Tuesday, 3 July 2018

In Memoriam, Gordon Hillman (1943-2018)


It’s with great sadness we bring you the news that Gordon Hillman died on Sunday 1st July. He is survived by his daughter Thilaka, and three Grandsons. Gordon Hillman was a pivotal figure in the development of archaeobotany at the Institute of Archaeology, and through his research, publication and teaching he had a major influence on the direction of the field worldwide, especially with regards to the origins of plant domestication in the Near East and late hunter-gatherer economies.

Gordon Hillman joined the Institute of Archaeology as a research associate in 1981 funded by the UK Science and Engineering Research Council and then became a full-time lecturer in a new archaeobotany post from 1983. David Harris was then Professor of Human Environment, and together they launched a MSc in Bioarchaeology at that time which offered intensive practical training in archaeobotany in alternate years. A generation of professional archaeobotanists, both in commercial archaeology and international academic posts, began their careers through this degree. This degree laid the foundations for the current MSc in Environmental Archaeology.

Gordon Hillman carrying out experimental paddle
 harvesting of wild einkorn wheat in Wales, ca. 1980

Gordon's ground-breaking career in Archaeobotany began in 1969, with a year of training in Mainz, Germany with Dr. Maria Hopf, who at that time was studying plant remains from Jericho. Gordon subsequently, and for nearly five years lived in Turkey carrying out ethnobotanical research, building up a seed reference collection and carrying out flotation at various excavations of the British Institute of Archaeology in Ankara, such as at the sites of Can Hassan III and Asvan. This period was critical in Gordon’s pioneering of a ethnoarchaeological approach to archaeobotanical assemblage formation through the study of traditional crop-processing. It was also the period when much of the core seed reference collection was put together for both the BIAA and the Institute of Archaeology. It was also in this period that he came to the attention of Andrew Moore who was embarking on rescue excavations in northern Syria at Tell Abu Hureyra, which was to prove a seminal research project for Gordon, providing insights into broad spectrum wild plant use in the Late Pleistocene, plausible evidence for early pre-domestication cultivation and the nature of early integrated agro-pastoral economies.
George Willcox and Gordon Hillman examining fieldweeds near Asvan in central Turkey, ca. 1977

Gordon Hillman retired from UCL as Reader in Archaeobotany in 1998, but continued his research, especially on potential wild plants collected and processed by hunter-gatherers, as an Honorary Visiting Professor at UCL. Part of this work inspired the BBC program Wild Foods in which he appeared alongside Ray Mears, gathering and processing various plant foods in Britain, in France, and in Australia with aborigines. The program also produced a colourful book Wild Foods (2007). Gordon continued to work on a comprehensive compilation of wild plant foods of Britain up until his death. As this monumental research effort, drawing on a lifetime of teaching, research, and experimentation, remains a work in progress, an effort is being made to bring out his observations on a plant-by-plant basis on the Wild Plant Foods of Britain blog. For a list of Gordon's many publications (upto 2008), see here. A volume of studies in honour of Gordon Hillman was published in 2009

Gordon photographing flowers during the IWGP
excursion near Girona, Spain (2004)

Gordon was an inspiration to his students, his colleagues, and well beyond through his publications and TV appearances. He was always a thoughtful, provocative and supportive senior colleague that will be dearly missed. I always had much learn at his feet.

Several excellent obituaries have been published in major newspapers and journals, including The Guardian,
The Telegraph,
The Times, and Nature PlantsThe University of Reading has a more Reading-focused account.


Do please add you memories and comments on Gordon Hillman as comments to this blog.


Gordon Hillman, Mary Anne Murray, David Harris, and Sue Colledge,
 in office 311, UCL Institute of Archaeology 1998/99

Ehud Weiss, Ramon Buxo, Ahmed Fahmy and Gordon Hillman, in Girona
during  the 2004 International Work Group for Palaeoethnobotany
Dorian Fuller, Gordon Hillman, George Willcox in Girona at the I.W.G.P. 2004

This photo (below) was found dusty in the back of drawer in the UCL archaeobotany lab. I never got to ask Gordon about it,but I think it is from an early I.W.G.P., in Budapest(?), 1969 or 1971(?). A young Gordon Hillman is in the Middle; also pictured Heather Jarmon (left) and Prof Schulz-Motel (right).


A picnic in Pevensey, Marsh, 2009: Andy Fairbairn, Dorian Fuller, Gordon Hillman, Ehud Weiss
Receiving instruction from Gordon Hillman on the art of acorn processing (June 2010)
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