In Memory of Dr Neil Faulkner

The death of Neil Faulkner on the 4th of February was a considerable blow to the world of progressive archaeology and, in particular, to those who worked with him in the field, as an educator and as a tour leader.  

Neil had been a valued colleague of Andante Travels for a number of years and many of our guests will remember him. He was a masterly populariser of archaeology, having the ability to break down complex ideas into simpler concepts, which made his view of the past in many ways quite unique. This ability had been honed by his time working as a schoolteacher before making the leap into becoming a full-time archaeologist. He was an honorary lecturer at the UCL Institute of archaeology and research Fellow at Bristol University and, of course, perused a whole series of projects of his own.
Neil was born in 1957 and went up to study at King’s College in Cambridge, graduating in 1977. He undertook postgraduate research at UCL in London specialising in the Romans. This was rather ironic given his later stance on Roman imperialism. Neil believed that people became overly emotive concerning a remarkable and durable civilisation, but one which he felt was the antithesis of the moral imperative which he worked towards. This attitude made him a fascinating lecturer, but one who perhaps did not resonate with some of the people who accompanied him on the tours which he led for Andante Travels. 
He participated in the first of a series of debates organised by the company at the Oxford Union, this one chaired by Lindsey Davis, whose books on the Roman informer, Falco, had led her into the seamier side of Rome. The motion was ‘this house believes that the Romans were bloodthirsty imperialists’ and Neil spoke for, opposed by Sam Moorhead of the British Museum. I backed him up as second speaker, while Sam was ably supported by Denise Allen, my then boss at Andante Travels. As a motion it could not really be disputed, and we did win thanks to Neil’s oratory, but it was remarkable how engaged with the ’idea’ of the Romans many were. It was a fun occasion, the Union hall was full and the portraits of our own latter-day worthies, from Gladstone to Benazir Bhutto gazed down from the walls. 
Neil’s attitude to institutionalised brutality reflected his own strongly and sincerely held political views. He was a Marxist, and not merely on paper, being an activist organising and attending demonstrations and protests and was active writing for various political journals and reviews. Latterly he was a member of the Trotskyist socialist combine Counterfire. This did not prevent him from collaborating closely with those of other opinions. He was early on co-opted by Andrew Selkirk to write for his stable of popular Current Archaeology journals and participated in the organisation of the Archaeology Live conferences, which they sponsored. He went on to become one of the editors of Current Archaeology itself and its sister magazine, Military History Matters. 
Military history and archaeology were an abiding interest for him. I first met Neil in the 1990s when he was organising the Sedgeford Historical and Archaeological Research Project, the first of his significant field projects. This was a wide programme, launched with a lot of local help to examine the history of a north Norfolk village. I was then working for the University of East Anglia and he came to see me to discuss a possible collaboration. Regrettably, this did not come to pass but I did visit to see what it was all about. Some fascinating data was recovered concerning the development of the community from the Saxons until a complete makeover by the Normans, and Neil was as interested in practising what he called ‘democratic archaeology’, trying to collectivise as far as possible the decision-making processes. 

Another significant venture was the ‘Great Arab Revolt’ project. His interest in military history extended to the experiences of T. E. Lawrence in Arabia and Trans-Jordan during the First World War. This was a very much a cutting-edge project, incorporating modern ideas about conflict archaeology and the archaeological study of the modern world. His aim was to document the battlefields of this much mythologised conflict and compare the written accounts, Lawrence’s book the Seven Pillars of Wisdom and official reports with the archaeology on the ground. He led survey teams out into the Jordanian desert to examine the sites of Lawrence’s ‘railway war’, blowing up the Hejaz railway and throwing the Turkish forces into disarray. While this is a new field, and sometimes seen as not being ‘real’ archaeology, Neil’s enthusiasm was infectious.

I worked with him on a podcast where he described his findings, and noted that while he and his team were able to determine the course of a battle by the distribution of spent cartridges, and hastily built sangers, the location of British officers with the Arab forces was traceable by the distribution of gin bottles! Finally, he led trips for a number of British travel companies, including Andante Travels and most of us at Andante knew him best. He was quite flexible in his approach – Rome, Sicily, Tunisia and of course Jordan were his stomping grounds.

Neil put his own particular – and some controversial – points of view across but was always aiming to try to infect his guests with his own enthusiasm for the past and enable people to see that there were many different points of view. His writing was to the same aim and his books range from a debunking of the last era of Roman Britain, through a history of the Russian revolution. His final book was as provocative as ever, a study of British Arab conflicts, seen as a clash between imperialism and fundamentalism, published this year. His stimulating world view will be missed by colleagues and friends of all sorts. 

By Oliver J. Gilkes 

Since sharing this message with everyone subscribed to our mailing list on Saturday, 19th March, the team at Andante Travels would like to thank those who took the time to respond and share their own memories of Neil as well as their condolences. 

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In Memory of Dr Neil Faulkner was published on 21 March 2022