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BSA Announces Passing of Its First Female Director, Elizabeth (Lisa) French

The National Herald

The British School of Athens (BSA) logo. (Photo via Facebook)

CAMBRIDGE, UK – The British School of Athens (BSA) announced the passing of Elizabeth (Lisa) Bayard French (January 19, 1931-June 10, 2021). The full statement follows:

It is with great sadness that we note the passing, peacefully in Cambridge after a short illness, of Lisa French, first female Director of the BSA (1989-1994) and leading figure in the archaeology of the prehistoric Aegean, especially the site of Mycenae.

One might say that Lisa’s association with the BSA was – quite literally – lifelong, since she was the daughter of Alan Wace, BSA Director 1914-1923. She was born in London in 1931 while her father was Deputy Keeper of Textiles at the Victoria & Albert Museum, and owed her nickname, Lisa, to her godfather, Carl Blegen, Wace’s close collaborator in piecing together the prehistory of mainland Greece. Wace was still active at Mycenae and Lisa visited the excavations even before WWII. Following the war she played a full part in the project and her notebooks, starting in 1950, are available to view. She continued to work on the Helleno-British excavations at Mycenae after her father’s death in 1957 until 1969 with Lord William Taylour and George Mylonas. So began a career-long involvement reflected in her joint editorship of the Well Built Mycenae series, her own masterly, yet concise overview of the site, Mycenae: Agamemnon’s capital (2002), and the Archaeological Atlas of Mycenae (2003), jointly edited with Spyros Iakovidis for the Archaeological Society at Athens.

Lisa first appears in the BSA’s Annual Reports in 1958-9 as one of those granted ‘student privileges’: ‘Miss E.B. Wace, Classics Mistress, Royal Masonic School for Girls, Rickmansworth’. She spent the following year (1959-60) in Greece supported by a Virginia Gildersleeve Fellowship from the International Federation of University Women, now listed as Elizabeth French, having married David French that year; the couple had met in 1956 during a Mycenae study season. 1959-60 was a busy year: study of Mycenaean terracotta figurines for her doctoral thesis, travel in Turkey and the Near East, study of finds from Ayios Stephanos and Tiryns, as well as BSA excavations at Knossos and Mycenae. By the following year she had completed her doctorate at the University of London. Her name continues to appear almost every year, often adjacent to David French, who became Director of the BSA’s sister institute, the British Institute at Ankara, in 1968. After their marriage ended, Lisa became Warden of Ashburne Hall, University of Manchester in 1976, a post she held until she moved to Athens in 1989. Many of us recall the memorable BSA centennial conference ‘Problems in Greek Prehistory’ hosted in Manchester in 1986, whose proceedings she promptly edited with Ken Wardle in 1988.

After a decade on the BSA’s Council (then Managing Committee) Lisa became the 17th Director of the BSA in October 1989, and the first woman to hold the post, 75 years after her father had become its seventh. As Director, Lisa maintained an active academic profile, continuing her research at Mycenae, including fieldwork towards completion of the survey mentioned above. She also introduced many practical innovations from the extension of computer use in general across the BSA, and digitisation of the Library catalogue, to the development of a watering system for the Athens garden, as well as bringing systematic order to the BSA’s collections. Her tenure was far from uneventful – May 1990 saw the detonation of two car bombs close to the BSA premises that shattered over 30 panes of glass, mainly in the Upper House. When her term as Director ended, she moved to Cambridge, where she was an active participant in academic life, running unofficial short courses on the intricacies of Mycenaean pottery, and continuing to visit Greece on a regular basis, including overseeing the complex transfer of finds from the museum storerooms in Nafplion to the new on-site museum at Mycenae.

Not surprisingly Lisa received many honours during her career: she was elected a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries in 1979 and was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of the University of Athens in 2004. Perhaps one of the most colourful, reported in very matter-of-fact terms in the BSA’s Annual Report, was the invitation in August 2007 to Lisa and her daughter Ann, as guests of the town of Samarina, to a ceremony marking the publication of a collection of photographs taken by her father and Maurice Thompson in the area when carrying out their research for Nomads of the Balkans, published in 1914.

In 2013, Lisa donated her extensive Mycenae archive to the Faculty of Classics at Cambridge. To mark the centenary in 2020 of the first season of the BSA’s excavations at Mycenae, the Cambridge Archive was digitised in parallel with materials held at the BSA in Athens, thus forming a unified resource, virtually accessible anywhere in the world. Sadly the pandemic precluded a physical celebration of that moment, in which Lisa would have been a key participant.

Lisa was active until the end over a long career in the field and will be sorely missed by a large international community of scholars and friends. We take this opportunity to extend our deepest condolences to her daughter Ann, and her grandchildren Olivia and Will, who survive her.