Professor Gordon Charles Hillman (BSc Agricultural Botany, 1969)
Gordon Hillman came to Reading by an unconventional route. Born on 20 July 1943 to the owners of a plant nursery in Hailsham, Sussex, he was passionate about plants from an early age. Rambling and working on farms in the Sussex countryside honed his interest in botany and farming, and after Bexhill grammar school, Gordon worked as a field assistant at Alston Moor, in the Pennines, followed by five years in the European Herbarium of the Natural History Museum.
Thus, by the time he came to Reading in 1965, Gordon was already an expert botanist and, for the 1960s, a mature student. He came under the influence of Professor Hugh Bunting, a renowned tropical agronomist also with a reputation for promoting the careers of his students, and Dr Barbara Pickersgill, a newly appointed lecturer and specialist in crop domestication. Gordon enjoyed his time at Reading - despite much of his final-year dissertation blowing out of an open window - and was to draw on his training in ecology and genetics throughout his career. With assistance from Bunting, a postgraduate studentship was arranged in Mainz with Dr Maria Hopf, a leading archaeobotanist. After a year's training in the skill of identifying archaeological seeds, Hillman spent the next five years in Turkey and Syria, working on two of the most influential archaeological digs of the 1970s.
At the village of Asvan in eastern Turkey, a pioneering multi-disciplinary team was taking a holistic view, not only excavating the archaeology, but also surveying the botany, zoology and anthropology of the contemporary settlement. Several Reading students were drafted in as summer assistants, and Gordon initiated an ambitious programme of plant collection and ethnographic observations. Few machines had reached the village by 1970, so Asvan was the ideal opportunity to see traditional technology in action. Gordon came to realise that ancient seed assemblages could best be understood by comparing them to current day, traditional agricultural practices - an insight that has transformed the field of archaeobotany worldwide. From 1972-3 he was also working at the excavations at Abu Hureyra in Syria. Likewise being flooded by a dam on the Euphrates. Here over 500 litres of plant remains were collected, from a 4000 year occupation spanning the beginnings of farming. Analysis of these seeds was to take much of the next 25 years, and generate many more innovations in methodology.
After a spell at the University of Wales in Cardiff, Gordon joined the Institute of Archaeology in London in 1981. Now part of UCL, this remained his academic base for the rest of his life. His fertile and imaginative mind generated a wide range of research projects around ancient diet, and a large number of students was recruited to take these further. Gordon was a modest man, but a naturally charismatic figure. His enthusiasm, kindness and ability to explain complex ideas clearly, attracted many students, most of whom are now leaders in their field in many countries. The Institute remains a major centre for archaeobotany.
In 1997 Gordon took medical retirement from UCL after being diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease. In the following 20 years he carried out field research on wild plant foods in Britain, training many of today's generation of foragers, and becoming something of a TV star through his co-hosting with Ray Mears of the BBC Series Wild Food (2007). Barbara Pickersgill speculates that Gordon may have been introduced to wild foods while at Reading by the palaeobotanist Prof. Tom Harris FRS. W. G. Chaloner's obituary of Harris mentions 'I remember having supper in the great farm-style kitchen, with apple rings and chanterelle toadstools festooned on string to dry above the fireplace. The meal would be washed down with home-brewed beer or with elderflower wine...there was usually some botanical culinary surprise. This may have been either in the form of food or drink; yam, an (accidently pink) chestnut bread, cherry laurel jam or home-brewed elderberry wine, elder flower champagne, apple juice or wine and a Cornus mas gin (like sloe gin). One never knew what to expect!'
Retirement also enabled Gordon to spend more time with his daughter Thilaka and her three sons. Although the effects of Parkinson's became more debilitating, he lived independently, actively researching and publishing until his death on 1 July 2018, supported by a strong network of family, friends and former students.
Mark Nesbitt (Ag Bot 1983 and former student of both Barbara Pickersgill and Gordon Hillman)
UCL news (with links to obituaries): http://www.ucl.ac.uk/archaeology/news-events/archaeology-news-publication/in-memoriam-gordon-hillman
Photo: Gordon Hillman in Turkey, c. 2000. Credit: Thilaka Hillman.