Remembering one of OBHAG founders

Professor Barri Jones, archaeologist, born April 4, 1936; died July 16, 1999

In the early 1970’s Professor Barri Jones, then the charismatic professor of archaeology at the University of Manchester, turned his attentions to the Oswestry area and began to excavate at Rhyn Park. He discovered a Roman fort and thus began an association with the area which continued until his death in 1999 at the tragically early age of 63. This brief obituary recalls the life of a much loved man and a great British archaeologist.

Geraint Dyfed Barri Jones was born at St Helens, Lancashire, to Welsh-speaking parents, both teachers. They later moved to High Wycombe, where he attended High Wycombe Royal Grammar School and won a Welsh Foundation Scholarship to read classics at Jesus College, Oxford.

His first article appeared when he was 16, and he was offered a lectureship in Wales before taking his undergraduate finals. He was persuaded to begin a doctorate instead and as scholar to the British school in Rome (1959-1962), he joined John Ward-Perkins’s Southern Etruria project.

After completing his DPhil, he stayed on in Italy to re-interpret John Bradford’s vast archive of air photographs of Apulia, making many major discoveries including the identification of a neolithic metropolis in the Foggia plain.

In 1964 Barri was appointed lecturer at Manchester University making a great impact and he was soon promoted to professor (1971). Barri had resumed work in Wales, at a string of Roman sites, including Caerau, which he himself had found, Caersws (with his friend Charles Daniels, whom he had met at the Rome school), Dolaucothi, Carmarthen and Rhyn Park. He also dug extensively in north-west England and the Pennines. He was always a hands-on archaeologist, wielding spade and shovel as well as trowel and camera and his restless enthusiasm was inspiring

A new field was Libya, first in the Sahara, and then at Tocra and Euhesperides (Benghazi). He found the lost city of Hadrianopolos by tracing its aqueduct for seven kilometres and his work on the Roman gold-mining centre at Welsh Dolaucothi led him to investigate the ancient mines of Rio Tinto and Las Medulas in Spain.

In the 1970s, Barri took a leading role in rescue archaeology. As campaigning secretary of the organisation, Rescue, he was not afraid to make himself unpopular with authority. He gave an account of this struggle to establish a professional regional service in his book, Past Imperfect (1984). He directed numerous rescue digs himself, notably at Manchester and Lancaster, and in 1980 persuaded Greater Manchester council to set up its own archaeology unit.

Another enterprise was the magazine Popular Archaeology which from 1979-88 helped to bring the subject to a still wider public and although now discontinued pioneered an approach taken up by other publications. During these years, Barri found time to co-direct a Unesco-sponsored project to explore the technology of ancient farming in the Libyan pre-desert.

He showed unequalled skill at interpreting air photographs and flew scores of sorties himself. When flying was too expensive, he improvised, devising his own radio-controlled camera carried by a kite – presaging the now familiar drone. His sense of excitement at new discoveries is well reflected in two books written jointly with former pupils, The Carvetii (1985) of Cumbria, with Nicholas Higham, and, on a wider front, An Atlas of Britain (1990) with David Mattingly.

Frontier regions always appealed to Barri. He began to spend increasing amounts of time at his holiday home in the hills near Oswestry close to the imposing rocky outcrop at Llanymynech. He organised countless excavations to expose both a perfectly preserved Roman lead mine within the hill, and, at its base, Celtic encampments. Using the text of Tacitus as a source, he proved to his satisfaction that the site was the place that Caratacus, leader of the Celts, had made his last stand against the invading Romans * .

Barri’s final day, a hike in the Welsh mountains in the company of a local teacher, was exactly how he loved to spend his time. He was twice married and left a son and two daughters.

In 1977, inspired by Barri’s enthusiasm and energy, a group of volunteers from the Rhyn Park excavation formed the Border Counties Archaeological Group which later became OBHAG and is still thriving forty years later.


Reports of this work can be downloaded from Archwilio Primary Reference Number 38208 : Abertanat Roman Camps, excavation 1984-91

Sources :

Jones, G B D , 1991 , Abertanat and Llanymynech: Survey and Excavations 1991 , Manchester Archaeological Bulletin : 6 : 29-35 ( © CPAT)

Silvester, R & Hankinson, R , 2006 , Roman Military Sites in Powys ( © CPAT) includes:

Geophysical Survey at Brecon Gaer,
Forden Gaer and Pen y Gaer
Survey of Colwyn Castle, Radnorshire
Barri Jones’ excavations in Montgomeryshire