Sir John Boardman obituary

<span>John Boardman at Alnwick Castle, Northumberland, in 2011</span><span>Photograph: Wagner</span>
John Boardman at Alnwick Castle, Northumberland, in 2011Photograph: Wagner

As a student, John Boardman, who has died aged 96, was able to recite by heart texts in Attic Greek, the form of the language used in ancient Athens. But while studying classics at Magdalene College, Cambridge, he encountered two archaeologists whose work encouraged him to apply that flair to the study of classical objects: Charles Seltman showed him coins, and Robert Cook vases.

To these he added carved gems, sculpture and architecture, on all of which he became a leading authority, and the author of more than 30 books.

On graduating in 1948, he took Cook’s advice not to study for a doctorate, but to go to Greece and do some research there. At the British School in Athens for the next two years, as well as travelling to destinations including Crete and Smyrna, he worked in the depths of the Athens National Museum on vases from the island of Euboea (the modern Evvia).

The diagnostic pot shape that he identified enabled later archaeologists and historians to track the paths of Greeks and Greek culture to the east – Al Mina in Syria – and the west – Pithecusae, today’s Ischia, in the gulf of Naples – and at many points between.

The Greek islands and the diaspora around the Mediterranean came to be recurring themes in Boardman’s work. In 1964 he published two books, The Greeks Overseas: Their Early Colonies and Trade, and Greek Art, both of which went on to further editions.

On his first visit to Greece he met Sheila Stanford, an artist, and after he had completed his national service in the Intelligence Corps (1950-52) they married in Britain. He then returned to the British School as assistant director (1952-55), and was given his own dig, on the island of Chios.

His party of excavators and helpers there included Michael Ventris, the architect who shortly aftewards announced his decipherment of the Linear B syllabic script as an early form of the Greek language, and Dilys Powell, the eventual film critic of the Sunday Times.

Back in Britain, Boardman served as an assistant keeper at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford (1955-59). Its Cast Gallery, containing plaster casts of some 900 Greek and Roman sculptures, became his preferred academic home base, and he published a catalogue of its Cretan collection (1961).

Working on another, private, collection of art objects in the 1990s gave him ideas about world art, its interconnections and aims. This led him to distinguish three main “belts”: a northern one, running from Siberia to North America, where nomads favoured small items, often depicting animals; an urban one, from China to central America, more given to monumental architecture; and a tropical one characterised by human forms, notably of ancestors. He explored these ideas in The World of Ancient Art (2006).

Other publications included Greek Gems and Finger Rings (1970); handbooks on Athenian black-figure and red-figure vases (1974 and 1975); a lecture series given at the National Gallery of Art in Washington and published as The Diffusion of Classical Art in Antiquity (1994); Persia and the West (2000); The Archaeology of Nostalgia: How the Greeks Re-created Their Mythical Past (2002); numerous catalogues, particularly of gem collections, including the royal one at Windsor Castle; and excavation reports from Chios and from Tocra, in Libya.

After the Ashmolean appointment came university posts at Oxford, as reader in classical archaeology (1959-78) and then Lincoln professor of classical archaeology and art (1978-94). As professor emeritus, he continued to work from offices first in the Ashmolean and subsequently the classics faculty’s Ioannou Centre.

In 2020 he produced his autobiography, A Classical Archaeologist’s Life: The Story So Far. The last of its three parts focuses on a field of “minor” art that he showed could be anything but: Greek and Roman gems and finger rings. Called simply “Gems, Bob and Claudia”, it details the work that Boardman did first with the photographer Bob Wilkins and later the curator of the Beazley Archive, in Oxford, Claudia Wagner. With her he co-authored Masterpieces in Miniature: Engraved Gems from Prehistory to the Present (2018).

Born in Ilford, Essex, John was the son of Clara (nee Wells), who had been a milliner’s assistant, and Arch (Frederick) Boardman, a clerk in the City. The family was not academic, but John was impressed by what he saw at the Victoria and Albert Museum and the British Museum when he visited them with his father, who died when John was 11.

While at Chigwell school, John experienced second world war aerial bombardment, of which he later had vivid memories. He found the study of Greek to be “magical”, and the school’s headteacher encouraged him to apply for a scholarship at his former Cambridge college.

Though his own career developed at a time when a doctorate was not obligatory, Boardman went on to supervise vast numbers of graduate students, scattered over several continents. He had an extraordinarily acute and retentive visual memory, was prodigiously efficient and well organised in his teaching – his lectures on Greek architecture and sculpture were a revelation – as in his research and writing, and welcomed the assistance provided by digital technology.

I first met him in his Ashmolean office, in 1969, keen for him to be my doctoral supervisor. Almost the first word he uttered was “Sparta”: not long before, he had published an account vastly improving on previous understanding of the sand, earth and relative dating of the artefacts found at the Artemis Orthia sanctuary site there. Like many others, I appreciated his meticulous standards of archaeological observation and historical interpretation.

Boardman once wrote that he felt more at home intellectually outside Oxford, indeed outside Britain, and he was involved with and recognised by institutions in Ireland, mainland Europe, the US and Australia. For almost three decades he was on the board of the Basel-based Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae (1972-99).

His activities in Britain were still considerable. He edited the Journal of Hellenic Studies (1958-65) and was a delegate of the Oxford University Press (1979-89). At the Royal Academy in London from 1989 onwards he occupied what had originally been Edward Gibbon’s seat of professor of ancient history. He was made a fellow of the British Academy in 1969, and knighted in 1986.

While ready to express a view in serious academic controversies he was resolutely apolitical. Nonetheless, he took the view that Lord Elgin’s dubiously acquired collection of sculptures from the Parthenon and other structures in Athens purchased by the UK in 1816 should remain in its entirety under the curation of the British Museum Trustees.

He received a lot of support from the publishers Thames & Hudson, and his very last publication came in the month of his death, in their Pocket Perspectives series. John Boardman on the Parthenon is a lightly illustrated repackaging of the lively text he had composed to accompany the black and white photographs of David Finn in the same publisher’s The Parthenon and Its Sculptures (1985).

Sheila died in 2005. He is survived by their children, Julia and Mark.

• John Boardman, archaeologist and classical art historian, born 20 August 1927; died 23 May 2024