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 John Spencer Purvis Bradford (1918-1975) 



Renowned British archaeologist and pioneer of aerial archaeology, John Spencer Purvis Bradford was born in Ealing, England on August 28, 1918. He began his studies in history at Oxford University, where he attended Christ Church College. He participated in many notable archaeological excavations across England, including the ancient Roman site known as “Noah’s Ark Inn” in Frilford with the Oxford University Archaeological Society. There, along with fellow Oxford archaeologist R.G. Goodchild, Bradford co-directed the discovery of a collection of Roman coins, an Anglo-Saxon burial site, and multiple Iron Age structures.


Bradford was commissioned in the Royal Intelligence Corps in January 1943. Stationed in San Severo, Italy, he served as a photo interpreter with the Mediterranean Allied Photographic Reconnaissance Wing. His duties included analyzing thousands of aerial photographs of Northwest Italy taken by the Royal Air Force (RAF). In the course of his work, he noticed what he believed to be the remains of ancient Roman sites. Immediately following the end of hostilities, he persuaded the RAF to expand its aerial surveys of the region through extra training flights and a series of field excavations under the guise of “Army Education.” Bradford’s suspicions were correct, for the sites revealed evidence of Neolithic villages, Roman centuriation (an ancient method of land surveying), ancient roads and villas, and medieval earthworks. His findings represented more than two hundred new crop-marked sites, double the previously recorded number in southern Italy.


These same aerial photographs were utilized by the MFAA to prevent the bombing of culturally significant cities and monuments in Italy. Due to his extensive familiarity with the RAF’s collection of photographs, Bradford worked closely with Monuments Man Lt. Col. John Bryan Ward-Perkins, Director of the MFAA in Italy. Along with Ward-Perkins, Bradford also helped establish air photograph collections in the American, British, and Swedish Academies in Rome, as well as at Oxford University, following the war.


Bradford continued to expand his research of Italian aerial photographs for the rest of his career, becoming the most respected scholar in the field of aerial archaeology. In 1947 he was appointed University Demonstrator and Lecturer at the Pitt-Rivers Museum at Oxford University, where he gave lectures on the archaeological value of aerial surveys. In 1949 and 1950 he led excavations in Puglia, Italy as Field Director of the British Archaeological Expedition to Apulia, a project sponsored by the Society of Antiquaries of London. Throughout the 1950s, he made trips to Sicily, Cyprus, and Greece to conduct ground surveys for potential excavations. His book, Ancient Landscapes: Studies in Field Archaeology (1957), was the culmination of ten years of research. He also contributed a chapter on the nomadic empires of Asia in the Concise Encyclopedia of World History (1958).


Bradford’s promising career was cut short by an incurable and debilitating illness. After nearly fifteen years of hospitalization, he died in Kent, England on August 12, 1975.

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