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Laureation address: Warwick Ball

Honorary Degree of Doctor of Letters
Laureation by Professor Ali Ansari, School of History

Friday 24 June 2022

Vice-Chancellor, it is my privilege to present for the degree of Doctor of Letters, honoris causa, Warwick Ball. 

Warwick Ball is an archaeologist of the Near East and Central Asia with a particular interest in Afghanistan. He is a teacher, writer and explorer; a prolific author, whose career is testament to the fact that pathways to intellectual innovation and success are rarely orthodox: that to push the boundaries of the envelope one must frequently venture to the frontiers – both geographically and intellectually – of knowledge. 

Warwick began his career in archaeology when he went to join the excavations at Siraf in southern Iran during his gap year at the age of nineteen. He never looked back. Avoiding the traditional path of a university degree, Warwick decided instead to stay in the field extending his interests into Afghanistan in 1972, a country for which he would discover – among the many artefacts – an abiding interest and affection. He served as the last effective Director of the British Institute of Afghan Studies, being one of the last Western archaeologists to leave the country in 1981. 

It also convinced him that the approaches to the archaeology and history of the Near East leant too heavily in a Eurocentric direction, most obviously the conventional understanding of the Roman Empire. It is no exaggeration to say that Warwick’s work brought Afghanistan in from the margins to its rightful place as a key player in the history of Eurasia. 

With further work and excavations in Syria, Libya, Ethiopia, Jordan and Iraq, Warwick effectively and cogently argued for a more cosmopolitan interpretation of developments. Eschewing simple explanations, Warwick sought to reflect the complex dynamics at work in the movement of peoples and ideas across Eurasia, the spread, in particular, of religious ideas – including the fact that Buddhism spread west before it spread east – and the role of women in the adoption of Christianity in Rome. 

His many books and publications include Excavations at Kandahar; Cairo to Kabul (with Leonard Harrow); Ancient Settlement in the Zammar Region; Syria: An Architectural and Historical Guide; The Monuments of Afghanistan. History, Archaeology, Architecture; Rome in the East: the Transformation
of an Empire (awarded the James Henry Breasted History Prize); The Archaeological Gazetteer of Afghanistan; The Archaeology of Afghanistan; The Eurasian Steppe: People, Movement, Ideas. His keen interest in the question of European identity and the impact of the east were explored in a quartet of books published between 2009 and 2015 under the rubric of ‘Asia in Europe and the Making of the West’. 

In 1994 Warwick founded Eastern Approaches, a special interest heritage tour operator, taking his first tour to north-eastern Iran. His final tour in 2016 was to northern China, taking a party from Xanadu to the Jade Gate. 

Despite having formally retired in 2016, Warwick remains very much active in the field, founding the Journal Afghanistan in 2018 and publishing East of the Wardrobe: The Unexpected Worlds of CS Lewis (Oxford University Press, New York, 2022), an investigation into the eastern religious elements in the writing of CS Lewis, in 2022. 

Vice-Chancellor, for his tireless efforts in expanding the horizons of our understanding of the east, and its profound impact on the west, I invite you to confer – after a 52-year ‘gap year’ – the degree of Doctor of Letters, honoris causa, on Warwick Ball.