Skip to main content


Remembering Dr Joan Oates FBA (1928–2023)

Joan Oates in Shanidar Cave in Iraqi Kurdistan in 2011, Photo credit Graeme Barker

Joan Louise Lines was born on 6 May 1928 in Watertown, upstate New York to Harold Lines, a businessman, and his wife Beatrice, a teacher. After attending Nottingham High School in Syracuse, NY and graduating with a degree in Chemistry and Social Anthropology from Syracuse University in 1950, Joan arrived at Girton as a Fulbright Scholar, at a time when the USA–UK postgraduate exchange scheme was still in its infancy. She used this opportunity to travel widely, and not only in the UK. 

Still to settle on her PhD thesis topic, Joan spent her first year working under the supervision of Dorothy Garrod (1892–1968), Cambridge’s first female professor, whom she greatly liked. However, she discovered that her real interest was in neolithic rather than palaeolithic archaeology. Accordingly, Garrod referred her to Max Mallowan (1904–1978), professor of Western Asiatic Archaeology at University College, London, who encouraged her to visit the British School of Archaeology in Baghdad, where he was Director, so that she could have a base from which to study the collections of the Iraq Museum. The British School was based in a house in the diplomatic district of Karradet Mariam, which contained an extensive library, a guest house, and the Director’s residence. From there, Mallowan spent long excavation seasons at Nimrud each spring, living under canvas with his wife, Agatha Christie, who assisted with cleaning and recording finds and helped to fund his digs. Joan joined the excavation team, becoming firm friends with the couple. She would accompany Agatha on her shopping trips to the suq for rugs, copper bowls and antique furniture inlaid with mother of pearl to furnish the house on the banks of the Tigris, and she would barter in Arabic. 

Joan later found herself immortalised as the bright-eyed, red-headed Sally Finch in Christie’s 1955 Poirot novel Hickory Dickory Dock: an American student in London on a Fulbright Scholarship, who is shrewd, practical and observant, and studying at ‘the Institute’ (presumably UCL’s Institute of Archaeology). Mallowan soon invited Joan (‘the cynosure of every young archaeologist’s eye’, he later reported) to travel with his party to Nimrud via Mosul, bumping along the rough roads of the Nineveh plain in buses carrying with them their bedrolls wrapped in colourful jajims from the suq, which doubled as quilts, and which they slept under snugly during the freezing nights, after stiflingly hot days. Agatha ensured that the team were fed extremely well, even on digs, somehow arranging for the field cooks to produce such delights as hot chocolate soufflés topped with thick water buffalo cream, well remembered by Joan in old age… as were the taxis which Agatha arranged for her and others when the bus suspension proved to be too much. 

In later life, Joan described this area as ‘an extraordinarily beautiful place… on a clear spring day one could see on the horizon the high, snow-covered mountains of Kurdistan, and herds of gazelle still roamed the fields below the Tell – truly a landscape of great interest.’ She greatly regretted the loss in the twenty-first century of the mounds of wild tulips, poppies, irises and anemones which had covered the fields at Nimrud in the 1950s. Joan was awarded her doctorate in 1954, and she returned to the USA, where she served as Assistant Curator in the Department of Near Eastern Antiquities at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, from 1954 to 1956, while continuing to spend time with the Mallowans at Nimrud each year. She combined this with learning Akkadian (the language of ancient Mesopotamia with its cuneiform script) at Yale. It was during this time that she met David Oates (b. 1927), a young archaeology fellow of Trinity College and a regular on the dig team from the spring of 1955. They married, and made a home in Barton village, just outside Cambridge, dividing their time between there and Iraq. In the early years of their marriage Joan and David excavated the Hellenistic levels of Nimrud together, as well as the Roman remains and Sassanian camp at Ain Sinu, near Sinjar, and at Choga Mami, her first sole-directed excavation. In 1959, twins arrived – Jenny (who sadly predeceased her mother) and Tom – and in 1961, Susan. 

After a short spell in Istanbul, David became field director under Mallowan at Nimrud from 1958 to 1962, and then joint director of the British School back in Baghdad from 1964. Joan described this period of her life as that of a ‘dutiful wife’, but she was much more than that. During the late 1950s and the 1960s she spent her time in the field drawing what she called ‘the boring stuff’, namely potsherds, in between caring for the children, and in the process became by stealth the foremost expert in the world on the main artefacts used to date the sites and identify the ancient inhabitants of upper Mesopotamia. Her knowledge of MiddleEastern ceramics, whose fragments littered the ground at the Oateses’ main site at Tell Al-Rimah in Iraq, was unrivalled. Obtaining research funding was an ever-present problem, and so it must have helped a little that Joan was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship in 1966–67. Days off in the field during that idyllic period were spent picnicking in Kurdistan, snorkelling, painting and watching the glittering bee-eaters and rollers of the region as they flew overhead. But ‘if you want a hot bath every night,’ she advised, ‘don’t become an archaeologist’.

Then, with the outbreak of the Six-Day War in 1967, Joan and her family faced real danger. Warned by the British authorities to leave, they turned down an Embassy request to head up a convoy out of the country, and instead stayed put, reassured by Iraqi cultural contacts and friendly neighbours who brought them strawberries – a rare fruit – as a gesture of peace. A year later, though, the public executions which followed the Baath party coup led by Saddam Hussein forced Joan and David to rethink when decapitated heads and bodies went on display in a square near their home, ‘and we had to make detours so the children wouldn’t see them’. They returned to Cambridge in haste, wondering when they would ever be able to make it back. Joan had loved her ‘extraordinary life’ in Iraq in the 1950s and 1960s, and in a lecture given in 2013 at the British Institute for Iraq at its London base, she made clear what a privilege it had been to dig at Nimrud; she much regretted that newer generations would not have that experience. 

In 1969 David, still at Trinity, was made Director of the Institute of Archaeology in London, like Max Mallowan before him, while in 1971 Joan, at the age of 43, was happily appointed to Girton as an Official Fellow, Tutor and Director of Studies in both Oriental Studies and Archaeology. By 1976, their attention was turning to Tell Brak (Nagar) in Syria and the couple worked there over fourteen seasons to 1993. Excavations had begun under Mallowan in the late 1930s, but the Oateses made it their own and Joan’s interest in it continued to the end of her active life. Over decades, the excavations at Tell Brak, undertaken with extensive local and overseas teams, revealed it to be one of the earliest urban civilisations in the world, comparable with Ur in lower Mesopotamia. Joan’s research was ground-breaking, both literally and figuratively, as her dating of pottery found at the site enabled her to push its origins back by 1000 years to the late-fourth/early-fifth millennium BCE. She also identified a previously unknown stage in the development of writing, uncovering two clay tablets at Tell Brak using pictographs of animals and numbers. From 1984 to 1989 Joan became a Senior Research Fellow in College to allow her to spend more time in the field, and in 1989 she was finally appointed to a University Lectureship in the History and Archaeology of the Ancient Near East. In 1988 she was a Visiting Scholar at the Smithsonian in Washington DC and in 1991 was awarded the Arents Award by Syracuse University, bestowed only on the most distinguished alumni who have made the most extraordinary achievements in their field. 

Joan is remembered at Girton as an inspiring teacher and interesting colleague. The Lawrence Room benefited from her gift of a group of eye idols and other objects from pre-war excavations at Tell Brak. Her personal experience of coming to study at Cambridge from outside the UK made her particularly aware of potential problems faced by those from overseas. She was modest about her academic achievements, and few were aware of her other life. 

On Joan’s retirement in 1995, she became a Life Fellow at Girton and a Senior Fellow at the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research in the University. This merely gave her more time for Tell Brak and especially for work on its publication. Many of her books were written jointly with David: The Rise of Civilisation (1976), Nimrud: An Assyrian City Revealed (2001), Excavations at Tell al Rimah: the pottery (1997), and most notably Excavations at Tell Brak, volumes I and II (1997 and 2001). Her single-authored Babylon (1979) ran into several editions and was translated into many languages. Her jointly-edited 2002 Festschrift for David’s 75th birthday was wryly entitled Of Pots and Plans: Papers on the Archaeology and History of Mesopotamia and Syria. Her own Festschrift, Preludes to Urbanism: in Honour of Joan Oates, ed. A. McMahon and H. Crawford (2014), arose from an international meeting the editors organised at the McDonald Institute in 2008 to celebrate her 80th birthday (and 57th year in archaeology). In addition, Joan published over 120 academic journal articles and book chapters; and was editor of World Archaeology and executive editor and subsequently Chair of the Board of Directors of Antiquity. 

Joan was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 2004, and ten years later was awarded its Grahame Clark Medal for Prehistoric Archaeology ‘to recognise her reputation as one of the leading authorities on Mesopotamian prehistory as well as her fundamental contributions to our understanding of ancient Near Eastern Civilisation’. When David died in 2004 Joan took over as sole Excavation Director at Tell Brak. Her last visit there was aged nearly 84 when she slept as usual under canvas at night, her sharp eyes still casting around for interesting finds or outlines on the hillsides during the day. ’The most important things in my life have all seemed to be just a series of coincidences’, she reflected modestly in 2010, ‘falling on my feet, as it were’.

Photograph: Joan Oates in Shanidar Cave in Iraqi Kurdistan in 2011, credit Graeme Barker.

This obituary was originally published in The Year 2022-23.