Vale Judith McKenzie
(November 28, 1957 – May 27, 2019)
In a tribute to Judith McKenzie written by Alan Walmsley, a fellow archaeologist who also prepared his doctorate at Sydney University in the mid-1980s, he praised Judith as ‘one of Australia’s most eminent alumni in the humanities’ (Levant, 2000). Yet Judith never held a distinguished ‘named’ chair at a university, never presented a documentary series on television, and died at the relatively young age of 61 when she was in the full flowering of her energy and productivity.
Judith produced a string of books ground-breaking for their assiduous scholarship, but a couple of generations of scholars and students nurtured by her commitment to setting them on the right path.
Her methods of inquiry set new standards which would mark all her subsequent output—don’t assume: record, measure, compare, question, trust only what you could see. Her Sydney University Ph D thesis had explored the inheritance of Nabataean architecture in the context of what remained of the late Hellenistic architecture of Alexandria. Most scholars would have baulked at the fact that Alexandria has largely sunk under twelve metres of mud and tectonic displacement beneath a very crowded modern city. She chased the evidence wherever it could still be found—in underground tombs surviving around Alexandria’s outskirts, in Amman, on a high plateau above the Wadi Mujib (Jordan), the museums of Yale, Europe, Jerusalem.
When she wasn’t travelling or burying herself in the repositories of museums she drew on another source of inspiration: new generations of students, groups of whom might find themselves traipsing around the Levant under her protective guidance. She had a particular talent for reaching back to her Australian roots and encouraging Australian students venturing abroad.
Judith found it impossible to huddle over the sources she had unearthed, particularly if they gave clues as to how cultures were in contact with each other in ways we might never expect in a compartmentalised world.
Following the outbreak of conflict in Syria in 2011, and the huge fallout from the conflict in the world’s greatest ‘outdoor museum’ which Syria undoubtedly is, Judith’s response was pragmatic: if scholars, the public or students could not go there, document it. Not in make-believe ‘reconstruction’ projects which could be inaugurated by dignitaries using Syria to get their names in the media but in a massive photo archive of everything that could be scooped up from the years before the crisis.
Judith couldn’t tolerate humbug but that did not mean that she left no monuments to her own achievements. It was in her books, in Manar al-Athar and among her students that she will be remembered. Archaeological publications these days often just drift with the flow of fashionable themes and accordingly have a half-life of not much more than a human generation. Not Judith’s Sydney PhD thesis. It reached its third edition as a book in 1995 and one reviewer hailed it as a work ‘destined to be used 100 years from now’. (Kokkinos JRS 1992: 280)