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ba02Adams 1960s Miss HammersmithBorn in Hammersmith, west London on Feb 19, 1945, Barbara (nee Bishop) began her career as a scientific assistance in the entomology section fo the Natural History Museum, London, later transferring to the Anthropology Department. After a brief stint as beauty queen, winning the title of Miss Hammersmith in 1964 and trying her hand as a poetess, she moved to the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology in 1965. In the same year she also married Rob Adams, a civil servant, who supported her career choices wholeheartedly, even if sometimes bemused by the range of friends and associates that came with them. 

The Petrie Museum's collection is of immense scientific importance as Barbara soon became aware. It was originally composed of the private collection of Sir Flinders Petrie, the "father of Egyptian archaeology", but because Petrie was obliged to distribute the more display-worthy objects to the subscriber who funded the excavations, his collection was made up in large part of fragmentary and poorly preserved pieces, and as a result had remained largely unpublished. Barbara quickly realized the contribution to be made by the study and conservation of these little known objects in conjunction with the archival excavation records. Her first task was to resurrect the museum's holdings from Quibell and Green's 1898-9 excavations at Hierakonpolis, a site known to be of critical importance for understanding the origins of Egyptian civilization even before the Hierakonpolis Expedition took to the field. Thus, when not dealing with administrative duties, she embarked on the laborious task of cataloguing, collating and conserving. Her success was marked by her first major publication, Ancient Hierakonpolis and Supplement in 1974 in which she not only published the objects from the site, but also made available the excavation notebooks of F W Green. Throughout her life she continued to perfect this particular brand of archaeology, that of excavating museum basements. She rescued and restored unpublished material from Garstang's 1906 excavations at Hierakonpolis in The Fort Cemetery at Hierakonpolis (1984) and Ancient Nekhen (1995), in which she also provided an overview of all the work at the site undertaken to that time.

ba03Adams at HK late1980s

She also "re-discovered" the magnificent Early Dynastic stone lions from Petrie's excavations at Koptos and saw to their restoration and display, now at University College London (Adams & Jaeschke 1984). A respected authority of the Pre- and Early Dynastic period, she also developed a keen interest in wherever her beloved collection led her. In 1988, with the aid of the Petrie Museum Friends, she instigated the conservation of the museum's important collection of encaustic wax mummy portraits of the Roman period, a catalogue of which, Living Image. Egyptian Funerary Portraits in the Petrie Museum, appearing in 2007, was dedicated in her memory (Picton, et al. 2007).

Another important focus of her attention were the numerous fragments of decorative stone vessels from the First Dynasty Royal Tombs at Abydos, some of which are housed in the Petrie Museum, while other are scattered across many museums, with new fragments coming from the current excavations at Abydos of the German Archaeological Institute directed by Günter Dreyer. Bringing together all of these pieces allowed her to make important reconstructions of these unique objects (Adams 2000b) and she was able to prepare a manuscript for publication before her untimely death (Adams in press).

Life was not limited to the museum. Her first work on early Hierakonpolis brought Barbara to the attention of Michael A. Hoffman, the director of Predynastic excavations at Hierakonpolis. In 1979 he visited the Petrie Museum to seek her out and almost upon contact, he asked her to join his team. This was a realization of a long-held aspiration for her and the beginning of a close friendship. At Hierakonpolis in 1980, 1982 and 1986 she played a major role in the excavations at the elite cemetery of HK6 and in study seasons devoted to that work in 1988 and 1992. She worked at the town site of Nekhen with Walter Fairservis in 1981, and again in 1984 she made an important contribution to the ceramic dating of Hoffman's stratigraphic sondage in Nekhen square 10N5W. This was the first excavation made below the water table using pumps anywhere in Egypt and the long delayed publication of this important work was to have been her next project. After Hoffman's untimely death in 1990, Barbara was charged with the task of publishing his work, and in 1996 she helped to rescue the languishing project by assuming co-directorship of the expedition with Renee Friedman and resuming excavations in the elite cemetery.

ba04Adams HK 1996Although Hoffman was never that interested in cemetery excavation, considering the lack of information available on settlements, Barbara was always convinced that further excavation in this elite cemetery, albeit repeatedly plundered, would more than repay the effort. Nevertheless even she was astounded by the accuracy of her prediction. Among her many outstanding discoveries are Egypt's first funerary masks, fantastic creations made of fired clay, curved to fit over the human face and definitely meant to be worn, as well as tantalizing fragments Egypt's earliest life-sized stone statue found in the so-called offering chapel of Tomb 23. Although she had only excavated part of this massive tomb, she knew she had uncovered some very special: not only the largest tomb of the Naqada IIB (c 3600BC) period yet known, but also some of the earliest above-ground funerary architecture in Egypt. It was a cruel twist of fate that she was diagnosed with cancer in the autumn of 2001 just weeks before she was due to resume its excavation. Having completed the publication of Hoffman's work in 2000 with the publication of Excavations in the Locality 6 Cemetery at Hierakonpolis 1979-1985, this was to be Barbara's last dig season before she was to sit down for the first time in her life to write up her own remarkable discoveries.

During the many years that Barbara was based at the Petrie Museum in London, she received and assisted scholars from all over the world. Her impact on the field is reflected in the 57 articles by authors from 16 different countries, covering all parts of the globe that were collected in the volume Egypt at its Origins. Studies in Memory of Barbara Adams (Hendrickx et al. eds. 2004), in part the Proceedings of the International Conference “Origin of the State. Predynastic and Early Dynastic Egypt”, which took place three months after her passing, in Krakow from 28th August – 1st September 2002.

For more personal memorials see Nekhen News 14 (2002)


More about Barbara Adams

[Anselin, A.], 2003. Hommage à Barbara Adams. Cahiers Caribéens d’Egyptologie 5 (2003), pp. 3-6.

Bierbrier, M (ed), 2012. Who was Who in Egyptology. 4th rev. Edition. London: 6-7.

Friedman, R.F., 2002. Barbara Adams 19 February 1945 - 26 June 2002. Bulletin of the American Research Center in Egypt 182 (2002), pp. 10-11.

Friedman, R.F., 2002. Barbara Adams: February 19, 1945 - June 26, 2002. Nekhen News 14 (2002), pp. 4-5.

Friedman, R.F. & Hendrickx, S., 2004. Preface [in:] Hendrickx, S., Friedman, R.F., Cialowicz, K.M. & Chlodnicki, M. (eds): Egypt at its Origins. Studies in Memory of Barbara Adams. OLA 138. Peeters: Leuven: xv-xxx

Friedman, R.F., 2007. Barbara Adams at Hierakonpolis[in] Picton, J, Quirke, S. & Roberts, P.C. (eds.), Living Image. Egyptian Funerary Portraits in the Petrie Museum. Walnut Creek: Left Coast Press (2007), pp. 281-286.

Friedman, R.F & Lesko, B.S., Barbara Bishop Adams, 1945-2002 [in:] Joukowsky M.S. & Lesko, B.S. (eds.), Breaking Ground: Women in Old World Archaeology. Brown University.

Grajetzki, W.,2003. Zum Gedenken an Barbara Adams. Kemet, 12.1 (2003), p. 77.

Hendrickx, S., 2002. Barbara and the Boxes in Brussels. Nekhen News 14 (2002), pp. 6-7.

Johnson, W.R., 2002. Barbara – A Reminiscence. Nekhen News 14 (2002), p. 26.

Smith, H.S., 2002. In Memory of Barbara Adams. Friends of the Petrie Museum Newsletter 25 (2002), pp. 1-3.

Smith, H.S., 2002. [Barbara Adams]. Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 88 (2002), pp. viii-xi.

Smith, H.S., 2007. The Life and Work of Barbara Adams [in] Picton, J, Quirke, S. & Roberts, P.C. (eds.), Living Image. Egyptian Funerary Portraits in the Petrie Museum. Walnut Creek: Left Coast Press (2007), pp. 273-280.

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