Tribute to Dr John Wilkinson

It is with sadness that we announce the passing of Dr John Wilkinson, former Director of the British School of Archaeology in Jerusalem (BSAJ). We send our deepest sympathies to his wife Mzia.

John was associated with the British School of Archaeology (now the Kenyon Institute, CBRL) for many years, serving as a member of council between 1976 and 1979 and as Director between 1979 and 1984. On behalf of CBRL, John’s Deputy Director at the BSAJ, Denys Pringle, pays tribute:

 “John took up the post of Director of the British School of Archaeology in Jerusalem in 1979, succeeding Dr Crystal-M. Bennett, who had moved to Amman towards the end of the previous year to become Director of the newly established British Institute there.

When John arrived in Jerusalem as director of the BSAJ in August 1979, he found himself the head of an institution with a proud tradition of excavating but with no immediate prospect of being able to mount an excavation, whose principal current research project (apart from the mountains of unpublished archaeological material from previous excavations still requiring attention) was an architectural survey of Islamic buildings, managed and executed largely by architectural historians – and despite his deep knowledge and understanding of Biblical, late Roman and Byzantine Palestine, John was not himself a trained field archaeologist.

John’s own research on Jerusalem and the Holy Land had developed hand-in-hand with his earlier role as Dean of St George’s College, in which a large part of his teaching consisted of explaining the topography, sites and monuments of Palestine to visiting clergy and lay people through lectures and site visits. This work had borne fruit in the form of two major books presenting translations and discussions of all the major Latin and Greek Christian pilgrimage texts relating to the Holy Land up to the time of the First Crusade, and a synthesis of the textual and archaeological evidence relating Jerusalem at the time of Christ. These books were backed up by a series of scholarly papers concerned with specific aspects of the monuments and topography of late Roman Jerusalem, pilgrimage, Holy Land topography, and liturgy. In most of these publications his text was accompanied by his own finely drawn maps, plans and reconstructions.

John’s principal contribution to the School as Director was to focus the attention of staff on research and the publication of its results. He was assiduous in seeking funding for the survey of Islamic buildings and obtained the necessary sponsorship from the World of Islam Festival Trust that allowed the volume on Mamluk buildings to be successfully completed and published under the authorship of Michael H. Burgoyne and Donald S. Richards. He also convinced the BSAJ’s council to increase funding for the library, allowing it to develop into one of the best working libraries in East Jerusalem for the study of Islamic and Crusader history, archaeology and architecture. He was instrumental, along with Professor Jaroslav Folda and Dr Alan Borg, in assisting me, as Assistant-Director, in launching a complementary survey project on the church buildings of the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem; and together with Professor Folda and myself he organized a conference on Crusader art at St George’s College in 1982. He also ran a smaller workshop at the School on the orientation of religious buildings the following year. By the time that he stepped down as Director in October 1984, the School had also become active once again in below-ground archaeology, albeit now in pre-1967 Israel, through the excavation that I was able to direct at the Crusader ‘Red Tower’ (Burj al-Ahmar) in summer 1983.

John’s own research during his period as Director between August 1979 and October 1984 focused mainly on completing his doctoral thesis on ‘Interpretations of Church Buildings before 750’, which he successfully defended at the Courtauld Institute, University of London, in 1982. Despite being incapacitated for a while by a stroke, he also found time to complete a study of the column capitals of the Haram al-Sharif and another book of translations of pilgrim texts, covering the twelfth century.

After returning to London, John became involved in the 1990s in the state of academic life in Georgia following the civil war and, in 2000, founded the friends of Academic Research in Georgia (FaRiG).

John’s love and enthusiasm for Jerusalem continued through his life and infected all who met him. Despite having no archaeological training as such, his work is an object lesson for excavators of what a rigorous analysis of the documentary evidence combined with acute observation of the surviving monuments can contribute to archaeological knowledge and understanding.”

Denys Pringle, February 2018

The funeral service will be at Christ Church, Victoria Road, Kensington, London W8 5RQ, on Friday 16 February at 2 pm followed by tea in the church.

Read other news