Jill Braithwaite established a European reputation in archaeology for her study and interpretation of Roman face pots. Before she started her research, these strange pots had turned up singly or in very small groups throughout the Roman Empire but, with a few exceptions, they had remained isolated and uninterpreted finds. After 15 years of research, Braithwaite had reduced thousands of decorated single sherds and isolated pots to a sensible typology, instilled into the groups and styles a chronology, and begun the work of interpretation of material which stretched from the Black Sea to Spain and the Mediterranean to Scotland.
One criticism of Roman pottery, often heard, is that it is all the same – mass produced for an insensitive market. Face pots totally refute this since few, if any, were made in moulds; instead, potters started off with an ordinary pot and added, or subtracted, clay to form a face on one side with little to guide them other than tradition, local style or pure invention. Eyebrows frown or question, beards bristle or flow and tongues loll lasciviously from open mouths.
A first question to be answered was how such an unusual form of decoration spread so widely, and quite quickly, throughout the empire. Here Braithwaite was able to show a clear link with the movements of the Roman army. As known units moved from province to province, linked face pots appeared in regions where they had never been seen before.
The meaning of the faces defied a single explanation though the fact that many examples turned up as complete pots strongly suggested that they accompanied or sometimes contained the remains of human cremations and were buried safely in cemeteries. One strand of the tradition clearly came from jugs and pots in north Italy that represented Charon, a further link to death and burial, and Braithwaite was able to trace the fashion as it crossed the Alps to the Danube and spread in modified form with army movements along that river route.
Other interpretations were still being explored. Her particular interest just before her death was the way in which styles of face pots did not disappear from areas as units of the army left, but lingered on in what seem to be civilian settlements. This suggested to her that soldiers took the fashion or religious element with them into retirement whence their descendants took them back into the army – but that idea now needs attention from other specialists.
Braithwaite’s work as an archaeologist came later in life. Born Gillian Robinson in 1937, she had studied languages at Westfield College, London University before joining the Foreign Office in 1959. Her career was soon cut short by marriage to the young diplomat Rodric Braithwaite, and the responsibilities of bringing up a family. But after her children could look after themselves, she followed up an old interest and did a second undergraduate degree, in archaeology, at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London.
It was during a lecture on Roman pottery that the next phase of herlife began. She woke up from a short nap (the lecture being straight after lunch) to be confronted by an enormous grotesque face leering at her. In fact, it was a slide of a typical Roman face pot, with villainous expression. When I failed to provide details of the origin, distribution and meaning of this form of decoration, and after checking in the library that this was not simply one of my blind spots, Braithwaite decided that the matter needed to be sorted out.
She started a dissertation on the British aspects of the subject, which was almost immediately published in the prestigious journal of Roman Britain, Britannia – not unknown for undergraduate dissertations, but very unusual – and gained a first class degree. This left her free to look at the question empire wide and she undertook a PhD. Her thesis was published in 2007 as Faces from the Past.
Braithwaite managed to keep her research going as she accompanied her husband on his postings, but Moscow from 1988 to 1992, when he was ambassador there, pulled her in other directions as she made many friends in different areas of Russia, and got drawn into the political events – including demonstrating at the barricades in support of Boris Yeltsin during the attempted coup of 1991. Her work on behalf of her Russian friends continued when she was back in England, and she helped found the Russian European Trust for Welfare Reform in 1993.
Braithwaite’s academic research used all her abilities – languages, charming but firm persuasion, a love of travel, a graceful presence (which reassured many anxious museum curators), and a very keen mind that reduced complicated and intricate subjects to order. She was always fun to be with; her death leaves not only her family and friends, but several separate worlds, the poorer.
Gillian Mary Robinson, archaeologist: born London 15 September 1937; married 1961 Rodric Braithwaite (three sons, one daughter, and one son deceased); died London 10 November 2008.