Roberta S. Tomber (1954–2022). A memory by Iwona Zych

Roberta Tomber passed away on the evening of 1 May 2022. She had been battling cancer for many years until she could fight no more. She was 68. We had a long conversation via the internet just a few months ago, I brought her up-to-date on the most recent discoveries, the publication so long in the coming, the newest interpretations… She looked well and sounded optimistic, happy the doctors didn’t want to see her again for some time…

An archaeologist specializing in ceramics, she had been a Honorary Visiting Researcher in the Department of Conservation and Scientific Research at the British Museum in London for the past 20 years (from 2002). Before that she worked for the Museum of London archaeology service ever since completing her dissertation in 1988. There was also a brief deployment at the University of Southampton in 2002–2004. Her research interests focused on Mediterranean, Red Sea and Indian Ocean contacts and exchange between the 1st century BCE and 6th century CE. Her seminal articles as well as her book, Indo-Roman trade: from pots to pepper, published in 2008 within the Duckworth Debates in Archaeology series in London, are well known to researchers and informed amateurs on all the shores of these seas.

For the Berenike Project, she was the chief pottery specialist, for the Dutch-American project as well as for the Polish-American one, which I co-directed with Steve Sidebotham from 2008 to 2020. I gratefully “inherited” her, and happily followed her lead—she shaped the pottery research strategies of the project firmly but kindly, setting very high professional standards for her team, a whole string of pottery assistants and documentalists, budding specialists in their field – Ula, Monika, Aga, Sonali, Teresa. She was always happy to share her immense knowledge, consulting archaeologists in their site reports and book publications. Her view, from the perspective of the pottery evidence, was often instrumental in shaping their interpretations, sometimes turning “field” ideas upside down. That was how I met her, in 2001. Digging a burial during my first season at Berenike I needed her opinion on a sherd, which had a textile stuck to it, so we had to wait for the textile expert to arrive for a joint examination to be made. I had pretty much completed my field report when I learned that Roberta agreed with the textile specialist’s dating of the fabric, but my interpretation went haywire with the 5th century AD dating they gave. Seeing my scientific distress, Roberta took the time to re-check her findings and came back with a final verdict: “it could be the second half of the 4th century, but not earlier”. In the end, I reworked my report, thankful for her guidance.

Roberta’s role in the Berenike Project and the projected cooperation led to an official MoU between the British Museum and the Polish Centre of Mediterranean Archaeology University of Warsaw for work in Berenike. She acted as Honorary Chair of a session on “Enlightened analyses” (May 7, 2017) in Warsaw. It was at her invitation that I participated as a speaker at the “Ports of the Periplus: recent archaeological fieldwork in the Erythraean Sea” session of the RAC/TRAC conference at the La Sapienza University of Rome in March 2016, presenting the Project’s recent discoveries. There were other conferences and seminars, not to mention an eye-opening on-site seminar on pottery for the team during one of the seasons. As her illness made inroads, she had to slow down, but she missed those Januaries in Berenike, which have been so important for so many of us for so long. Celebrating her birthday on January 20 was always a high point of social life in camp.

Life in a desert camp can be trying and certainly there were difficult times but there was never a better trooper than Roberta. Her gentle smile, good humor and kindness will be remembered by the foreigners on the team as well as the Egyptian camp staff, who have received news of her passing with sadness. Not the least are the good memories of good times and good discussions, shared over an enjoyable meal, whether in Berenike, in Rome or in London…

Roberta, there must be some fine ceramics up there for you to have left us like this. You will be remembered every season, every day.

Iwona Zych
and the greater Berenike Project family

Roberta’s funeral will be held on June 1 st, 2022, at 1.45pm (GMT +1) at Honor Oak Crematorium, Brockley Way, London SE4 2LJ. There will be a live webcast of the funeral; for details see: PDF