Barbara Craig

Archaeologist and principal, Somerville College, Oxford

Born: October 22, 1915, in Calcutta.

Died: January 25, 2005, in Bainbridge, North Yorkshire, aged 89.

"LADY Margaret Hall for young ladies, St Hilda’s for games, St Hugh’s for religion and Somerville for brains." This 1920s Oxford proverb is personified in the figure of Barbara Denise Craig. Endowed with a formidable intellect, she was also blessed with a rare humanity.

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She was born in Calcutta in 1915, the daughter of John Alexander Chapman, poet and librarian of the Imperial Library of India. In 1920, her mother took Barbara and her four brothers to London for their schooling. She was educated at the Haberdashers’ Aske’s Girls’ School in Acton, and in 1934 went up to Oxford to read classics. At Somerville, distinguished women tutors in classical archaeology and ancient history aroused in her an interdisciplinary interest in the social history and monuments of Greece and Rome.

After gaining a double first in 1938, Barbara embarked on historical research in Sicily. In Rome, she met James Craig, a Cambridge classicist, secretary and librarian of the British School, whom she married in London in 1942.

During the Second World War, she worked in the Ministries of Supply and Labour and Home Security and Production, with an academic interlude as assistant to Archibald Cameron, professor of Greek at the University of Aberdeen (1940-1942), who, with his wife Doreen, became a lifelong friend.

Thereafter, Scotland exercised over her a powerful attraction. After retiring in 1980, but particularly after her husband’s death in 1989, she made regular tours of the east coast.

In her Aberdeen years, her passion for bird-watching almost landed her in prison for treason: spotted looking out to sea through binoculars, she was suspected of signalling to German submarines, and was hauled off by the police, to be released only after she had been answered for by her Scottish academic employers. She had already been arrested in 1938, exploring alone the Sicilian hinterland, riddled with arms factories working at full steam for the war in Abyssinia.

From 1945 for 19 years, she was the perfect diplomatic wife on British Council postings to Rio de Janeiro, Baghdad, Barcelona and Lahore. Friendship with Max Mallowan and his wife, Agatha Christie, visits to his excavations of the palaces of the Assyrian kings in Northern Iraq, and fascination for the treasures in Baghdad Museum determined a return to archaeology. She pioneered research on the cultural relationship of Greece and the East, joining Sir Alan Wace’s Mycenae excavations team in 1956.

In May 1967, she was elected Somerville’s principal. Her natural wisdom and impartiality were put to the test during the 1968 and 1973-4 student demands for representation on the decision-making academic bodies and in discussions over the change from single-sex to mixed colleges.

Brought up to hold her own in society, she earned her hostess’s stripes by gracefully welcoming at Somerville the Queen, Indira Gandhi, Margaret Thatcher and former prime minister Harold Macmillan, Chancellor of the University of Oxford.

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With impeccable fashion sense, regally striking good looks, an intimidating, erect bearing and a penetrating gaze, she commanded a respect increasingly tinged by gratitude and affection.

Unusually open-minded, although devoted to Somerville, she held Scottish universities in great esteem, considering that Edinburgh in particular had a major role in nurturing distinguished graduates and researchers.

Her choice of a frugal life in the beautiful but spartan Yorkshire Dales cottage where the Craigs retired in 1980 stemmed from a laudable desire to contribute as much money as possible to education. To install central heating, she argued, was a waste when the funds could be used to renovate the college library or help a needy student.

Barbara Craig’s academic and human legacy is important: not only has the strengthening of interdisciplinary ties triggered by her pioneering work led Oxford University to establish a joint school of ancient history and classical archaeology, but as Somerville "went mixed" (with her approval), her tradition of crossing academic borders and blending intellect and humanity was passed on to young men.