Memorial event for Geoff Egan

Published: 9 years ago Author:

Geoff in his Guild regaliaThere will be a memorial event for Geoff Egan from 2 to 5.30 pm on 24 March in the BP lecture theatre in the Clore Education centre at the British Museum when Geoff's friends and colleagues will contribute their memories, followed by a party. Speakers include John Cherry of the Finds Research Group and formerly of the British Museum, Hazel Forsyth of the Museum of London, Gus Milne of the Institute of Archaeology, Paul Courtney of the Society for Post-Medieval Archaeology, a representative of the mudlarks and Mark Bridge of the Company of Arts Scholars. All are welcome. Admission is free but booking is required; please contact ccostin@britishmuseum.org

The following is the text of the address that Roger Bland gave at Geoff's funeral on the 14th January:

Graham has asked me to say a few words on Geoff as a professional colleague, but I am very conscious that there are many people here - colleagues from the Museum of London, from the other organisations with which he was involved, representatives of the mudlarks - who have known him for much longer than me.

So I will talk mainly about my own knowledge of Geoff since he first came to work for PAS in 2004, at first on a part-time basis on secondment from the Museum of London, and then full-time since last July when we were able to create a full-time post for him at the British Museum. It might be a cliché to say this, but in Geoff's case it is literally true: he leaves a gap that cannot be filled. We created a post for him at the British Museum because of his immense knowledge of medieval and post-medieval finds, and we do not think that we will be able to replace him.

I'm not an expert in Geoff's field but when I came to set up the network of staff in the Portable Antiquities Scheme in the late 1990s more and more people told me about this legendary character at the Museum of London Archaeology Service who had pioneered liaison with the people who search for finds on the Thames foreshore - the mudlarks - in the 1970s and who knew all there was to know about small finds from London. The mudlarks have retrieved a fascinating trove of metal artefacts lost by generations of Londoners on the banks of the Thames and Geoff was one of the first archaeologists to recognise the importance of what they were finding and actively to seek their co-operation. I learned from Graham that he and Geoff had done some mudlarking themselves, many years ago. Geoff's approach has undoubtedly paid off.

Together with his colleague Hazel Forsyth, Geoff published the collection of Toys, Trifles and Trinkets that Tony Pilson donated to the Museum of London. This pioneering work studied a class of artefact (children's metal toys from 1200 to 1800) that had not been recognised by archaeologists before the discoveries of the mudlarks brought significant numbers of them to light. This book is an excellent example of the collaborative way in which Geoff worked: it was written jointly by himself and his colleague Hazel Forsyth, based on the collection that he had encouraged the mudlark Tony Pilson generously to donate to the Museum and the volume was funded by the late Jonathan Horne, an antiques dealer who was to introduce Geoff to the Guild.

Geoff also played a key part in the great series of catalogues of medieval finds from London excavations, written with colleagues from the Museum of London, and he wrote two of them himself: Dress Accessories and The Medieval Household. He opened our eyes to the significance of cloth seals - the lead seals affixed to textiles sent out in trade from the 14th to the 18th centuries. He appreciated that recording the findspots of these unprepossessing objects can give us much information about the cloth trade, for a long time was the main source of the England's prosperity. His study of these led to a doctorate from the Institute of Archaeology London and also resulted in a publication of a catalogue of seals in the British Museum.

Geoff was a key player in the project to catalogue the unique series of finds from the enigmatic site of Meols on the Wirral coast: the settlement itself has disappeared into the sea (it is thought to have been a beach market) and it is known mainly to us through the finds. The monumental catalogue, written with David Griffiths and Rob Philpott, is another key reference for specialists. Geoff also contributed more than 100 papers and notes to both national and county journals. This would be an extremely impressive body of scholarship for anyone, but even more so for someone who for most of his career was a finds expert at the Museum of London Archaeology Service and who was snatched from us prematurely. There is no doubt that his published work will stand as Geoff's most lasting legacy.

But Geoff did so much more than write books and articles. He was in huge demand as a speaker and he was just as much at home talking to an international conference or to a local society or metal detecting club - in the month before he died he had spoken at an archaeological colloquium in Lubeck and he had also been asked to advise the museum in Gdansk on their collections, while the next week he was back speaking at a metal detecting club in Blackpool. His sheer enthusiasm and knowledge was infectious. When ITN came to us because they were making a series of programmes called Mud Men on finds from the Thames Foreshore, presented by Steve Brooker and Johnnie Vaughan, Steve, an experienced detectorist on the Thames, told the TV people that they needed to engage Geoff's services - he said that as far as mudlarks were concerned Geoff was 'god'. ITN soon realised that Steve was right, even though they sometimes had a bit of a job working with someone who didn't own a mobile phone. The series will be shown on the History Channel next month and will serve as a memorial to Geoff.

In fact I don't think Geoff ever really got to grips with modern technology - computers were scary objects whose ways were a bit of a mystery to him. Although he was a great lecturer PowerPoint was not for him: Geoff preferred to stick to slides if he could, even though slide projectors are beginning to become hard to find. Graham told me how he found a very smart laptop at Geoff's home, but it didn't have a single file on it. And as for e-mails - his battles with the message 'your e-mail inbox is full' were legendary. I think Geoff would really have been more at home with a quill pen and in many ways one could imagine him as an antiquarian gentleman scholar of the 18th century in the tradition of William Stukeley.

Geoff didn't always have a great respect for authority - whether that was Peterhouse College Cambridge, where he took his degree, although he made life-long friends there - or his managers in his professional life. But he loved working with fellow-archaeologists and researchers through societies. He was a founder member of the Finds Research Group in 1982 and served on its committee for 19 years, organising several of its conferences and visits and speaking at more of them. He had been on the council of the Society of Post-Medieval Archaeology since 1982 and served as its President from 2005 to 2008. He also organised conferences for that Society - preferably in faraway places such as the West Indies or Williamsburg, Virginia. Geoff loved travel and built up many friends in European and American museums: he had accompanied the Finds Research Group on a trip to Nuremberg just before he died.

Geoff was an active Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries and a prominent member of the Essay Club and was in demand to speak on new finds at the Society's ballot meetings. But perhaps the organisation which gave Geoff greatest pleasure was the Company of Arts Scholars, Collectors and Dealers, one of the newest of the city guilds. Geoff had just served a term as its master and, although one would not normally associate the term 'sartorial elegance' with Geoff there is a magnificent image on the Guild's website showing Geoff in a suit wearing his chain of office. One of his proudest moments was last summer when members of the guild exercised their right as freemen of the City of London to drive a flock of sheep across London Bridge. I think the verdict of those who witnessed this event was that Geoff had better stick to his day job than look for a new career as a shepherd.

There is so much more that could be said about Geoff as a colleague and a scholar and we are going to hold a memorial event for him in the British Museum on the afternoon of March 24th. We have booked the biggest lecture theatre and I expect that it will be full, because he had so many friends. I hope you will be able to come.

It is hard to think that we here at the funeral of someone who was so recently so full of life.

I think that this passage from that great work of history, Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People is apt here. It was advice given to Edwin, King of Northumbria, by one of his courtiers when the King was considering whether to convert to Christianity:

"This is how the present life of man of earth, King, appears to me, in comparison with that time which is unknown to us. You are sitting feasting with your ealdormen and thegns in winter time; the fire is burning on the hearth in the middle of the hall and all inside is warm, while outside the wintry storms of rain and snow are raging; and a sparrow flies swiftly through the hall. It enters in at one door and quickly flies out through the other. For a few moments it is inside, the storm and wintry tempest cannot touch it, but after the briefest moment of calm, it flits from your sight, out of the wintry storm and into it again. So this life of man appears for a moment; what follows or indeed what went before, we know not at all."

Contact: Roger Bland 0207 3238618

Comments

There are 10 comments on this story.

  • Nicky Powell wrote @ 13:21:14 on the 17th January 2011.

    Dear Roger, this is a lovely address and thanks so much for posting it for those of us who couldn't be at Geoff's funeral. I wouldn't have thought it possible to sum up Geoff, but you've done it beautifully. And it made me smile, as one of those who attempted to manage Geoff and steer him through the mire of IT skills. None of that matters. Ever generous in sharing his vast knowledge and precious time, he's left a body of work that will inform generations to come.

  • Gary Brun wrote @ 14:40:02 on the 17th January 2011.

    Geoff Egan was great man in his feild and will be sadly missed by all. I never met him personaly but his reputation for honesty, fairness and the the sharing of knowledge of his chosen subject was without doubt second to none. My prayer would be that metal detectorists will keep up the work that Geoff strived for.. and remember the work that they all acheived together.

    RIP

  • Peter Twinn wrote @ 15:17:27 on the 17th January 2011.

    Many thanks for posting this Roger, Geoff has left a wonderful legacy not only with the works he wrote, but also through the way he lived; a friend to all, an eye for beautiful objects and an ear willing to learn.

  • Steve brooker THE MUDLARK wrote @ 17:40:54 on the 17th January 2011.

    As roger said............to me and all the other mudlarks "Geoff was a God"!!!...................a brilliant lovable guy indeed !!!

    The day he went through my so called rubbish at one of my p.a.s exhibitions and found five semi important items amonst the shards and parts of artifacts (plus one really important find) it just showed what a genius he was in small finds.

    Then seeing him in thick thames mud and water, wading up to his shins in his work shoes and trousers, as he could'nt be bothered to put his wellies on from out of his rucksack.............even though he had to go to an important dinner party straight away at the tower of london. I said to him "how can you go in looking like that" ? he said "dont worry ive got my suit rolled up in my ruck sack" (thats with his wellies plus god knows what ever else was in there too)

    A suit in that tiny rucksack of geoff's........i hope it was crease resistant...........deep down though.......we all know it was'nt !

    I really will miss him, as will all the thames crew and everytime i have a cloth seal or a jaws harp or part of something up from the 4-shore i'll think of geoff........a truly great man and a major loss to everyone.

  • Wendy Scott wrote @ 08:26:31 on the 18th January 2011.

    Roger, As Nicky says you have done a wonderful job summing up Geoff. He will leave a very big hole in our lives but thanks to his generosity we have all acquired some of his knowledge and thanks to his energy he has written quite a lot of it down. He leaves a very big legacy behind him.

  • Roger White wrote @ 21:25:05 on the 18th January 2011.

    Thanks for the address, Roger - a wonderful summary of an extraordinary and irreplaceable man. I can imagine, though, that he and Alan Vince will be having a fine time of it up there (wherever 'there' is) sorting out all those finds ...

  • Susan Youngs wrote @ 10:18:58 on the 19th January 2011.

    Thank you for this, Roger, hard to put a quart of Geoff's interests into a pint pot, & that conjures up an image of the man himself. He was ebulliantly happy when I met him at the Antiquaries at Christmas, beaming hugs, 'have I missed the champagne?' and great pleasure at his 'proper job' with PAS. The shock waves are still moving out.

    RWs thought of Alan and Geoff in the great storehouse in the sky gleefully sifting finds is a great image.

  • Deb and Bill Klemperer wrote @ 13:06:13 on the 21st January 2011.

    Thank you for putting this online. We apologise if our comment appears twice - we've been unable to read or hear clearly the anti-robot challenges - Geoff would be having a chuckle.

    We still cannot believe that he has gone.

    Roger, your address is marvellous, full of humility and respect - and incredibly moving. We look forward to seeing you all at the gathering/ party/ celebration in March.

  • Matthew Ponting wrote @ 09:45:40 on the 1st February 2011.

    A fitting address for a wonderful scholar and human being. I never knew Geoff as well as I would have liked, but working with him on the Meols material and a couple of other projects was a joy (if a little frustrating on the e-mail front). His depth of knowledge was unparalleled as was his curiosity and, despite his Luddite tendencies, his enthusiasm for scientific methods as a tool in our attempts to learn more about the past was exemplary. I will miss him personnally and our profession will miss him more - he indeed leaves a void that is impossible to fill.

  • Norman Biggs wrote @ 16:38:37 on the 30th May 2011. My comments are very untimely, since I did not learn of Geoff's passing until very recently. I met him first around 1990, through our shared interest in weights. We hit it off straight away, partly I think because we had both attended Harrow County School, although I had long gone before he arrived there. I still have the characteristically detailed notes he wrote me, in the days before the 'Medieval Household' was published. He was kind enough to to share his thoughts with an amateur, and he wrote a preface to our book on the Rogers Collection of Lead Weights, published in 2000. Our paths crossed only occasionally after that, but we exchanged emails early in 2010, when he commented on something I was writing at that time. He was one of nature's gentlemen, and I wish I had known him better!

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