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William (Bill) Culican (1928–1984)

by Ronald T. Ridley

This article was published:

William (Bill) Culican (1928-1984), archaeologist, was born on 21 August 1928 at New Barn Farm, Great Harwood, Lancashire, eldest son of Alfred Culican, farm labourer, and his wife Louisa, née Richardson. Educated at the Catholic College, Preston, Bill intended to study classics and medicine. His national military service (1947-49) in the Royal Army Medical Corps included a posting to Germany.

At the University of Edinburgh (MA, 1953) Culican read classics and archaeology. Graduating with first-class honours in the latter, he won a scholarship to Queen’s College, Oxford, to start a B.Litt. on the Western Phoenicians; he also studied Egyptian, and joined the Oxford excavation at Motya in Sicily in 1955. On 4 February 1956 he married with Catholic rites Elisabeth (`Dinny’) Frances Badenoch, a secondary schoolteacher, at the Church of Saint Edmund and Saint Frideswide, Oxford. He travelled to Jerusalem as a scholar at the British Institute of Archaeology before returning to Edinburgh, learning Sumerian and Akkadian and winning the Tweedie scholarship to examine Syro-Hittite monuments in Turkey.

After applying for many jobs, Culican was appointed lecturer in Semitic studies at the University of Melbourne in 1960 and promoted to senior lecturer in 1964. Transferring to the department of history in 1966, he became reader in 1972. He was a foundation member of the Humanities Research Council (1966) and the Australian Academy of the Humanities (1969). Through these years he immersed himself in academic and extra-mural commitments with tireless energy. Although he classed himself as an art historian, his field-work was extensive. In 1965 he founded the Archaeological Society of Victoria (its members largely drawn from his devoted Council of Adult Education students), which evolved into the Archaeological and Anthropological Society of Victoria (president 1982-83). With the architect John Taylor he branched into industrial archaeology, directing the excavation of nineteenth-century cement works at Fossil Beach, Mornington, Victoria (1966-69); their book (1972) covering the project won several prizes. During the 1970s he worked in Iran, the Levant, Sicily, Africa and Europe, and became an indispensable participant in Oriental congresses. He was the pottery expert in Honor Frost’s excavation of a Punic ship at Marsala, Sicily (1972), and director of the Melbourne excavations at el Quitar, Syria (1982), and the excavation of an Aboriginal ochre mine at Mount Gog, Tasmania (1983).

Iran and Phoenicia were Culican’s two central fields of research. His main scholarly output comprised articles in learned journals on both; those on the Phoenicians were collected in his Opera Selecta (1986). Otherwise he is remembered for The Medes and Persians (1965) and The First Merchant Venturers (1966), both volumes demonstrating his mastery of descriptive prose and art history. His definitive chapter on Phoenician colonisation appeared posthumously in the Cambridge Ancient History (1992). He also planned books on Persian cities and Iranian metal work.

Culican taught `Biblical Archaeology’ and `Pre-Classical Antiquity’. His lectures were daunting to first-year and uncommitted students, but inspiring to more advanced scholars. Striking in his manner and use of colour, notably in his dress and the many shades of his ink, Culican was also an engaging raconteur, drawing on the many eccentrics of the archaeological world, pretending with conscious irony not to be one of them, and embellishing his stories with a high-pitched, spluttering laugh. He loved to perform, presiding over one interdepartmental lunch wearing an apron on which he had drawn a giant escutcheon above the motto `Ich diene’ (`I serve’). A prodigious memory gave his discussions of artefacts their vital contexts, and he ranged with ease over the Mediterranean world and as far east as India.

Survived by his wife and their five sons and two daughters, Culican died of myocardial infarction and diabetes on 24 March 1984 at his home in South Box Hill. He was buried in Templestowe cemetery. At the time of his death he had been nominated for the personal chair he richly deserved.

Select Bibliography

  • Australian Academy of the Humanities, Proceedings, 1982­83, p 119
  • Archiv für Orientforschung, vol 31, 1984, p 231
  • Artefact, vol 9, nos 1-4, 1984, p 2
  • private information and personal knowledge.

Citation details

Ronald T. Ridley, 'Culican, William (Bill) (1928–1984)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 26 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (Melbourne University Press), 2007

View the front pages for Volume 17

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


21 August, 1928
Great Harwood, Lancashire, England


24 March, 1984 (aged 55)
Box Hill, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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