late Iron Age settlement; a Roman bath house, theatre, town houses, elements of the street system, and defences; and, from the early medieval period, Anglo-Frisian pottery and Anglo-Saxon sunken-floored structures.

The Canterbury excavations provided the context for translation into academia. In 1955, a year after he had been appointed as a lecturer in archaeology at Manchester University, Frere took up the post of reader in the archaeology of the Roman provinces at the Institute of Archaeology, University of London. The same year saw the start of a seven-year dig in the heart of the Roman city of Verulamium, near St Albans, excavations in advance of a road-widening scheme, which were to set new standards in their execution and recording. Frere pioneered open-area excavation over the grid-system developed by Mortimer Wheeler, and this approach was subsequently widely developed in urban archaeology in Britain. As had been the case with Canterbury, where publication of his excavations was not completed until the mid-1990s, there was no public funding for the post-excavation research necessary to achieve publication. This took time, inviting attack from Sir Mortimer Wheeler, who described Frere as ‘probably the world’s champion non-publisher’ (Antiquity, 42, 1968, 295). The first volume reporting the Verulamium excavations was finally published in 1972. It meticulously documented and dated the sequence of buildings occupying the street frontage of Insula XIV, the highlight of which was the reporting of the phase-by-phase development over more than a century of a block of shops built in timber, their remains so much more difficult to trace than those of masonry structures, particularly in an urban context.

Giving sites chronology through the careful disentangling and dating of the stratigraphic sequence represented the essence of Frere’s approach, and his work at Canterbury and Verulamium was of enduring value. His urban work also took him to the Roman small town at Dorchester-on-Thames (1963), also revealing important evidence of the Anglo-Saxon period, and, in the countryside, to the Roman villa at Bignor, Sussex (1956–62), a site justly famous for its polychrome mosaics since its discovery in 1811 but lacking a history of its development, which Frere’s work provided.

Frere’s time at London, where he was promoted professor in 1963, saw the completion of his Britannia: A History of Roman Britain, which was published a year after his election to the professorship of the archaeology of the Roman empire and fellowship of All Souls College, Oxford, in 1966. Frere’s Britannia was the first full-length survey of Roman Britain since R. G. Collingwood and J. N. L. Myres’s Roman Britain and the English Settlements (1936), and it rapidly became the standard history of its subject, the third edition (in 1987) still attracting glowing reviews. Its fourth edition was published in 1999.

At Oxford, Frere continued to work on the publication of his excavations at Verulamium, with his Verulamium II and III documenting the development of several town houses, particularly in Insulae XXVII and XXVIII, including the transition to masonry from building in timber, published in 1983 and 1984. He also energetically engaged on further projects. Foremost among these was the beginning, from 1966 and extending over twenty years, of a series of excavations into the history of the Roman conquest of Britain and its military settlement: first at Bowes, County Durham, on the Stainmore Pass, with Brian Hartley (1966–7 and 1970), but more importantly at Longthorpe, near Peterborough, where, over six seasons with Kenneth St Joseph (1967–71 and 1973), he excavated the remains of the legionary fortress, dating to the conquest period of the late ad 40s and 50s, and of the later auxiliary fort. Similarly substantial were the excavations, extending over fourteen seasons, latterly directed by John Wilkes, of an auxiliary fort at Strageath, Perthshire. These demonstrated how the fort responded to different military units from its initial foundation during the campaigns of the governor Agricola (ad 78–84) through to its rebuilding (twice) during the re-occupation of lowland Scotland by Emperor Antoninus Pius (ad 140–60). His final ‘military’ project was the excavation of a fort occupied in the ad 50s and 60s within the Iron Age hillfort at Brandon Camp, Herefordshire (1981–5), promptly published in 1987. Publication of the earlier Bowes work, however, was not achieved until 2009, following Hartley’s death.

Frere was the driving force behind the foundation in 1970 of Britannia, immediately established as the national journal for ‘Romano-British archaeology and kindred studies’ and published by the Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies. In 1982 he became one of the three founding editors of the Oxford Journal of Archaeology. His final year at Oxford saw the publication, jointly with St Joseph, of Roman Britain from the Air (1983).

Retirement saw the completion of Frere’s service as a member of the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments (England) (1966–83) and, previously, of the Ancient Monuments Board (1966–82). His retirement from the latter coincided with the government’s decision to pass the care of heritage from direct government control to an arms-length body, English Heritage, a decision which Frere saw as ‘one of the great and unforgiveable political misjudgements of Michael Heseltine [secretary of state at the Department of the Environment] to abdicate the State’s responsibility for Ancient Monuments’ ( History & Archaeology Review, 3, 1988, 34).

As a member of the Ancient Monuments Board, Frere had chaired the committee which produced the influential Principles of Publication in Rescue Archaeology (1975), subsequently known as the ‘Frere report’, which was designed to address the problem of the increasing costs of archaeological publication, largely brought about by the growth of specialisms such as the various branches of scientific archaeology, and their impact on the length of reports, as well as to achieve a balance between the presentation of primary evidence and its interpretation. While recognizing the need to make all the information available through archives and use of microfiche, the report recommended that printed publication should be limited to the interpretive synthesis. The problem of finding the balance between the publication of evidence and interpretation remained a knotty one, with increasing resort to digital media in support of printed publication.

Besides co-authoring with Frank Lepper a major study of Trajan’s Column, Trajan’s Column: a New Edition of the Cichorius Plates: Introduction, Commentary and Notes (1988), a major project which occupied Frere in retirement was the publication of the non-monumental inscriptions from Roman Britain—i.e., those inscribed on material other than stone. Between the late 1980s and 1995 eight fascicules constituting volume two of Roman Inscriptions of Britain were completed and published. As his collaborator Roger Tomlin commented: ‘if Sheppard had been less modest, he might have declared, like the Duke of Wellington, that it would not have been done if he had not been there’ ( Britannia, 46, 2015, 7).

Frere was elected to the presidency of various societies: the Oxford Architectural and Historical Society (1972–80), the Royal Archaeological Institute (1978–81), and the Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies (1983–6). He was elected a fellow of the British Academy in 1971, appointed CBE in 1976, and given the gold medal of the Society of Antiquaries of London in 1989.

Frere was a private individual of great humanity and warmth. Intolerant of shoddy work, above all of poor English, he was nevertheless held in great affection for the advice and support he gave to his students and his peers and much admired for the magnitude of his contribution to the study of Roman Britain and his uncompromising passion for the care of Britain’s heritage.

Frere had on 3 July 1961 married Janet Cecily (b. 1930), architect and daughter of Edward Graham Hoare, civil engineer. They had a daughter, Sarah (b. 1962), and a son, Bartle (b. 1963). From 1966 the family lived at Netherfield House, Marcham, near Abingdon, Oxfordshire, where he died of pneumonia on 26 February 2015. He was survived by his wife and children and was buried in the churchyard of All Saints, Marcham.


  • S. Frere, ‘Roman archaeology at the Institute: the early years’, Archaeology International, 6 (2002), 10–13
  • R. J. A. Wilson, ed., Romanitas: essays on Roman archaeology in honour of Shepperd Frere on the occasion of his ninetieth birthday (2006)
  • The Times (9 March 2015); (8 April 2015)
  • Daily Telegraph (13 March 2015)
  • The Guardian (13 March 2015)
  • Oxford Mail (19 March 2015)
  • M. Fulford, tribute, Oxford Journal of Archaeology, 34/3 (2015), 205–6,
  • M. Fulford, appreciation, Antiquity website,, accessed 5 July 2018
  • R. J. A. Wilson, Cambridge University Press, 968–73,, accessed 5 July 2018
  • R. J. A. Wilson, Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the British Academy, 15 (2016), 247–76
  • J. Wilkes, obituary, 14–15
  • WW (2015)
  • personal knowledge (2019)
  • private information (2019)


  • H. Todd, photograph, with Gloria Geeve and Laura Geeve, 1952, Hult. Arch./Getty Images
  • photograph, 1955, repro. in Archaeology International, 6 (2002), 10
  • photograph, with Mortimer Wheeler, 1958, repro. in Archaeology International, 6 (2002), 10–13 (11)
  • J. Frere, photograph, 1961, repro. in Britannia 46 (2015), 1–13 (3)
  • F. Grew, photograph, 1980, repro. in Britannia 46 (2015), 1–13 (8)
  • obituary photographs
birth certificate
death certificate
marriage certificate