Spotlight on... Professor Tim Williams
3 February 2022
This week we meet Professor Tim Williams, who was recently awarded the Sir Richard Burton Medal 2022 by the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland. Here, he chats to us about his current projects and his work leading the Ancient Merv project in Turkmenistan.
What is your role and what does it involve?
I coordinate an MA course on the Silk Roads and supervise several PhD students working on various aspects of its archaeology and heritage. I am currently leading the Arcadia-funded Central Asian Archaeological Landscapes project, which is concerned with creating a geospatial inventory of sites right across Central Asia, working with numerous local partner institutions. I am also an active expert for the UNESCO World Heritage nomination of the Silk Roads, including undertaking the ICOMOS Silk Roads thematic study.
I have also led the Ancient Merv project in Turkmenistan for the past 20 years – a collaboration between the Turkmenistan Ministry of Culture, the Ancient Merv State Park and the UCL Institute of Archaeology, which aims to research and conserve the remains of one of the great historic cities of the Silk Roads.
How long have you been at UCL and what was your previous role?
I have been at UCL for nearly 20 years now. Before that, I was running the archaeological grants programme at English Heritage while also helping an amazing group of people excavate in post-war Beirut. And before that, I was an urban archaeologist mainly working in London with the wonderful Department of Urban Archaeology at the Museum of London.
What working achievement or initiative are you most proud of?
Lots of good things, nearly all built around being part of great teams. I am proud of the friendships with colleagues that have grown from this. I am also very proud of the amazing things that so many of my MA and PhD students have gone on to do, working as archaeologists and heritage professionals across the world.
Tell us about a project you are working on now which is top of your to-do list?
The Central Asian Archaeological Landscape project is working with many partners across the region to develop a geospatial heritage inventory, using remote sensing and archival data, to provide a platform for research and collaboration. It will enable local agencies to manage their archaeological heritage in the face of the climate crisis, the pandemic, and the multiple pressures on 21st century communities. Delivering this – and in doing so, helping our partners to change the heritage policies of the region – and building their capacity to respond to the challenge, is exciting.
What is your favourite album, film and novel?
Albums: Adele’s 21 (another massive Spurs fan) or Springsteen’s The Ghost of Tom Joad, with my favourite song being Youngstown;
Films: Bladerunner for the dystopian future we will enjoy due to our inaction over the climate crisis, or Paddington 2 for the good days;
Novels: A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel, and Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life or Started Early, Took My Dog.
What is your favourite joke (pre-watershed)?
Went to a zoo and they only had a small dog. I think it was a Shih Tzu.
(Thanks to my nephew for this one).
Who would be your dream dinner guests?
For a great discussion of archaeology and politics: Vladimir Ilyich Lenin and Leon Trotsky, for the challenge; Vere Gordon Childe and Peter Ucko, both ex-Directors of the Institute, for their insight; Gertrude Bell, the consummate explorer; Omar Khayyam, to tell me what medieval Merv was really like; Helga Seeden, American University in Beirut, for her warmth and clarity; my wife Jackie Keily, the most inspiring museum curator; along with many many close friends – it is going to have to be a big party.
What advice would you give your younger self?
Try to finish things before starting on the next project.
What would it surprise people to know about you?
When I had no idea what to do after O-Levels at 15, I signed up to go to merchant navy college to be a navigator. Then I went to a different school, met Mike Corbishley and found archaeology.
What is your favourite place?
Walks along the coast with Jolly and Smudge, and White Hart Lane.