Milestones: Jonathan N. Tubb (1951–2023)

Leading British archaeologist of the biblical lands


Jonathan N. Tubb. Image courtesy Konstantinos Politis.

Jonathan Tubb, renowned archaeologist and long-time curator of Levantine antiquities at the British Museum, passed away on September 25, 2023 in London. He was 72 years old.

I first met Jonathan in 1982 at the Institute of Archaeology in London where I was conducting my postgraduate studies. Jonathan and the institute’s photography instructor, Peter Dorrell, were close friends who would regularly enjoy a drink after work, reminiscing about their excavations in Syria and Iraq. I was often invited to join them. From that modest place, life-long friendships grew.

In 1985, after having participated in two excavations in Jordan, I enthusiastically joined the first three of Jonathan’s ten excavation seasons at Tell es-Sa’idiyeh in the Jordan Valley, an event that would cement our academic and personal relationship. I had just completed my master’s degree and was eagerly looking for a dissertation topic. Jonathan offered me all the Iron Age pottery excavated from this important site. Although I ended up not taking him up on the offer, his support was unwavering even when I chose a different topic.

Back in London at the British Museum, he kindly connected me with David Buckton, curator of the museum’s Byzantine collections, who helped me get sponsorship for my own excavation project at the Sanctuary of Lot at Deir ‘Ain ‘Abata in southern Jordan. This laid the foundation for my career in archaeology.

Jonathan Tubb leading a tour of Tell es-Sa’idiyeh in the Jordan Valley in 1989. Photo by Alan Hills, courtesy Konstantinos Politis.

But I was not alone in receiving Jonathan’s support and guidance. So many colleagues benefitted from his mentorship. He was always happy to share his knowledge, thinking, and connections with others. He created a following of aspiring archaeologists the way Kathleen Kenyon did in the 1950s and 60s. In this tradition, he served as Head of Publications (1998–2000), Chairman (2000–2008), and then President (2008–2023) of the Palestine Exploration Fund, transforming the society into a modern institution. He also kept close relations with academia across the Atlantic, serving as a program chair for the annual meetings of the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR) during the 1990s. A measure of the esteem in which he was held can be seen in his festschrift, To Aleppo Gone (Archaeopress, 2023), which collected more than 40 contributions from friends and colleagues, covering Jonathan’s diverse academic interests.

At the British Museum, Jonathan was a master of public relations who also conducted serious academic research. His major publications included the report on Tiwal ash-Shaqi (1990), preliminary reports from the Tell es-Sa’idiyeh excavations (published in Levant and Palestine Exploration Quarterly between 1988 and 1997), Palestine in the Bronze and Iron Ages (Routledge, 1985), Archaeology and the Bible (with R.L. Chapman, British Museum, 1990), and Canaanites (British Museum, 1998; 2nd ed. 2016). As Levantine curator, he transformed the museum’s rather patchy collections from the region by acquiring the Institute of Archaeology’s Lachish collections, and added material from his own excavations at Tell es-Sa’idiyeh and other sites in Jordan. Later, as Keeper of the Middle East Department, he instigated the “Iraq Scheme,” a collaborative project with Iraqi colleagues to counter the destruction of that country’s unique cultural heritage by training a new generation of experts in methods ranging from survey and excavation to conservation and museology.

But Jonathan was not only a passionate archaeologist; he held a similar if not equal taste for classical music, ranging from Renaissance to contemporary classical music. Having “house sat” for Jonathan while he was on holiday in the 1980s, I witnessed his vast collection of recordings. Rubbing shoulders among his CDs were composers as diverse as J.S. Bach, Gustav Mahler, Dmitri Shostakovich, Karl Heinz Stockhausen, and John Cage.

On October 26, 2023, I attended his funeral on-line along with relatives, friends, and colleagues who did so in person. All expressed how dearly his intellect and friendship will be missed.

Konstantinos Politis is a seasoned field archaeologist of the eastern Mediterranean lands ranging from prehistory to Ottoman times. His focus has been on late antiquity to the early medieval period, particularly in Jordan and Syria.

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