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Obituary: Doorman Kenneth Uprichard became an expert in preservation of antiquities

 

Kenneth Uprichard worked at the British Museum
Kenneth Uprichard worked at the British Museum

By Staff Reporter

A Northern Ireland bouncer who went on to play a key role in conserving ancient Mesopotamian tablets after his colleague was murdered by loyalists has died.

Lurgan-born Kenneth Uprichard defied his parents when he dropped out of an agriculture course at Queen's University Belfast and took a boat to Guernsey as a teenager.

After labouring in the tomato growing industry for a year he returned to Queen's to read Archaeology. The young Protestant got a job working as a doorman at the club Bar which prided itself on welcoming people from both sides of the religious divide as the Troubles intensified.

But Ken quit after his life was threatened by loyalist paramilitaries who later murdered his door-keeping colleague in a car bomb attack.

In 1974 he and a number of friends - including his wife-to-be Catherine Simpson - left for London where he initially found work as a labourer.

But Ken soon found employment at the British Museum as a mason's assistant in the Department of Western Asiatic antiquities, and he was quickly promoted to a museum assistant.

This required him to fetch and carry cuneiform tablets from their storage cupboards to the students' room where academics spent hours poring over the ancient words. The easy-going Irishman, who married in 1978, established a rapport with the scholars and his interest began go grow deeper.

He eventually took over the role of uncovering cuneiform script on tablets of soft clay which had been air-dried or fired to transform them into ceramics.

Large numbers of the slabs with the ancient languages of Mesopotamia chiselled into them were discovered at sites in Iraq in the 19th century, stimulating the need for decipherment. One of those who played a major role around this time was Edward Hincks, who became a hero for the young Mr Uprichard.

When Ken discovered the work of the Co Down clergyman he took his young family on a pilgrimage to visit the former rector of Killyleagh's grave.

The important artefacts were discovered by George Smith of the British Museum who set off in 1872 to find the missing tablets of the Epic of Gilgamesh; however the stones were subsequently shown to be part of the Epic of Atrahasis.

Many of the fragments were in poor condition, but a local workman discovered they could be preserved if put into the embers of a fire.

It wasn't until after the Second World War that British Museum scientist Robert Organ and his conservator colleague Cyril Bateman devised a procedure for industrial-scale mass firing of almost 130,000 tablets.

Bateman had conserved some 20,000 tablets over 23 years until he retired in 1977.

In 1985 Bateman was called out of retirement to pass on his expertise to Ken who was a natural choice to take over the important task within the Department of Conservation.

For five years he developed refinements to the equipment used in the firing process while studying part-time at the Institute of Archaeology of London University.

In 1990 the natural leader was promoted to the position of head of the stone conservation section and then to head of conservation where he applied his practical expertise on the Museum's exhibition Art and Empire which travelled abroad in the mid-1990s.

In 1987 and 1989 Ken travelled to another British Museum excavation as on-site conservator for Julian Reade's Bronze/Iron Age excavation on the easternmost tip of Arabia.

His competency made him the ideal candidate to help John Curtis move the Oxus Treasure exhibition from Leningrad to Moscow in 1979 when local arrangements proved chaotic.

The extended trip to the Soviet Union was part of an exchange deal that marked the beginning of thawed relations with Britain.

Ken accompanied Curtis again in 1984 on a three-month excavation in Iraq to explore the impact of the collapse of Assyria in 612BC. After retiring in 2011 the former head of conservation spent his time fishing for sea bass before being briefly called out of retirement to address an international seminar on the past and future of cuneiform tablet conservation.

Ken passed away on April 6, aged 70, and is survived by his wife and their three children.

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