Ancient Arabia: Languages and Cultures

Geraldine King (1954-2009) - In Memoriam

Geraldine King obituaryPlease note: The Ancient Arabia Languages and Cultures (AALC) project was a one year project funded by the University of Oxford's John Fell Fund, and came to an end in 2011. This website acts as a historical record of the project, and is no longer actively updated.

Geraldine Margaret Harmsworth King died on 12 October 2009 after a long and courageous battle with cancer. She was fifty-five and leaves a daughter, Ellie, who is thirteen. Geraldine served as Secretary of the Seminar and editor of the Proceedings, between 1992 and 1996. She organized the annual meetings in Oxford, Cambridge, Manchester, and London and all those who attended the Seminar in those days will remember her kindness, efficiency, and extremely hard work. When the news of her death was circulated to all those on the Seminar's mailing list I received an enormous number of warm messages from those who remembered her with gratitude and affection.

Geraldine was an excellent scholar who played an important part in deepening our understanding of the Ancient North Arabian inscriptions and providing a much sounder basis for their study. She undertook a number of expeditions to the deserts of Jordan and Syria and the mountains of Dhofar, recording thousands of inscriptions which she then worked on patiently and perceptively over many years.

Before she went up to the University of Durham to read Philosophy in the early 1970s, Geraldine had spent a year teaching in Ethiopia. After graduating from Durham, she spent another year teaching, this time in Sudan. While there, she began to learn spoken Arabic and on her return to the UK enrolled for a degree course in Arabic at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. As part of this course, she spent a year in Amman at the University of Jordan; it was there that Annie Searight and I first got to know her and she became a life-long friend.

Having completed her SOAS degree she came to work with me at Yarmouk University on the Corpus of the Inscriptions of Jordan Project which I had set up there, at the behest of Professor Mahmud al-Ghul. Geraldine worked on the Project for almost five years, recording large numbers of Safaitic inscriptions and creating much of the academic infrastructure for the Project.

In 1986 and 1987, she single-handedly recorded over 1500 Hismaic inscriptions in the south of Jordan. She produced an edition of most of these in her doctoral thesis at SOAS, which was completed in 1990. However, her thesis was much more than an edition, for in it she undertook the first detailed analysis of every aspect of this type of Ancient North Arabian inscription, thus making it possible to separate it from the "Thamudic pending file" in which, under the name "Thamudic E", it had languished since the 1930s. Although she never published her thesis, it quickly became, and has remained, the standard reference work on the subject; photocopies of it can be found in most academic libraries dealing with ancient Jordan and Arabia.

Between January and March 1989, Geraldine and Becca Montague spent six weeks in the basalt desert of north-eastern Jordan in freezing temperatures, recording inscriptions and sites which were about to be destroyed by bulldozers clearing a network of tracks for the enormous machines searching for oil-bearing rocks. In the process, Geraldine recorded over 3700 inscriptions and a huge number of rock drawings, and Becca over 400 sites (see PSAS 20, 1990: 55–78). Geraldine had almost finished preparing the inscriptions for publication when she died.

In the 1980s and early 1990s, Ali Ahmad al-Mahash al-Shahri discovered hundreds of painted and carved texts in the mountains of Dhofar, in a previously unknown form of the South Semitic script (see PSAS 21, 1991: 173–191). He asked Geraldine to mount an expedition with him to record these and in 1991 and 1992 they recorded some 900. Geraldine wrote a very full report and even designed a font to represent the letters of the inscriptions so that she could prepare a concordance, a prerequisite for any decipherment.

I am happy to say that, within the next two years, her thesis and these two other large collections of inscriptions will be published online on the website of the new Ancient Arabia: Languages and Cultures (AALC) project of the Khalili Research Centre, University of Oxford.

In 1995 and 1996 she joined the first two seasons of the Safaitic Epigraphic Survey Programme, which recorded over 4000 Safaitic inscriptions in southern Syria. However, in December 1996 her daughter, Ellie, was born and from then on Geraldine concentrated on the more important and rewarding role of being a mother.

Geraldine was not only an excellent scholar and an indefatigable field-worker, but also a warm, loyal, generous, and affectionate friend. She could always be relied on in any circumstances, however gruelling, and showed great courage and endurance when required. She was also gentle and funny and very kind. She will be fondly remembered by all who were lucky enough to come into contact with her.

Michael Macdonald

Taken from the Proceedings of the Seminar for Arabian Studies, Volume 40, 2010