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That Air of Expectation, Still and Assured August 11, 2006
by Sarah Pickman

Egyptology pioneer Maggie Benson--in her own words

The Temple of Mut is the earthly home of Mut, the powerful mother goddess and defender of Egypt, and a testament to the might of the female pharaoh Hatshepsut, who built the temple to associate herself with the revered goddess and emphasize both her own position of power and her femininity. Thus, it seems fitting that another pioneering female, Margaret Benson, conducted the first large-scale excavations of the Temple of Mut. As the first woman to lead an excavation in Egypt, Benson worked for three seasons at Mut between 1895 and 1897, unearthing valuable evidence of the temple's history and Hatshepsut's influence there. The letters she wrote to friends and family from Egypt, compiled by her brother Arthur into Life and Letters of Maggie Benson (1917), and the book she co-authored on the excavation, The Temple of Mut at Asher (1899), provide a glimpse into the mind of this extraordinary woman. They reveal Benson's devotion to the project and to the temple, her interest in Egyptology, and her keen intellect and wit. William Peck of the Detroit Institute of Arts wrote an extensive biography of this remarkable woman, and in "Egypt's Ageless Goddess" (September/October 2006), Jennifer Pinkowski traces the current excavation of the Temple of Mut by teams from the Brooklyn Museum and Johns Hopkins University. Here, ARCHAEOLOGY presents Benson's history of the excavation in her own words.

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Margaret "Maggie" Benson was not always as solemn as this portrait, taken when she was 28, would suggest. (From Life and Letters of Maggie Benson, facing p. 150)

Margaret Benson was born in 1865 near Reading, England, into a highly educated and respected family. Her father, Edward White Benson, was an Anglican clergyman and educator who eventually became the Archbishop of Canterbury. Her oldest brother, Arthur Christopher, was a prolific author, poet, and a master at Eton and at Magdalen College, Cambridge. Another brother, Edward Frederick, known as Fred, was a popular novelist who had studied classics and archaeology at Cambridge. A third brother, Robert Hugh, converted from Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism and was ordained as a priest, rising to position of Papal Chamberlain. Benson attended Lady Margaret Hall, a women's college at Oxford, where she concentrated on political economy and moral sciences, and where her fellow students and professors admired her for her intellectual brilliance.

By the time she was 25, Benson had already begun to suffer from the chronic health problems that would plague her for the rest of her life. In the winter of 1894, accompanied by her brother Fred, she traveled to Egypt, as its hot, dry climate was widely recommended at the time as a treatment for a variety of illnesses. It was there, while touring the magnificent ruins of ancient temples and tombs, that she became interested in Egyptian hieroglyphics and spirituality, and conceived of the idea of excavating a site herself. On a tour of the temples near Karnak, she first encountered the Temple of Mut. She wrote in her book:

Towards the end of a stay in Egypt in 1894, I first went to see the temple, having heard no more of it than that there were granite statues with cats' heads to be seen there; the donkey boys knew it, but it was not a usual excursion. Yet it was a place to seize upon the imagination.

Benson was immediately taken with the temple and conceived of a project to occupy her active mind and interest in ancient Egypt during her next winter vacation.

Thus, half hidden as the temple was, there was something about the place so beautiful, even so romantic, that a suggestion casually made about digging in Egypt came to mind, and I began to wonder vaguely if it would be possible to get permission to clear the site.

The Temple of Mut, an overlooked, overgrown complex at the southern end of the Karnak temple area, was infrequently visited by tourists, who preferred to see the larger Karnak and Luxor temples.

Three days are judged by the majority of tourists a sufficient time in which to see the monuments of a capital whose rise and fall occupied a longer time than the whole history of Europe from the Roman supremacy to the present day. No one during this period, with such a program to carry out, can be expected to go round by a small temple which lies between Luxor and Karnak; and the Temple of Mut can hardly hope to claim even half an hour's study.

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A woman with parasol, most likely Benson, supervises the excavation on the southern slope of the temple complex. (From The Temple of Mut at Asher, plate V, facing p. 60)

The Temple of Mut was also largely ignored by many Egyptologists, who believed it to be of little significance. Prior to Benson's arrival, only a few brief studies of the Mut complex had been conducted. Napoleon's scholars took measurements and made drawings of the ruins during the campaign of 1798-1801, and August Mariette excavated the complex between 1842 and 1845, and believed he had exhausted the site. These factors certainly aided in securing an excavation permit from the Egyptian Department of Antiquities, as it was believed that an amateur could do little harm in excavating something of so little importance. Benson had no archaeological training, but possessed incredible intellectual curiosity and an "enthusiastic personality," according to Fred. Benson, who was attracted to the ruins' romantic qualities, did not even expect to find anything of significance, as she relates in the preface of Temple of Mut:

Our first intention was not ambitious. We were desirous of clearing a picturesque site. We were frankly warned that we should make no discoveries; indeed if any had been anticipated it was unlikely that the clearance would have been entrusted to inexperienced direction.

Benson began to create an excavation plan and hire a crew, aided by Fred's archaeological expertise from his studies at Cambridge, as well as the knowledge of Egyptologists Henri Naville, Percy Newberry, and W.M.F. Petrie. She soon discovered that one of her chief duties as project director had nothing to do with archaeology at all:

I am to have a responsible overseer, and my chief duty apparently will be paying [the workers].

Work began at the Temple of Mut in January of 1895. Benson supervised the digging and quickly earned the friendship and respect of her workers. The first season of excavation produced an 18th Dynasty black granite figure of an unknown person, a hippopotamus head of the goddess Taweret, two seated sandstone baboons, and a statue of one of Amenhotep II's scribes. At the conclusion of the five week excavation, Benson's team was able to clear the northern gate and part of the temple proper, as well as clean away some of the debris littering the complex. She also supervised the work of an Italian plasterer, hired to repair some of the many broken statues of the lion-headed goddess Sekhmet, who was closely associated with Mut.

Benson resolved to return to the Temple of Mut and to the warm climate of Egypt the following winter. Though the atmosphere had proved beneficial to her health overall, she still suffered from bouts of severe illness that often relegated her to her bed, even during the excavation. However, throughout it all she remained in high spirits and good humor. For a dress ball at the Luxor Hotel held during her first excavation season, Benson attended dressed as Mut herself, wearing the characteristic vulture headdress of the goddess. When she wrote to her mother in 1896, she mentioned her brother Fred, who accompanied her to Egypt and cared for her during the worst episodes of her illness:

Fred has really been the dearest boy all through. He says that after I am well, he shall advertise himself as companion to an invalid lady--really I will recommend him so highly.

The same season, while in Aswan, she spent a day looking for "agate-like stones" and was followed by a throng of boys hired to carry her things and help her search. Benson wrote to her mother that when their behavior began to irritate her,

I got so worked up, that I chastised one with a parasol, and by guile getting the stick of the other and the ornament of his donkey, I threw them away. Afterwards they were a little quieter.

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Benson's field report, co-authored with Janet Gourlay, contains extensive research on Egyptian spirituality and royal lines of succession.

Soon after arriving in Egypt to begin the 1896 dig season, their mutual friend Lady Jane Lindsey introduced Benson to Janet "Nettie" Gourlay, a fellow traveler in Egypt. Gourlay and Benson became close friends, and Gourlay helped to supervise the excavations at the temple and co-authored The Temple of Mut at Asher. Finds of the 1896 season included a rose granite statue of Ramses II, numerous granite and alabaster statues, a "rare 12th dynasty cartouche," and what Maggie described in a letter to her mother as "the largest cat--in pieces--that I have ever seen."

Like many Europeans of the late nineteenth century in Egypt, Benson's admiration of the ancient Egyptians did not extend to their modern counterparts. In fact, a number of her letters and passages from her excavation report include orientalizing--exoticized and condescending--descriptions of Egyptians, including those on her crew. In a letter to her mother from 1894, Benson wrote:

The children really are very nice when they are not either lying or begging.

In Temple of Mut she added that,

I cannot say the knowledge of their character, for the Arab must remain an enigma to most Europeans, but that ...the relations with the men were singularly pleasant. An Arab has at least the merit of stealing and lying with geniality.

She went on describe her local workers as such:

The men, with their comparatively poor physique, their loss of time from childish want of method and from carelessness, with their vigorous discussions and their chants when anything has to be hauled or lifted, with their hoes and baskets instead of spades and wheelbarrows--get through the work in a very amateur fashion compared to the men of an industrial nation.

Her Orientalist slant influenced even her description of Mut itself. In the introduction to Temple of Mut, she wrote that:

It is true here was none of the imaginary charm of Afric's golden sands, crystal fountains and deep green oases; it was a dusty infertile tract, but the place was full of the mysterious fascination of Egypt, and in the dry exhilarating air one seemed to breathe the very atmosphere of the past. All the double charm of Egypt was there; in the present "the East was calling" by the attraction of the sun, the bright intoxicating air laden with strange eastern sweetness, the sight of the palm grove against the distant hills, and the simple but mysterious race that moved about all these.

Despite these views, and the fact that her knowledge of Arabic was almost nonexistent, Benson's interest in religion led her to study Islam, although she was not nearly as enamored of it as she was with ancient Egyptian religion. In 1894, she wrote to her mother, saying that:

I have got the Koran to read, but oh! it is dull.

During her three excavation seasons, Benson grappled with a problem familiar to even seasoned Egyptologists. She was forced to confront the possibility of looting from her excavation. She found that giving backsheesh, or gratuities, to her workers was necessary in order to keep them from smuggling away artifacts from the temple and selling them. As she recorded in her book:

The principle of backsheesh must be determined by considerations of expediency. The object is to create an inducement to activity and a counter-inducement to the price offered (if the object can be stolen) by tourists and antiquity dealers.

Like other concerned excavators, she worried about the loss of knowledge through the looting of artifacts:

In the first case, the loss is mainly to the Government and the excavator; but the further loss to art and history can hardly be estimated when monuments are deliberately defaced to please a head-hunter.

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A crewmember stands next to a ten feet-high statue of Sekhmet, inscribed with the cartouche of Shoshenq I. (From The Temple of Mut at Asher, plate XIX, facing p. 248)

During the 1896 season, Benson outlined a plan to search for foundation deposits, collections of dedicatory objects buried at the time of a structure's founding or a major rebuilding. At this time, the identity of the temple's builder was still in question, although many Egyptologists believed it to be the work of Amenhotep III (1388-1348 B.C.), since numerous statues of Sekhmet in the complex bore his cartouche. Locating foundation deposits would establish the identity of the temple's original builder, or at least show who had made additions to it.

Foundation deposits, first discovered by Professor Petrie, usually include small models of tools and small specimens in neat brick-like shape of the material used in the temple, together with scarabs, plaques and rings. Most if not all of these objects bear the founder's name, thus dating the building. We were advised to dig for these deposits in the centers of principal gateways or under the centers of principal walls...for such a search we were not really well equipped...we could only work one place at a time, and that when the rest of the digging was not too absorbing.

The search for foundation deposits proved fruitless. Even though digging took place at the locations suggested by Petrie, no deposit objects were found. However, during this season, Benson recovered one of the most important finds of her entire campaign: evidence of Hatshepsut's involvement with the complex, in the form of a statue of her steward Senenmut. This was an incredible find, not only because Hatshepsut (1472-1457 B.C.) preceded Amenhotep III, but because her successor, Thutmose III, attempted to erase evidence of her reign. The unearthing of this statue was one of the most exciting episodes of the excavation. Benson recorded the incident in Temple of Mut:

Finally we shouted to all the men who were near to lend a hand; and as the sun set we turned over a statue more than five feet high, in hard polished sandstone, excellently worked, inscribed all over and almost perfect. The men, full of genuine sympathetic excitement, increased no doubt by the prospect of backsheesh, cheered the statue as it stood...by the time we reached the temple the next morning Mr. Newberry was already there, and had discovered that the statue was one of Sen-mut [Senenmut], a high official under Hatshepsut and her daughters. Sen-mut was perhaps the man of all others of whom we should wish to have found some record. We hoped that the statute was executed in Hatshepsut's reign and even as we looked at it we saw her cartouche on the back.

The statue, found on the sloping southern bank of the temple, featured an inscription listing Senenmut's accomplishments, including work at the Mut temple.

By the end of the 1896 season, Benson had cleared more of the temple complex, including the gateway between the first and second courts. As she recorded in Temple of Mut, by the time of her last excavation season in the winter of 1897, she had a clear plan in mind:

We set before ourselves three distinct objects: the clearance of the rest of the temple; the discovery of further statuettes; and a search after the elusive foundation deposits, which must surely exist. Our indirect object was likewise threefold: to trace the accurate plan of the temple; to determine the history of the building; and withal not to leave the site disfigured with unseemly rubbish heaps, but to give back to it so much of its charm as two thousand years of ruin had left to it and in some ways helped to bestow upon it.

The search for foundation deposits continued in vain, but Benson's crew did uncover a life-size statue of Mentuemhat, a prophet of the god Amun, early in the excavation. Benson wrote in the excavation report that,

Such a find would in itself have been a not meager reward for the season's excavation, yet though it was by far the best find of the year, perhaps the best yield of the temple, there was much to follow.

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American illustrator Charles Gibson, creator of the wealthy, fashionable "Gibson Girl" icon, visited the site in January 1898 and included a sketch of two tourists admiring the same Sekhmet statue photographed for Benson and Gourlay's Temple of Mut volume (above) in his 1899 book.

Indeed, work over the rest of the season uncovered a huge cache of statues and statue fragments in the temple proper, including a sphinx, three heads, and part of an alabaster statue, as well as a clay pot containing coins from the time of Nero. However, not all of the artifacts recovered from Mut were as striking. In Temple of Mut, Benson wrote that,

All over the temple we found various small and more or less ridiculous objects, hideous little clay figures three or four inches long, apparently dolls, pieces of animals rather better executed, some of them blue glazed; and there was one really pathetic limestone monkey.

Sadly, in the winter of 1897, Benson's health took a drastic turn for the worse. During the excavation, she developed a case of pleurisy, and she was not expected to survive. A doctor at the Luxor Hotel tapped and drained her lungs, and she lived, but was considerably weakened, and it was advised that she return to England. She was to make one final voyage to Egypt the following year, but only to rest and sight-see in the warm climate, not to excavate. Before leaving her beloved temple site, she recorded a final, evocative description of its appearance, which appeared in her excavation report.

With the help of M. Legrain's reis [foreman] from Karnak, many of the lion-headed statues were mended, and restored to their former dignity of appearance and position. Nearly one hundred of these-about half that number being whole-sit round the wide empty space of the first court. In the second court there remain the bases of the columns which formed a passage up the middle; on either side is open space, and round the walls are the square bases of the cloister columns, supporting here and there the Hathor-headed capital of the vanished pillars. Between and behind these sit lion-headed statues closely ranged, and on either side of the gateway looks down the solemn majesty of the great lion-headed Sekhet, with her uraeus crown, and the pleasant face of the Egyptian king whom envy has robbed of his name.

Looking further up the temple over many low lines of broken wall on the west side the figures of the cynocephali still face the rising sun, with what is left to them of hands still upraised to greet him. Beyond sit silent and grave the row of goddesses in the outer corridor; behind them lies the glittering lake and above a thick groove of palms rise the broad shoulders of the Theban Hills. In the eastern half of the temple the walls are rather higher and the spaces larger and more open. The other arm of the lake gleams behind them. Beyond the tumbled sand heaps on the further side the eye rests with pleasure on the deep blue-green of the corn-land and, in the furthest distance, on the trinity of peaks, dreamlike and faintly-flushed, of the Gebel-el-Geir.

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Gourlay (left) and Benson continued their close friendship after both returned to England. By the time this photograph was taken in 1906, Benson's health had rapidly deteriorated. (From Life and Letters of Maggie Benson, facing p. 376)

Her last season at the precinct of Mut finished, Benson returned to England, where she and Gourlay wrote their excavation report, which was published in 1899. Benson's health declined rapidly; she suffered from a heart attack in 1900 and a mental breakdown in 1907, and within a few years the formerly brilliant and high spirited woman was placed in a private institution for the mentally ill. She died in May 1916. Though Benson and her work largely faded into obscurity after her death, the renewed interest in the Mut complex has brought a validation of her excavation report by contemporary archaeologists. At the conclusion of his biography of her, Peck wrote that her work "remains an important chapter in the understanding of the site...the basic work of the excavation and the manner in which it was reported was as sound as anything done at the time." Benson's legacy continues to influence modern archaeologists, who are still intrigued by the same place she found to be so fascinating and romantic more than a century ago.

Over all the temple, from where the goddess guardians sit above the steps down which priests once carried the sacred bark, and where kings burnt frankincense before the emblem of the god, to where the sphinx head still smiles out of the dust of centuries, lies that air of expectation, still and assured, which so inspires the remains of that people, who built not for time but for eternity. All through the land the spirit of the race prisoned in stone lives in grave figures which wait through immeasurable years for a hope deferred but sure, looking with level eyes into a distance beyond earthly horizons, as those that watch in the darkness before dawn, for the far-off sunrise which brings in an everlasting day.

Sarah Pickman, an intern at ARCHAEOLOGY, is an undergraduate student at the University of Chicago pursuing a major in anthropology and a minor in art history.

  • See Jennifer Pinkowski's article "Egypt's Ageless Goddess" for the current Brooklyn Museum and Johns Hopkins University excavations at the Temple of Mut.
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© 2006 by the Archaeological Institute of America
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