Institute of Archaeology

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David R. Harris (1930-2013)

8 January 2014

Prof David Harris

Institute staff, students, friends and colleagues will be saddened to hear of the death of David Harris on 25 December.

David was Director of the Institute of Archaeology from 1989 until his retirement in 1996. A geographer, anthropologist and archaeologist David was well known for his innovative work on the origins of agriculture and the domestication of plants and animals.  He was made an Honorary Fellow of UCL in 2000 in recognition of his service to the university and at the time of his death was Emeritus Professor of Human Environment at the Institute.

David read Geography at the University of Oxford in the 1950s. He was awarded a King George VI Memorial Fellowship to study in the USA and undertook his PhD research at the University of California, Berkeley with the cultural geographer Carl Sauer. His PhD was awarded in 1963 with a thesis entitled ‘Plants, animals, and man in the Outer Leeward Islands, West Indies. An ecological study of Antigua, Barbuda, and Anguilla’.

In 1964 David joined UCL as Reader in the Department of Geography moving to the Institute of Archaeology in 1980 as Professor (and Head) of its then Department of Human Environment.  He succeeded John D. Evans as Director of the Institute in 1989. Under his Directorship environmental archaeology, and specifically archaeobotany, flourished, culminating in the appointment of Gordon Hillman firstly to a research post and then in 1983 to a permanent Lectureship in Archaeobotany.

Perhaps the most enduring legacy of David’s directorship was the establishment of the Wolfson Archaeological Science Laboratories at the Institute in 1991 following an extensive fundraising campaign, and the development of these laboratories into the world-renowned archaeological science facility that they are today.

David’s research interests in ecology and development of agriculture and other modes of subsistence among human cultures had a global outlook, and he undertook fieldwork across the world, including New Guinea, the Torres Strait, Africa, Central America and Eurasia. In his later career he is probably best known for his work at Jeitun (now in Turkmenistan), regarded as the earliest known agricultural site in Central Asia.

In 1972 David was presented with the Back Award by the Royal Geographical Society, for ‘Contributions to Biogeography, especially of Middle America’. He was a Fellow of both the Society of Antiquaries (1982) and the British Academy (2004).

His impressive publication record includes books on Origins of Agriculture in Western Central Asia: an Environmental−Archaeological Study (2010), The Origins and Spread of Agriculture and Pastoralism in Eurasia (1996), The Archaeology of V. Gordon Childe: Contemporary Perspectives (1994) and Foraging and Farming (1989). Following his retirement, David (with Peter Ucko) instigated the creation, and was the first editor, of the new Institute publication Archaeology International, produced annually to reflect the broad geographical, theoretical and methodological scope of research being undertaken at the Institute of Archaeology.

As one of David’s Institute colleagues has indicated:

  • “David Harris, through both his teaching and his publications, inspired the development of research into agricultural origins and plant domestication on a truly global and comparative scale. The development of tropical archaeobotany in particular has derived continued inspiration from his work.”

Our thoughts go out to his family at this difficult time.


Read more


In Memoriam: David Harris

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