Jan. 23, 2023

In Memoriam: Nicholas David, Faculty of Arts

Campus flag lowered Jan. 23, 2023
Nicholas David
Nicholas David Courtesy Judy Sterner

Nicholas David, professor emeritus in the Department of Anthropology and Archaeology, died peacefully at home on Jan. 11, 2023.

Born in Cambridge, U.K., Nic attended school at Winchester, Trinity College Cambridge and Harvard University where he completed his PhD in 1966. At Harvard, Nic studied with the eminent archaeologist, Hal Movius, working on aspects of French Paleolithic culture in the Dordogne region of France. 

Later, his interests turned to the prehistory of West Africa where he worked for most of his career. 

Nic’s innovative approach to the interpretation of past material culture led to the development of a new field called ethnoarchaeology. Ethnoarchaeology involves working with the producers of material culture to better understand the meaning and significance of production, use, discard and reuse of materials. With co-author, Carol Kramer, he wrote what has become the standard text and reference work for the field, Ethnoarchaeology in Action (2002), published by Cambridge University Press.

Professor David came to the University of Calgary in 1980, first as a visiting professor, and then as a tenured member of faculty in 1981. He served as head of the Department of Archaeology from 1987 to 1992.

With his wife, anthropologist Judy Sterner, he carried out fieldwork in Cameroon and Nigeria, funded largely through the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. The Mandara Archaeological Project (1984-2003) focused on learning about the production and use of items as well as modifications of the landscape by the people of Sukur.

In addition to publication of written work, Nic filmed, edited and produced a series of important anthropological films, visually documenting the production of material items and the integration of the steps in production to the culture of the people. He explored the production of iron from raw materials through to the manufacture of iron tools; ceramic production, use and the nature of discarded material, modification of the landscape and treatment of the dead. 

Dedicated to promoting African archaeology and African archaeologists, Nic was the founding editor of the African Archaeological Review (1981-85), published by Cambridge University Press. He served on the editorial boards of a number of other journals including World Archaeology. His work on pre-Iron Age and the early Iron Age in the Central African Republic led to the rewriting of that country’s history textbooks and an archaeological definition of the spread of the Ubangian-speaking peoples from Cameroon eastwards to East Africa. 

In 2002, Professor David retired and became professor emeritus. He continued to receive SSHRC funding and to carry out his African research long after his retirement. He also developed and maintained a website about the people of the Sukur in the Mandara Mountains with whom he had lived and worked. 

He and Judy contributed to the inscription of the Sukur Cultural Landscape to the UNESCO World Heritage list, established in 1999. In late 2014 Sukur was attacked by Boko Haram; Nic responded by founding the Boko Haram Victims fund and website.

Nic is survived by his wife, Judy Sterner, brother Sebastian, sisters Teresa and Eliza, children Ivo Hennig (Victoria), Branwen Hennig and Tilmar Hennig (Gabi) and three grandchildren as well as eight nieces and nephews.

A memorial service will be held later in spring 2023.

Donations can be made in Nic’s name to the Aplastic Anemia and Myelodysplasia Association of Canada.