Parvine Helen Merrillees (nee Razavi) (1932 – 2019)
Published on November 23, 2019
Written by Robert S. Merrillees

On 23 November 2019 Parvine Helen Merrillees ( née Razavi ) died in Auxerre, France, far from her place of birth in Isfahan, the town of Hamadan where she spent her early childhood in the 1930s, and from the mountains of Iran which meant more to her than all the other landscapes she later encountered elsewhere. The last paintings she did at home in France were of Mount Damavand and the tomb of Esther in Hamadan. Parvine never shook the dust of Persia from her feet. Though subsequently brought up and educated in England, married to an Australian and living in many different parts of the world as the wife of an itinerant diplomat, she retained her strong attachment to the sights, sounds and smells of Iran and took every opportunity while her father, Hassan Razavi, was still alive in Teheran, to return for a visit and renew contact with her Persian relatives. Her last trip took place in 1996 after her father had died and his writings and personal effects wilfully disposed of. It was for her a very sad and terminal home coming, but at least she had the consolation of knowing that his unpublished memoirs were still in her possession, together with some of his translations. Hassan was fluent in English, Farsi and French and had married Florence Leahy, Helen’s mother, an Irish woman living in Manchester, England.

Given her background it is not surprising Helen was naturally drawn to the study of ancient history at University College London in the late 1950s, and from this developed her growing interest in and commitment to Persian archaeology, especially cylinder and stamp seals. Having obtained a Bachelor of Arts degree she embarked on a diploma course at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London but for a variety of reasons she was unable to finish the course. She had nevertheless become used to examining ancient Near Eastern seal stones while working for a time at the British Museum and took every advantage of her travels to investigate collections of glyptic material in public institutions and write up catalogues for publication or reference purposes. The one work that gave her the greatest satisfaction was Volume VI of The Catalogue of Western Asiatic Seals in the British Museum. Pre-Achaemenid and Achaemenid Periods (London 2005). Apart from the distinction of contributing to a prestigious series of museum catalogues, she was able to use all her talents for research and draughtsmanship, her descriptive abilities and her training in ancient history to produce a volume that stood in its own right as a singular addition to knowledge of Iran’s Achaemenid past.

In this endeavour Helen was much indebted to John Curtis, then Keeper of the Department of the Ancient Near East at the British Museum, who entrusted her with this undertaking and supported her throughout the drawn out and complex process of completion, and to Dominique Collon, a long standing colleague and friend who with much toil and dedication performed the role of advisor and editor. Having made several innovations to the substance of the catalogue, Helen therefore expected that this work would be given a reception which took account of these new approaches and the efforts that had gone into making available for the first time detailed information about one of the most important collections of Achaemenid gems in the world. While some recognised the positive merits of the study, one gratuitously concluded that the resource needed to be used with “great care “. On being assured that this comment said more about the reviewer than the book, she continued undeterred with her researches, committed in this, as in all things, to finish what she had started. As it is, the volume is not only now out of print but has almost turned into a collector’s item in its own right!

Both Helen and I became involved with BIPS at an early stage of our respective archaeological careers and kept in touch with others who shared our interests and followed Iranian affairs. It was at the Institute in Teheran that we first made the acquaintance of David Stronach and his wife, Ruth, whom we subsequently met again in Jerusalem, and were impressed to discover that they knew more about the situation in pre-revolutionary Iran than the usually well informed British Embassy. While on posting in New York Helen resumed contact with Joseph Upton, an American who had befriended her father during the Second World War, when they were both based in Teheran. Joe, who was then living in Pennsylvania and had an unusual connection with Australia, wrote and published  three engaging booklets on Travels in Iran ( 1970, 1972 and 1975 ), which he gave us, as well as another on The History of Modern Iran. An Interpretation (Cambridge, Mass. 1960). Helen also long took an interest in the family of Bishop Hassan Dehqani-Tafti, Anglican Bishop of Iran from 1960 to 1990, which she first got to know in Isfahan, and was able to commiserate with him in person in Nicosia over the tragic death of his son, Bahram, in 1980 in Iran.

Above all Helen valued her friendship with Vesta Sarkhosh Curtis, which remained steadfast despite the distance that kept them from seeing each other more often. She found herself on the same wave length as Vesta, despite their differences in age and upbringing, and felt able to talk to her about all manner of subjects, including Iran, in a way that she did not and could not with any other interlocutor, including members of her own Razavi and Leahy families.

Our house near Auxerre is filled with Persian souvenirs from a lifetime of acquisitions, a visible and permanent reminder of the glories of Iran’s millennial civilisation and Parvine’s undying spiritual home.

Robert S. Merrillees

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