Geologist, field researcher, and rockhound Stephen Moorbath cannot get enough of grubbing in the dirt, apparently, as we’ll learn from his backbreaking experiences on the dig of his friend and fellow scientist Bill Waldren.
Q: Stephen, you and I met in September 1998, at the archaeological dig run by Bill and Jackie Waldren on the Spanish island of Mallorca in the Balearics. You were hunkered down in an uncomfortable little pit, going through untold shovels full of reddish Mallorcan soil, just as I was.
How did you first get interested in Bill’s work—via geology and/or archaeology? You were his mentor and path-smoother at Oxford, weren’t you?
A: I first met Bill in 1975. At the age of 50, he presented himself for admission to Linacre, my Oxford college, to carry out research for a doctoral thesis (which we call a D. Phil.) on his pioneering archaeological work on the island of Mallorca. Bill had no previous academic experience at all—but he so impressed the Admissions Committee (of which I was a member) with his striking, macho personality and with his past, present, and future research, that he was unanimously accepted as a research student, against all the normal academic rules.
• Bill had always been a “do-er” rather than a “thinker.” Nevertheless, his eventual doctoral thesis turned out to be one of the biggest, heaviest, longest, most beautifully illustrated, not to say illustrious, thesis of this type anyone could recall. It certainly showed that Bill could “think” with the best of them!
Q: Was Jackie whipping up those amazing, succulent meals back then? The memory of those lunches and dinners from the Waldren clan, supplemented by astonishing quantities of good red wine, remains fresh in my mind.
A: Bill’s wife Jackie always provided immense and essential support for Bill throughout his archaeological career in Mallorca. She ran their impressive, jointly designed house and the Museum in the village of Deia. Later, Jackie’s professional interests turned to Social Anthropology.
Q: She wrote a book on the cultural anthropology of Mallorca, didn’t she?
A: Yes. And in between, she also managed the numerous 2-week parties of Earthwatch-supported pioneers who came every year to the Waldren’s home, mainly from the USA, to take part in Bill’s extensive and ongoing excavations.
Q: The dig was quite close to Valdemosa, as I recall.
A: Yes, the neighboring village. Just a short walk from where Frederic Chopin and his mistress Georges Sand spent a lamentally cold and dank winter in 1838. She wrote a book about it. Chopin was supposed to recover from his lung complaint in the predicted Mediterranean sunshine, which didn’t materialize that year. Instead of composing, poor Chopin was decomposing! Anyway, after three months of suffering, they returned to Paris, where Chopin gradually recovered.
Q: Stephen, in your estimation, what is the lasting legacy of Bill’s work? Did the two of you ever collaborate on any project? (Besides drinking good Spanish wine and eating their wondrous cooking, that is…)
A: Bill’s work was of major importance in clarifying the pre-history of Mallorca from the time that human beings arrived there from the mainland, some 6000 years ago. He also worked on the fossils of antelopes called Myotragus, which survived on Mallorca island long after they had died out on the mainland of Spain. They evolved in unusual ways in that island environment.
Q: How did Bill discover the Myotragus bones?
A: When he arrived in Mallorca from Paris in the 1960’s, he had no special knowledge of archaeology. But he soon started exploring the many large limestone caves in which, almost single-handedly, he made the most exciting and important discoveries which formed the starting point for all his later research. The antelope bones had been thrown down into the caves, you see. That laid the foundation for his academic reputation. Bill’s work is of lasting importance in Mediterranean studies.
Q: What about your personal relationship with the Waldrens?
A: My wife, Pauline, and I quickly became close friends with Bill and Jackie soon after they arrived in Oxford in the mid-1970’s. We have visited them nearly every year in Mallorca since then. We took part in the ongoing excavations together with the Earthwatch volunteers (including our illustrious and muscular author Vicki). Our contributions were brawny rather than brainy, but we followed all of Bill’s scientific achievements with the greatest interest, year by year. His death a few years ago was a major loss to everyone, both from a personal and scientific viewpoint.
By the way, my own geological research is not at all related to Bill’s activities—but Bill had the ability to inspire everyone with his achievements. I have to admit that archaeology can be just as inspiring as geology!
A: What a gratifying friendship. And what a gratifying Earthwatch dig that was—getting to meet you and the Waldrens was a peak experience for me. Please stay tuned for my next blogpost, where we’ll cajole Stephen into revealing all about his volcano fascination, his philately, and his Etruscan fixation.