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Ambassador's wife turned archaeologist

Ambassadors' wives are not supposed to get too passionate or partisan about the countries in which their husbands serve. If a revolution breaks out, they are supposed to keep their heads down, maintain the morale of the staff and make sure the flag is still flying.

Jill Braithwaite, who died in November, was not that sort of ambassador's wife. On August 20 1991, when the streets of Moscow were in chaos after a KGB-led coup against Mikhail Gorbachev, she was on the barricades around the White House, where Boris Yeltsin was refusing to surrender. With Russian friends who lived nearby, she served bread and soup to chilly demonstrators.

It was a typical act of commitment from a woman who was always engaged beyond the call of duty. If the coup had succeeded, there is little doubt that she and her husband, Sir Rodric Braithwaite, would have been on the next plane out of Russia. But it failed and she was able to carry on building a network of social projects and aid programmes, many of which still exist today.

Ambassadors' wives are not supposed to be enthusiastic about alternative careers, either. But Jill was. Halfway through her life, after being first a diplomat herself and then a wife and mother (the Foreign Office insisted on her giving up her job), she embarked on a new career as an archaeologist, culminating in the publication, almost 20 years later, of a seminal study of Roman face pots – Faces of the Past.

It was a subject that no one had previously thought to study, according to Richard Reece, who was a lecturer at the Institute of Archaeology at London University when she started as a mature student in 1979. She was inspired to pursue it when she returned one day from lunch to one of his lectures and "woke up from a short nap to be confronted by an enormous grotesque face leering at her", he recalls.

It was a classic Roman face pot but he was unable to explain much about it and she was intrigued. There was no literature on the subject because face pots – simple pottery decorated with all sorts of weird and wonderful faces – were scattered in small numbers across the ancient Roman empire, from the Black Sea to Spain and from southern Italy to Scotland. "The evidence was so disjointed," says Mr Reece. "A given site might have been dug for 10 years, but only two or three pieces found that might have been part of a face pot."

Jill set about putting that right. She first published an undergraduate dissertation on British face pots, which appeared in Britannia, the journal of Roman Britain, and then embarked on a PhD covering face pots throughout Europe. It took her more than 15 years, with time out to be ambassador's wife in Moscow.

"It was partly a declaration of independence," says Rodric. "But she was fascinated by it, and a very meticulous scholar."

She travelled all over Europe seeking specimens along the old Roman frontiers from Germany to Romania and Yugoslavia as well as Italy. Her love of languages – she had joined the Foreign Office in 1959, having studied French, Italian and Spanish at London University, and later learned Russian and Polish – was a great help.

Nobody really knows what the face pots were for but Jill managed to trace their random discovery to the movement of Roman legions, spotting similar styles in eyebrows or lolling tongues. Because they often turn up as whole pots, Jill concluded they were used as burial urns. They were low-life products, not great art.

When Jill accompanied her husband back to Moscow in 1988, just as the Gorbachev revolution was gathering pace, when I was FT correspondent there, she had to put archaeology to one side. The transformation of the Soviet Union left no time or emotional energy for academic work. They were a remarkable ambassadorial couple at a crucial moment. "Her diary was much darker when she was there," says Rodric. "She was almost overwhelmed by events, and by the poverty she saw around her."

At one moment in 1990, the ambassador's sitting room became a store room for more than 100 wheelchairs, sent from British hospitals to be used in the Russian health sector. She became involved in supporting a children's home at Dmitrov and another project at Tolga, where nuns were refurbishing a ruined monastery as a convent. She used to drive out to help them at weekends. She had a British middle-class Church of England background but she related to the Russian Orthodox Church.

"She found the faith and the music very moving, even though she knew that many of the priests had compromised with the regime," says Rodric.

One of her main projects was to improve the care of mentally and physically disabled children in cities of the Volga region; another to care for the elderly in Siberia. The already inadequate social services in the Soviet Union had collapsed almost completely. Jill set out to help repair the damage.

Her social work took her to places like Kemerovo, coal-mine capital capital of western Siberia, where she worked with middle-aged Communist women: "She liked these people. They got things done," says Rodric. "But she found it very harrowing."

Jill was also someone who "got things done". She was charming and organised and incredibly hard-working. Her enthusiasm often exceeded her stamina.

She finally published her PhD on face pots after she came home in 1993. It was the core, with a lot of extra material and illustrations of hundreds of fascinating faces, of the book she published in 2007. But it was too late for any reviews to appear before she died. No one else knows enough about the subject to provide a thorough peer review. She was ahead of her time.

Gillian Mary Robinson was born in London on September 15 1937. She is survived by her husband, Rodric, three sons and one daughter. One twin son, Mark, died as a child.

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