14 Jun 2024

A tribute to Mike Corfield ACR FSA FIIC (1942 – 2024)

The tribute written by Dr Chris Caple ACR

Mike Corfield portrait.jpg

After a career in the British army, including working with early missiles and as a pharmacist, Mike started his conservation career in 1969 as a trainee conservator in the Ancient Monuments Laboratory (Ministry of Public Buildings and Works, later the Department of the Environment and eventually English Heritage). After a work placement with David Leigh at Southampton University and lectures from Ione Gedye and Henry Hodges, Mike was awarded a Diploma in the Conservation of Archaeological Materials (with distinction) from the Institute of Archaeology in 1973.

It was in 1973 that Mike moved to Wiltshire, setting up a conservation laboratory for the county at Trowbridge and then later moving to new labs behind Salisbury Museum, where he and his colleagues were responsible for conserving a huge range of archaeological and historic objects. He was particularly proud of his role in moving the collections of General Pitt Rivers to Salisbury Museum and conserving these. The Wiltshire lab is fondly remembered by all the students who had placements there as a happy and industrious place. Mike was a great mentor – always patient, happy to talk ideas through and encourage his placement students. 

In the late 1970s Mike played a key part in setting up UKIC and subsequently its very active Archaeology Group. Later as chair of UKIC, he actively represented the organisation. He publicly disagreed with the British Museum over the reshaping of the Bush Barrow Gold Lozenge, creating an active debate which has influenced subsequent thinking about reshaping archaeological metal artefacts, and is quoted in present day conservation textbooks. Mike was brave and took responsibility for what he believed in.

By 1986 he became Senior Archaeological Conservator at the National Museum of Wales (NMW), continuing to enjoy hands-on conservation, whether working on excavations (Caerwent, Caerleon, Severn Levels sites) or restoring artefacts ahead of the reopening of the refurbished NMW Museum at Caerleon. Following his reports on the care of collections of the London National Museums and a survey of the collections of the National Museum of Wales, Mike was appointed Head of Conservation. He pushed the museum to extend conservation from archaeology into other departments like geology and botany, to deal with the conservation backlog and improve storage. His willingness to promote conservation from its traditional areas in archaeology into non-traditional areas led to his involvement with a working group in the Science Museum – extending conservation approaches to their scientific and industrial collections.  

In 1991 Mike moved back to English Heritage, as Head of Conservation and Technology, becoming Head of the Ancient Monuments Laboratory in 1995 and from 1999, English Heritage’s first Chief Scientist until he retired in 2002. Following a comprehensive survey of properties and collections, he set about matching conservation provision to need, moving the focus from teams dealing with easel paintings, wall-paintings and excavated archaeological artefacts to a collections care approach for the whole estate.

Another one of his early challenges was advising English Heritage on the Rose Theatre and preserving the waterlogged remains of this original Elizabethan theatre beneath a large office block. This was the first attempt to preserve such archaeological remains in situ; in an urban setting and beneath a building. Recognising the limited information available and the likely future need to preserve archaeological remains in situ, he was instrumental in funding research, establishing sub-surface monitoring, instituting the Preservation of Archaeological Remains in Situ (PARIS) conferences and contributing to publications on this theme.

Increasingly his role was organisational, part of the public face of English Heritage. He coped with the very public challenge of Seahenge, helping establish facilities like the York Archaeological Wood Centre and with moving the Ancient Monuments Laboratory to Fort Cumberland, Portsmouth.

Mike could see the bigger picture and that the world of developer-funded archaeology was upon us. To ensure that this commercial world could take advantage of the conservators, materials analysts, environmental archaeologists and geophysicists in universities around the country, Mike developed the Regional Science Advisor posts. These continue to be an essential national resource, ensuring archaeologists scientifically recover and record the ancient past; its artefacts and its evidence. 

After retirement Mike acted as a consultant advising UNESCO on conservation projects in India and Iran. He was a trustee or on advisory panels for Rose Theatre Trust, Newport Medieval Ship, Alderney Maritime Trust, the Kennet and Avon Canal Trust, and Mary Rose Hull, as well as the editorial boards of Journal of the Institute for Conservation and Conservation of Management of Archaeological Sites. Mike published numerous articles on many aspects of conservation from the ancient technology of the Doncaster Roman shield to what should be in a conservation record. Though he had started off in archaeological conservation, his interests and involvement were widespread – from research on bats in churches to advising on the conservation of the Albert Memorial, wall paintings in Ajanta and Ellora (India) and earthquake damage in Bam (Iran).  He wanted to support the heritage of all the peoples of the world whether that was in a humble local parish church or a grand national monument.

He was always concerned to help conservation students. In addition to establishing or encouraging industrial placements in whatever organisation he was working for, he acted as an external examiner at Cardiff, Durham, West Dean, the Institute of Archaeology, and other conservation courses. Even as an expert, a knowledgeable and senior figure in the subject, Mike was courteous and approachable, he could and would talk to anybody.

Mike was part of that first generation – stepping away from the skilful but simple mending and cleaning of antiquities and stripping off metal corrosion crusts to embrace a more ethical approach identifying and preserving the evidence sought by modern archaeology. He recognised the benefits of working with a team, going beyond the individual craft tradition (though he still valued and respected that) to take a holistic view of heritage, seeking whatever means were appropriate to research it, record it and preserve it. He was as effective in a committee as using a vibro-tool.

In 2016 Mike was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s – a disease he fought bravely. Slowly he lost touch with the world and we lost a valued friend and colleague. Mike died on 10 March 2024, a year after his beloved wife, Sheila. They leave a son John, daughters Barbara and Christine and their families, and many friends and colleagues. Mike’s English Heritage colleague John Fiddler summed it up well.  Mike was ‘A true gentleman, quiet persuader and passionate advocate for the conservation of cultural heritage.’ Mike helped shape artefact conservation and especially archaeological conservation in Britain. He was a friend, a colleague or mentor to so very many of us; we will miss him.   

With thanks to Dr Chris Caple ACR