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Kate Holtham-Oakley 1965–2019


Kate Holtham-Oakley, who passed away in February 2019, was a dedicated archaeologist, known widely for her expertise with finds, strong abilities in project organization, and as a founder member of the Folkestone Research and Archaeology Group (FRAG); she was, too, a successful University scholar who was studying for a PhD. The archaeology, history and heritage of Kent has long been well-served by volunteers committed to discovery, recording, galvanizing others, and promoting the past for the education of the wider community; Kate was an outstanding contributor in these respects. For these reasons her passing has been a great loss to the exploration of Kent’s past. This loss, however, is felt the more acutely by those who knew and worked with her, for reason of the warmth and humour of her personality, and the ‘can do’ nature and the enthusiasm with which she approached her work. She was quick to welcome and involve all-comers, to instruct and to share her growing knowledge. In consequence, Kate became a valued communicator and projector of what the archaeological finds and discoveries in Kent and beyond could convey.

Born in the mid-’60s to a Forces family Kate’s earlier life saw her experience various homes in Britain and overseas. Following strong school achievements (10 ‘O’ levels/GCSE Grade 1 passes) her early jobs included the contrasting tasks of accountancy work (she held a BTEC Diploma in Business Studies) and running a bar in the Canaries. Those experiences were both consistent with the person she was, for she employed the skills of data management in recording and logging finds and in her doctoral studies, while doubtless her down-to-earth manner of speaking served her well in conversation across the bar with thirsty sun-seekers. Back in Britain she settled in Folkestone and from the turn of the millennium, with two sons off to school, there was a chance of some time to dedicate to her increasing passion: the study of the past. Spurred by her mother’s academic success as a mature student, Kate decided to study for a degree, taking an access course, the completion of which enabled her to enrol for an undergraduate degree at the University of Kent, taking a degree in Classical and Archaeological Studies in which she began to excel. Home life and health, however, presented challenges around this time and those who knew her understood that life was not always easy for Kate; her boys, of course, came first, yet as a single parent she nonetheless graduated with a strong 2.1 degree in 2007, her often original, practical, approach gaining high marks. Deciding, for instance, to consider the then popular attention in Iron Age studies to the influence of cosmology on cultural life she wrote a critical evaluation in an essay memorably entitled ‘Cosmology and the First Millennium BC people: Cultural impact or just “Pie in the Sky”?’. Her degree was an achievement of which she was rightly very proud. During these studies, and for some summers subsequently, she was able to participate in training digs in Kent and East Sussex, firstly at Bishopstone, under the directorship of Gabor Thomas, and subsequently at Otford (twice) and Culver (2008-9). She relished these experiences, especially the camping, the trowel work and the camaraderie. Some people have suggested that Facebook was invented in order for Kate to communicate her discoveries and forward news and her views of other happenings in the field of archaeology in its various forms. She certainly worked the software hard, frequently adding her own comments, variously academic, insightful, and curious, and (much more enlivening to her social-media followers), more directly frank comments and hilarious observations, all in a good spirit.

Around the late noughties Kate was increasingly involved in projects around south-east Kent. This in turn (in 2010) brought her to something that was to be a key element of her later life, namely the ‘A Town Unearthed’ project focused upon Folkestone, and led by Canterbury Archaeological Trust and Canterbury Christ Church University. Kate quickly signed up as a volunteer on this new venture. The main strand of this initiative was the re-excavation of the Roman villa overlooking East Wear Bay (aka the ‘Folkestone villa’). Kate was soon at the centre of the fieldwork and in time its follow-on, the ‘East Wear Bay Project’, where the focus was upon the Iron Age industrial and trading evidence. Whilst Keith Parfitt directed the villa excavations Kate was at the heart of processing the rich assemblage of artefacts revealed by the diggers. Over several years Kate, and her team of stalwart volunteers, freely devoted hundreds of days on-site and then in the CAT store at the former Customs premises at Dover harbour, cleaning, sorting and cataloguing the finds. The inspired idea to re-examine the site, partly revealed by S.E. Winbolt in the 1920s, resulted in headline discoveries, transforming understanding of this tip of Britain as an ancient pivot to the continent. It also brought forth vast quantities of finds. Careful researching of the wide variety of freshly excavated items broadened Kate’s awareness, knowledge that she then shared with the large numbers of site visitors. The finds included, for example, huge amounts of roof tile, marine shell, obsidian, rare amphora fragments and the remarkable collection of quern rough-outs and ‘failures’ from the Iron Age milling-stone factory exploiting the Greensand outcrop by the bay. Dealing with (often literally heaving) these finds brought Kate into contact with leading artefact specialists such as Prof. David Peacock and Chris Green. The long hours, hard work and management in completing this processing was a major, if un-sung, achievement wherein Kate led from the front. She was undoubtedly a key personality in the overall success of these two major investigations. The Kent Archaeological Society (KAS) had the opportunity to acknowledge Kate’s contribution, as she received the first bursary arising from proceeds of its inaugural Fieldwork Conference in 2014.

Growing skills and experience, confidence in caring for finds and the drive to spread the word of discoveries led hand in hand to the foundation of FRAG, which Kate and her colleagues set up in 2012. FRAG membership was in part a formalization of the dynamic volunteer network arising around the work on these Folkestone centred projects. Kate was treasurer and at the centre of activities, such as assisting and then taking increasing responsibility in the fieldwork that revealed the Roman villa at Marwood Farm near Lympne. The group soon established itself as a vibrant entity that Kate’s input has ensured will have a strong future. Her presence is sorely missed by FRAG, though as the group spreads its wings with new ventures, they readily declare this is because of Kate, and in her memory.

Not one to rest on her laurels Kate had embarked on a further degree in 2009, taking a Masters in Archaeology part-time and graduating with a Merit. She was thrilled by praise received from the external examiner, Prof. Tony King and by the fact that, at this advanced level, her overall mark was above average, while she was also running a home and family at the same time. Her MA work included an excursus on the use of the label ‘Celts’, a term and topic around which she was always certain to take an animated view, this being “the ‘C’ word” in her parlance. This degree likewise saw her first research on Iron Age spoons. These curious, castanet-like items, fashioned from copper alloy, often found as a pair and occasionally pierced, held her attention thereafter. Indeed, this was a subject she spoke on at the Iron Age Research Students Symposium (IARSS) that she attended at Bradford University in 2017 (paper entitled ‘When is a spoon not a spoon?’), and which was looking likely to result in a learned publication under her name had time allowed her.

In 2012 Kate began her doctoral thesis examining the Iron Age to Roman transition through an examination of patterns and variations in the development of sites, with samples drawn from Kent, Gloucestershire and Yorkshire. In part, this grew out of a fascination with the biography of the Folkestone site, but came to encompass a wider vision. Kate amassed a very large amount of information as the basis for this study: combining online research with the traditional trawl through weighty monographs, developing sophisticated spreadsheets organizing the findings. Already trained in Autocad she was also learning to use GIS software to map her data. At this point (summer 2015) Kate was diagnosed with cancer. Her journey with the disease and the treatments and consequences she endured were little short of ghastly, yet she never complained but instead pressed on. Several further activities stand out. In September 2016, along with FRAG members, she undertook the finds processing for the excavations at the Bourne Park Roman villa where she instructed students not simply on archaeological finds processing but with regard to what everything represented and what could be learned from it. Her plain speaking invariably meant she could successfully convey the importance of the evidence to non-specialists and youthful students in tours of the finds-shed or in PowerPoints, and behind this, certainly by the time of her PhD studies, was authoritative knowledge. (At the Folkestone Book Festival, in November 2011, she memorably probed Francis Pryor, no less, with a series of challenging questions around the interpretation of prehistory). Friendship and participation with fellow Iron Age research students saw Kate, in spite of her deepening heath issues, determined to host the IARSS conference at her home institution in 2018. The result was a resounding success with Kate giving her own paper and coordinating the programme in the manner she wished. Kate’s final fieldwork activities were firstly in assisting with the KAS excavations at Lees Court, in the late summer of 2018, where, health permitting, she again led the finds processing, with her shining enthusiasm still to the fore. Later, in the autumn, she once more ran finds processing activities, this time at Folkestone vicarage, as part of the Finding Eanswythe Community Project, where she also wielded her trowel.

Till the end her maxim was taken from Monty Python: always look on the bright side. Kate was a person to see things through and nothing would have been more fulfilling for her, her family and friends, to have seen the day when she became a Doctor of Archaeology. That achievement was not to be, but a great many undertakings she did see through to thorough completion. She took a responsible attitude, and always set her personal standards high, doing her utmost to raise others to such levels. It was through her good will, generous manner and unique personality that she came to be loved by the broad community that shared many days and experiences with her, by the cliff, in the store, or in the classroom.

Steven Willis *

* Dr Steve Willis, Head of Department of Classical & Archaeological Studies, Senior Lecturer in Archaeology, University of Kent

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