Beyond Jericho - Archaeology Magazine Archive

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Beyond Jericho June 18, 2008
by Hana Koriech

A new biography assesses Kathleen Kenyon's extraordinary life and contributions to archaeology.

(Courtesy Left Coast Press)

No archaeologist would ever confess to not knowing the name of Kathleen Kenyon, whose legacy includes excavating the ancient city of Jericho, and whose other accomplishments and influences on the discipline of archaeology are countless. Miriam C. Davis's book Dame Kathleen Kenyon: Digging Up the Holy Land is a lively biography of "the most influential woman archaeologist of the 20th century," while providing both detailed insights into many of archaeology's most significant developments and fun anecdotes of excavations in that period.

Kathleen Kenyon was eldest daughter of the prominent biblical scholar and British Museum director Sir Frederick Kenyon, who was also connected to the Institute of Archaeology, the Palestinian Exploration Fund, the British School of Archaeology in Jerusalem, and the British Academy. Surrounded by and associating with those of high social standing, and undoubtedly abundant with social connections, Kenyon ran in what Davis describes as "elevated circles." However, as the biography makes clear, it was more K's (as she was later known as) strong character of "determination" and "hard-headedness" than her social circles that determined her great successes in the field and elsewhere.

Kenyon first realized her passion for archaeology after joining Gertrude Caton-Thompson on the 1929 famous all-woman excavation of Great Zimbabwe as a photographer, at the suggestion of College Principle Margery Fry, despite K having "no intention of becoming an archaeologist." Having enjoyed her freedom and liberty as a student in Oxford's Sommerville College, K's social preoccupations led to a poor final degree score. Nevertheless, her tutor, Maude Clarke, wrote, "Miss Kenyon can be relied upon to carry out with intelligence and energy any duties that she may undertake." This ability, as well as her presidency as the first woman of the Oxford Archaeology Society, ensured a popularity that would inspire Fry to make certain Kathleen did not fall into the "common and traditional calling of teaching school."


Kenyon with workmen at the Jewry Wall, Leicester, excavation (Courtesy of Left Coast Press and S. Spencer)

After Zimbabwe and her decision to pursue archaeology, Kenyon worked at Roman Britain's third largest city Verulamium with the famous archaeologist Sir Mortimer Wheeler and his wife, Tessa. Their field technique, known as the Wheeler-Kenyon method, has influenced the practice of excavations to this day. Geologist William Smith developed the concept that materials accumulate on a site through a sequence of layers that explain the historical timeline (stratigraphy) that was put into archaeological practice by Sir William Flinders Petrie in 1890. Kenyon applied this method of stratigraphic analysis through excavating within a series of 5x5 m squares, allowing the exact findspot of the artifact to be compared with the strata. Earlier "horizontal exposure" techniques relied on architectural and ceramic analysis, hence were not so accurate.

Kenyon joined the Samaria excavation of 1931, and then, just before World War II, she excavated a site in the city of Leicester, the Jewry Wall, which Davis says was the most important excavation K conducted in the later 1930s. Dating to A.D. 160, these public baths of Roman Leicester are a rare example of civil Roman architecture, with excellent mosaics and decorated walls. It remains one of Leicester's most famous landmarks and is the UK's second largest remain of Roman civil masonry.

During the war, Kenyon proudly served as Divisional Commander in Hammersmith's Red Cross, but then played a main role in the founding of one of Europe's most renowned archaeological institutes to this day. The Institute of Archaeology of University College London was established in 1937 with the goal to provide instruction in proper excavation techniques. K took the role of first acting director and secretary, but more importantly developed her role as a lecturer and teacher, in which she trained a generation of archaeologists. Her position gave time to excavate other major sites such as Sabratha in northwest Libya, and Breedon-on-the-Hill and Sutton Walls in the U.K.


Neolithic portrait skulls from Jericho (Courtesy of Left Coast Press and Stuart Laidlaw, Institute of Archaeology, UCL)

The following years saw great developments in both archaeology and Kenyon's career. Kenyon returned to Palestine after a 15-year gap. Her work at Jericho (Tel es-Sultan) on behalf of the British School of Archaeology in Jerusalem gave her world recognition as she made extraordinary discoveries about the Neolithic culture at the site. Located in the Jordan valley north of the Dead Sea, Jericho is one of the oldest cities--dating back to 9000 B.C.--in the world with uninterrupted settlement! In addition, it is prominently figured in the Old Testament's Book of Joshua: the Bible tells of its capture from the Canaanites by Joshua; its sacking and rebuilding by Herod the Great; and the destruction of its heavily fortified walls by fleeing Israelites under mysterious circumstances. The city's proximity to good water supply, its fertile land and favorable climate made it amicable for occupations, which is documented to go back to the Mesolithic on through the Neolithic and Bronze-Iron ages. Jericho was excavated by three other groups prior to K's investigations. Her's were the first to use more modern techniques, and she was able to establish the first occupational history and furthermore demonstrated that Jericho was heavily fortified and had been burned. She uncovered the first walled city full with houses and courtyards dating back to the Neolithic. Also, toward the end of the 1953 season, her and her team had found "a human skull modeled with plaster to resemble an actual, living human being, complete with eyes made out of shells." Seven more were to follow! The story hit newspapers across the globe, while she would lecture to draw attention to the site and frequently appear on radio. She realized the power of the public and would advise her students to "write for the general public, always being sure to include lots of pictures, in order to raise money." Another great find was the ancient tower and stairs that predated the oldest Egyptian stone structures by thousands of years.


The main trench at Jericho, with the Neolithic tower at right (Courtesy of Left Coast Press and Stuart Laidlaw, Institute of Archaeology, UCL)

More academically, however, her application of the Wheeler-Kenyon method led to her disagreeing with conclusions supporting the Biblical stories and sparked the beginning of the overturning of biblical archaeology and its unscientific interpretations, which had immense influence during the early and mid-twentieth century. "Despite her own sincere Christian beliefs," she was not concerned about trying to prove Biblical accounts and in fact disagreed with prior conclusions supporting biblical stories, demonstrating that Jericho was not a story of "steady upward progress of civilization" instead of the typical view of the "progressive nature of divine revelation."

Once again, her role in developing a stronger archaeological methodology and in both technique and ceramics influence the practice to this day. Wheeler's (1954) Archaeology from the Earth and Kenyon's (1961) Beginning in Archaeology were among the first of publications to shy away from informal archaeological recordings and advocate stratification analysis. She suggested that "strata" be separated and numbered and that interfaces between deposits of stratigraphic excavation, which had previously been ignored, be taken into account.

In 1962 she was invited to be Principal of St. Hugh's College in Oxford. Meanwhile, from 1961 to 1967, she continued to work on her last site in Jerusalem--searching for the City of David. Some claim that it was a failure, but K's accomplishments were greatly overshadowed by the unstable political environment and occupation of Palestine. At the end of her career, she became more occupied with academic life before retiring in 1973. It was during these years that she worked on the reports of Jericho and Jerusalem for publication. Five years before her death, K was appointed Dame of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II.


Kathleen and her father, Sir Frederick Kenyon, in the 1930s (Courtesy of Left Coast Press and Janet Heath)

Davis highlights K as a human individual through personal confessions to her sister and stories from fellow colleagues and friends, while continuously demonstrating her ingenuity. One of the first stories Davis tells us about K relates to her first every archaeological experience in the Great Zimbabwe. Having her acceptance on the expedition facilitated by her father and further connections, she had gone with absolutely no experience. When asked what she was there to do, she would reply that she "hoped to be able to elucidate its problems by the aid of stratigraphy" which she later confessed of having "the foggiest notion what this meant." The irony being that later in her career she was known as the "mistress of stratigraphy" through her significant breakthroughs. We hear another story from the site of the Dead Sea Scroll, and how Kenyon had crashed a car loaned to them by the American School. "No one was seriously hurt, and K, unflustered, crawled out through the car window, looked around, and demanded 'Where is my trowel?'" Another Leicester-related anecdote demonstrates K's hard-headedness. She is known to have always wanted to be present at her excavations, each day. In this occasion, with obligations ranging from the excavation, the Institute, to curator for the Palestinian collection, the Excavation Committee was growing impatient with her full schedule, wanting to start work without her. K insisted the excavation could not begin until her term was over and refused adamantly to suggest any possible replacement or qualified individual, and so she was threatened to be pulled off the project. This caused tension, but at the end, she prevailed and that season found a "late second-century engraved gold signet ring" and the Jewry Wall!


The new Dame Kathleen Kenyon (center) (Courtesy of Left Coast Press and Janet Heath)

Miriam Davis' book captures the full life of an extraordinary woman. In addition to describing K's career, it gathers detailed information and testimonials from those who knew her to form a colorful and insightful life story about an incredibly influential dame of archaeology. While Davis claims it is not intended to be an academic nor intellectual biography, the book nevertheless helps understand the environment of an archaeologist and how dedicating oneself to archaeology as a career means having it affect each aspect of their personal life. Kathleen Kenyon shaped the discipline of archaeology significantly with her contributions to institutions, training of archaeologists, evolving methods, and extensive fieldwork and publications. Her achievements were recognized while she was alive, and continue to be praised after her death in 1978. How one could accomplish so much is astounding. It shows what it takes to be a great archaeologist.

Hana Koriech graduated from the Institute of Archaeology and is currently based in New York. Having previously worked in Izmit's Nicomedia Project and as part of Aktuel Archaeology journal's team, she is interested in the promotion of participatory archaeology and its role in both community development and nation-building.

Miriam C. Davis's book Dame Kathleen Kenyon: Digging Up the Holy Land is published by Left Coast Press, Inc.

© 2008 by the Archaeological Institute of America