Obituary: Professor Roger Mercer, energetic and enthusiastic archaeologist who made Edinburgh his home

Professor Roger Mercer
Professor Roger Mercer
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Professor Roger James Mercer, archaeologist. Born: 12 September 1944 in Hertfordshire. Died: 3 December 2018 in Edinburgh, aged 74.

Roger Mercer came north from the London suburbs in 1963 to study archaeology in Professor Stuart Piggott’s department at Edinburgh ­University.

Aside from a six-year period shortly after graduating when he worked for the Inspectorate of Ancient Monuments, then based in London’s Savile Row, he was to spend his ­professional life in Edinburgh, firstly as a member of staff of the university and then, from 1990, as secretary – effectively chief executive – of the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland, a body recently merged into Historic Environment Scotland.

On retirement he continued to live in his adopted city, where he remained active in archaeology, publishing the major report of his last field project – in Eskdale, ­Dumfriesshire – for the ­Society of Antiquaries of Scotland some months ago, and lecturing in the last few weeks on his findings and their implications in Edinburgh and Dumfries.

Roger James Mercer was born in 1944 to Patricia and Alan, a draughtsman for de Havilland. Brought up in north-west London, he survived early ejection by a V2 rocket blast from his pram.

Youthful interest in archaeology, kindled by his grandfather’s flint collection, led to participation in excavations as a schoolboy, which only increased his interest in a subject which seemed to his father to offer little scope for gainful employment.

At his grammar school, he preferred the Combined Cadet Force to rugby, and as a ­student his organisational skills were honed by a TAVR commission in the Royal Scots. In later life, he was never sure why he had chosen to come north to study, to a city and university then very different from their ­current appearances.

Aside from the programme taught by Piggott and Charles Thomas, his archaeological skills were enhanced by ­vacation fieldwork from ­Wiltshire to Ardwall Island in Galloway and by study visits as far afield as Sweden and ­Yugoslavia, made possible by local authority grants and his Army bounty, as Mercer gratefully acknowledged.

His career as an excavation director began in 1968, at Stannon Down in Cornwall. A speculative letter to the Ministry of Public Buildings and Works in London saw the new graduate recruited at the last minute replacement to run a project which – as was then common – was staffed by volunteers and a group of local labourers, the latter perplexed by the absence of artefact finds in the upland environment. So little survey equipment was provided that the successful outcome was noteworthy.

Appointed an assistant inspector of ancient monuments in 1969, he was initially responsible for south-west England, where he undertook important excavations, including Carn Brea Neolithic settlement, supported by the Cornish archaeological society. As he rose in the Inspectorate, he was tasked with renewed excavation, which he conducted with military precision, at the Grimes Graves flint mines in Norfolk. A visiting royal party had to descend the ladder into the shaft by order of precedence, then regroup and re-emerge in the same order, much to Mercer’s amusement.

He applied successfully for a lectureship at Edinburgh ­University in 1974. Here too his energy and enthusiasm were readily visible, not only in his lectures – illuminated by formidable numbers of 35mm slides – but in his unstinting commitment to excavation and survey exercises out of term-time.

His students well remember him striding over the ­landscape in bonnet, Army fatigues and with his walking stick to cajole and encourage them, whatever the weather. Over his 16 year tenure (promoted to reader in 1982, when Mercer became acting head of department until 1987), he continued research in south-west England, including major excavations at ­Hambledon Hill, Dorset.

He also undertook ­substantial projects in Scotland, extending from Dumfriesshire to Arran to the northern Highlands, including a multi-year survey programme in Caithness. Here, his projects enjoyed support from the predecessor bodies of Historic Environment Scotland; they included excavations on early prehistoric sites at Balfarg, now within Glenrothes, and at Sketewan in Perthshire.

A very competent field archaeologist, Mercer was also conscious that an army marches on its stomach: catering (sometimes prepared by his wife, Susan, whose honeymoon was at Carn Brea) for the volunteers on his projects was always exemplary, although living conditions could be rudimentary.

He published widely on ­British prehistory, and on prehistoric warfare, the importance of university-based archaeology, and field survey. In 1990, beginning to be a little irked by aspects of the changing culture of universities, he was offered what he saw as ‘the best job in the world’: leading the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland.

Mercer’s stint there was one of the most transformative in that body’s 108-year independent history, before amalgamation with Historic Scotland. He oversaw the recording and survey of the historic environment in Scotland from prehistory to modern architecture and encouraged moves to cutting edge technologies in field and aerial survey.

Relocation to new premises more suited to archival storage enhanced the extensive collections. Twenty years ago, the launch of the innovative CANMORE system allowed world-leading online public access to historic environment data. The venerable blue County Inventory volumes for which the Commission was well-known were abandoned in favour of more analytical surveys such as Eastern Dumfries-shire: an archaeological landscape, and more accessible outputs including illustrated broadsheets on topics such as the Mallaig Railway.

Mercer and his wife Susan (née Fowlie), whom he ­married in 1970, made Edinburgh their home and brought up their children, Katherine and Andrew, here. All three survive him. A Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh (1995), he was awarded an OBE for services to archaeology (2004). In retirement, ­Mercer remained active, lecturing at his old university, where he was an honorary professorial fellow.

He was president of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland (2005-08), and for 13 years to 2002 was a member of the Ancient Monuments Board for Scotland. A slightly larger-than-life character with a fund of stories he was wont mildly to embroider, his warm humour and willingness to share his wide knowledge will be missed.

DAVID BREEZE 
& IAN RALSTON