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In Memoriam – Sheila Gibson 1920-2020

I was reading some proofs today and remembered with a start that Sheila Gibson, the peerless archaeological architect, who died on January 8, 2002, was born a hundred years ago this year.

Below a short story about my first opportunity to work with her in 1971 at Knidos. She was a remarkable person and a joy to have as a friend.

Sheila Gibson (1920-2002)

Knidos, Turkey July 1971

‘How about helping me today on a little task?’ Sheila asked, uncapping her pot of Robinson’s marmalade brought for her own breakfast; she was a diabetic.

I stared at the jar momentarily wondering why, and she explained without hesitation why she had to control her diet. That was that. Now, how about helping? Of course, I agreed, wondering what the others would make of my skiving off from pot-washing.

‘I need someone who can handle all the numbers, the tape measures. It’s hard for some of them. Standing still in the sun and memorizing figures just don’t seem to go together. I want to finish off the Temple of Dionysos today before Iris comes. Otherwise I fear there won’t be time’. She continued between mouthfuls of the thick crusty bread brought in before dawn from Yaziköy.

Breakfast over, I informed Henry (the assistant director), who muttered, sweeping flies away, that working with Sheila was tough but really fun. A crate more or less of washed pottery didn’t matter to him.

Finishing up at the Temple of Dionysos took twelve hours. Sheila led me out at six-thirty. I tagged alongside

quite unprepared, marveling at her. She was my mother’s age, prim and correct, immaculately kitted out, her white bob of hair tied high with a scarf, visible under a wide-brimmed straw hat that Newton might have given her. She also had impaired hearing that accentuated the lisp of her Anglo-Irish accent and allowed her, as she would say with a girlish smile, to ignore what she did not want to hear. Ignoring Iris was something she mentioned often.

A bag of architect’s tools seemed to be permanently attached to her shoulder, and tucked under her left arm was a plywood drawing board – her own, she explained because the other boards were too heavy and unwieldy. I was armed with three thirty-metre tapes and two red and white ranging rods. Already, with the first flush of the morning sun it was hot and for a time, humid until the breeze kicked in.

Sheila Gibson studying Santa Maria Antiqua, Rome, 1983

Apparently, she had tried to enlist Bülent’s help, but although he was aiming to study architecture, his numbers were confused under the pressure of Sheila’s relentless work ethic. I also learnt, as we approached the temple, not far from the Jandarma, that Sheila had been an architect for twenty years and every vacation she made drawings of archaeological sites – in Italy, Libya and now, Turkey. She was one of John Ward Perkins’s (Director, British School at Rome) ‘people’ and hardship seemed to be no issue provided the drawings could be made and published. Through Ward Perkins, Iris Cornelia Love had obtained her precious services (at Knidos).

Sheila strode towards the only lone fig tree and beneath its hint of shade deposited her drawing board and bag. I stood close by, a butler in attendance. She found a flat wall on which to place her board and now I could see the outline of the temple, overlain with a monumental cuckoo, an intrusive Byzantine church modeled on St. John’s at Ephesus.

‘Let’s walk around and just get our bearing, shall we?’ she said with firm intentions. ‘You’ll soon see it looks like an earthquake demolished it!’

And off we went. Sheila had a slight limp, but with purpose she pointed out each wall, plinth, column, and feature from which we had to collect points. The temple had been shattered and its columns and their capital looked to have been thrown to the air and landed with no rhyme or reason. By contrast, the outlines of the Byzantine basilica, made a thousand years after the temple, were readily traced.

Sheila would hang on to the toothy terminus of the tape. For my part, armed with a ranging rod, I would march to each column and capital, holler the length then move on. And that was what happened. For hours. A gallon of Cool Aid in a red thermos was brought by a shirtless water boy at mid-morning. He stood shyly by as we emptied our helpings. When we paused to rest Sheila talked about horse-riding in Ireland in the 1920s or about surveying in Libya with John Ward Perkins and Richard Goodchild, both veterans of the British Eighth Army and its (wartime) North African campaign.

By midday the sun was sizzling the stones and only the lizards could have enjoyed the immense warmth. With a corner point cross-checked, Sheila mopped her creased brow, smiled wryly and commanded we return for lunch. We had barely spoken in the intervening hours. Instead, one point followed by another I had trotted obediently around the great bleached white podium, dodging the rubble and finding the polished ashlar plinth. These bleached stones murderously reflected the heat, consequently, my cheap Italian shirt was sodden wet with sweat. Sheila on the other hand looked a little pooped but nothing more. As we set towards lunch, she swung the board up to reveal the gilded outlines of a great monument, recorded with a soft pencil brought from Oxford.

It was my first sight of Sheila’s distinctive style. Made at great speed, with faintly quivering lines betraying the staid perfection of the original. A little cartoon figure, no more than a triangle with a blob for a head, was poised discretely in one corner as a human measure.

She was pleased. I could tell because as we approached our lean-to with the lunch being spread out to await us, the finds team emptied out of their dark chamber to appraise her work. The length and breadth and orders of the sacred spot were being archly compared in loud assertions to temples further up the coast and even further afield. Sheila held the board but said nothing except at one point to wryly cuss the Byzantine church for making it all so damned complicated. In a lull, though, for her clever audience’s ears, she praised my efforts. It was our work.

I napped after lunch; Sheila meanwhile, white head bent low over her board, fashioned the details, rubbing her pencil lines and tracing them anew. Nothing was wasted. At three thirty back we went to the temple, remaining until the sun dipped towards Kos, when as if to catch the moment she smiled a lavish smile.

The great temple had been tamed.

I guess it had taken her three or more days, but it was our concentrated blitzkrieg that delivered it. I watched Sheila many times over the next decades, transfixed by the understated magic of her art. Economy was essential to her thinking, as much as her unwavering certitude to capture the full grandiosity of a building and bring it to life on her drawing board. My baptism, as so many times in later years, ended in her tent where beside her jars of marmalade was nestled a bottle of Gordon’s gin. We toasted Dionysos, and, as ever the subject turned to what Iris Cornelia Love might make of it. That is, when she descended upon us mere mortals.


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