David Rudkin obituary | Roman Britain

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My friend David Rudkin, who has died aged 78, was a museum curator and archaeologist who dedicated his career as director of Fishbourne Roman palace in West Sussex to widening knowledge about the Romans in Britain. His open and engaging character empowered him to spread understanding of Fishbourne – the largest Roman villa north of the Alps, with its incomparable mosaics.

David was born in Old Woodhouse, Leicestershire, the second child of Harry Rudkin, a gardener, and his wife, Lily (nee Measures). Harry’s employment took the family in a peripatetic life to country estates across the Midlands, but, settled near Melton Mowbray, David passed the 11-plus exam to go to King Edward VII grammar school.

David Rudkin making a pen-and-ink drawing of the “Fortress” mosaic at Fishbourne Roman palace in West Sussex

He became an engineering draughtsman on leaving school, but his sparkling youthful interest in local archaeology caught the attention of professionals on digs he attended, and their encouragement led him to Sheffield University and a degree in archaeology and prehistory, graduating in 1971. He married Sue Beckwith, a fellow student, in 1969, and they honeymooned on a dig in Sitagroi, northern Greece, after driving across Europe in David’s ancient Ford Anglia.

David and I met in 1972 as young fellow curators in our first posts at Portsmouth City Museums. There, as keeper of archaeology, David reinvigorated the archaeological displays in Southsea Castle and oversaw exploratory and rescue excavations in the city and its surroundings. However, it was after his appointment in 1979 to Fishbourne that his genius for museum interpretation found mature expression.

Dolphin mosaic at Fishbourne Roman palace, West Sussex.
Dolphin mosaic at Fishbourne Roman palace, West Sussex. Photograph: Alamy

Driven to demonstrate the value of Fishbourne as a treasure to Sussex and beyond, he made connections with schools and other groups, organised excavations of further reaches of the palace, and became a crucial arm of the Chichester Tourist Board. His Fishbourne museum was neat and crystal-clear and he presented a variety of live educational entertainments. Gladiators might lunge at each other in the shrubbery, and Augustus (or Nero) – played by David – appear on a tessellated floor to justify Roman governance of city and empire. He also published a series of learned archaeological books and studies.

When he was not dressed up as an emperor, David was at hand for consultation. He made television appearances on Blue Peter and Time Team, always illuminating and amusing.

The breadth of his career was acknowledged by a fellowship of the Society of Antiquaries (1989) and an honorary degree from the University of Chichester (2006) – and by the rare accolade, in 2004, of having a street named after him: Rudkin Place in Fishbourne.

He retired in 2008 and instantly became a volunteer at Fishbourne. He also enjoyed attending classical concerts and enthusiastically accompanying his children and grandchildren round museums and National Trust houses.

In the late 1970s David and Sue had two children, Stephen and Cressida. While the marriage ended in divorce in 1992, he and Sue remained close. He died from complications of Parkinson’s disease and dementia.

He is survived by Stephen and Cressida.

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