A British archaeologist tells me about gems and about life

Oxford University's John Boardman shares his life as an art historian and archeologist. He leads a dual life. One as a discoverer, tracking down gems and bronze. And a more relaxed one, reading books in his library.
Written by Boonsri Dickinson, Contributing Editor on

As I was leaving on a jet plane, I panicked when I realized there was nowhere to recharge my laptop and worse — there was no Wi-Fi connection! A man (old enough to be my grandfather) told me that a break from technology would be good for me. As I fumbled through the TV screen for in-flight entertainment, he appeared to be engrossed in a novel he removed from his New York hotel room.

Our food came. He dug into his cottage pie and then introduced himself to me: Sir John Boardman, emeritus professor of classical art and archaeology at Oxford University.

Boardman plays detective as he tracks down rare collections of gems and bronze pieces. But when he's not putting the pieces together, he's reading in his library and writing about art and archeology.

During the 6 hour flight to England, I asked Boardman about his life. Even at 82, Boardman is a remarkable story teller.

What should I see when I land? Should I visit Stonehenge?

No.The British Museum is not like the MET in New York. It is different. Visit the Victoria and Albert Museum. But you'll get a kick out of going to the private houses that reflect the taste of whoever lived there.

Do you want to hear an interesting story?


I used the press to find the answer. We were publishing a collection of gems [Marlborough Collection], which had been sold in 1899. But we all know what they looked like because we have copies of them. We located 250 out of 800 of them. This is where the scene changes.

Go to a shop in London called Cameo Corner, which was the main place that people bought jewelry in the 20th century. The Russian immigrant owner had one story. In 1920, a scruffy American came in and the owner had just bought a box of rings with stones in them. We were looking for many of them of this collection. The American bought them. And kept coming back every year to buy things from Cameo Corner. Each time, the American told anecdotes about his life. We tried to track him down by publicizing the stories. He gave one address to San Francisco. But the San Francisco Chronicle couldn't identify him. That wasn't a good lead.

The American also had an interest in oil in Florida. When he was there in 1920, a check fell out of his pocket for a Rolls-Royce. A friend of mind in the states, who is a professor who works on ancient bronze, went to Naples to visit bronze statuses. In one store, the owner told a story about a scruffy American who spent millions on these bronze statues. It was John Ringling, who ran Barnum & Bailey circus. They have a collection of gems at the John and Mable Ringling Museum in Sarasota Bay in Florida, but not ours. The box existed somewhere. We don't know where. Maybe we never shall. But we have identified the mysterious American who bought all the gems.


I wrote about the gems in my book, The Marlborough Gems. Now I'm working on a book on Chinese bronze. I like to communicate and influence people like you do. Life is exciting even at my age.

Why are you interested in Chinese bronze?

When I went traveling with my daughter in the 80s, we went from Pakistan, over the Himalayas, down into China into the desert, and then across to Hong Kong.

So how has science and technology crept into your field?

Not much on the actual objects. We've built up at Oxford big databases on the subject. For instance, we know what all the gems look like. We put all the pictures of what we couldn't find on the web. An antique dealer in Sydney had a cameo, Googled "cameo dog," and came to our website. The dealer sold the gem for 20,000 pounds. We hope this sort of thing will happen more and more.

What are some recent discoveries that have been made with science?

If you got the right scientific expertise, you can use carbon 14 dating and look at its composition. But people managed quite well before all of this. They didn't get things all that wrong. It's easy to think that the technology is more important than the history.

How has research changed? You said you felt like more of an explorer before. What do you mean?

When things get so specialized, you can't see the whole picture. You have to have a concept of what the thing might look like. Not many people can stand back and say this is the overall view and how this works.

If people travel to Europe, what should they see?

If they are going there to look at art and museums, then they should go see art and museums. But they ought to get a car and drive around the country.

What was your best experience digging?

I think the most satisfying was part of an excavation in Chios, Greece. We found an outline of an early small town. We were walking down by the harbor, next to a prehistoric site. The locals probably knew it was there, but it was unexplored. It was a pleasant shock to find.

It must take patience.

It takes patience. And it takes a lot of luck. You have to have a certain instinct to feel where things ought to be. Now people work with photographs, ground surveys, and electronic things. But you only get the plans, you don't get the objects.

Who do you look up to?

There was a very great German archeologist — a miracle man called Adolf Furtwangler. He sorted out the classification of Greek vases and gems. He had a big enough imagination to put it all together. He died when he was only 50, so he worked really hard.

He didn't spend a lot of time on email.

Funny. Do you spend a lot of time on email?

I spend a lot of time on the Internet. There are old periodicals now online. You just have to Google the right questions. It's not complete, but there is a lot there. It's a major source of information, but it doesn't replace a library.

You still go to libraries?

Nearly half my working time is spent in a library. I have a big library at home. Books are important. The use of a library is very different. It's not so much about the book you want. It's all the other books on either side of it. These days, too many libraries are too organized. I used to tell my students, it's the book they didn't know existed that is going to be most useful.


What book are you reading?

I found this trashy book in my hotel room. I got a real book from the 19th century in my bag, not a 21st century novel.

Image: Oxford

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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