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Author Spotlight: Jack Green and Ros Henry on Olga Tufnell

Posted on April 30, 2021 by Alison Fox

The open access book Olga Tufnell’s 'Perfect Journey':  Letters and photographs of an archaeologist in the Levant and Mediterranean published earlier this week. It tells the fascinating tale of a Olga Tufnell’s life and pursuits as a female archaeologist in the Levant in the 1920s and 30s, a period often described as a golden age of archaeological discovery. Lara Speicher, Head of Publishing, was lucky enough to catch up with the editors. 

Lara: I remember when the book was first proposed to UCL Press that I was fascinated by the story of a young woman at the turn of the last century, travelling by herself to the Middle East to undertake work in a male-dominated field. Can you tell us a bit about how Olga Tufnell, who wasn’t a trained archaeologist, got involved in archaeological work and about her motivation to travel and undertake work in the field sites?

Ros: Olga Tufnell became interested in the archaeology of the Middle East through her mother, Blanche, a friend of Hilda Petrie, suggesting that Olga might like to help the Petries with their exhibitions of excavation finds in London, which she did for five years before finally being invited to take part in an expedition.

Jack:  In the late 19th and early 20th century, archaeology was still emerging as a profession, and there were a number of archaeologists who were self-taught or did not have formal or specialized degrees. As Ros notes, for Olga Tufnell, it was the family connection which led to the opportunity for her to work for the Petries at the British School of Archaeology in Egypt in London. At that time, in the early to mid 1920s she worked on ancient Egyptian artifacts in the Edwards Library at UCL, and also assisted in uncrating and preparing objects for display from Flinders Petrie’s excavations for the BSAE summer exhibitions in London. Her patience and skill working with objects likely contributed to her selection by Petrie for archaeological work and object documentation and registration. Also, she had some artistic skills, which played a role in her being selected to trace tomb paintings at Qau in Egypt with Myrtle Broome. By the time of her first visit to Egypt in 1927, she was quite knowledgeable of the sites and excavators, so she must have studied and read a lot independently. From that point on, she was just immersed in archaeology and her knowledge and skills continued to grow!   

Lara: Was it common for women to get involved in archaeological digs overseas, and what was her experience like in the Levant and the Mediterranean? How did she cope with life on site and were her experiences distinct from those of her mostly male colleagues?

Ros: Not very common, but Olga adapted very well to life and work at the camp, sharing work equally bit also adding more such as her eye clinics.

Jack: As Ros stated, it was still fairly uncommon, but there were a number of women at the time who were in the field, some of whom became prominent archaeologists (you can read more on the TrowelBlazers website).  Hilda Petrie, Margaret Murray and Gertrude Bell all played an important role in archaeology in the Victorian and Edwardian era and beyond, and Olga was part of the next generation of women archaeologists.

Probably the best known from that time who were contemporaries of Olga and part of her generation were Kathleen Kenyon, who went on to direct excavations at Jericho, and Dorothy Garrod, and Gertrude Caton-Thompson who were major innovators in prehistoric archaeology in the 1920s and 1930s.  Garrod was well known for her all-female dig team in 1920s Palestine.

Coping with dig life, Olga was very stoic and did not complain – though it is clear from her letters that on some occasions, she became ill or exhausted – which was quite common. She clearly adapted well to the rigours of dig life, starting at the crack of dawn on site, and working through dusk and into the evening on artifacts and tidying up. The clinics she ran on the site, which seemed to be open to anyone who would come, also kept her very occupied. 

In addition to the social life of the excavations, she also had privacy - while at Tell ed-Duweir had a quite comfortable room, and didn’t need to share with others.  I also think she balanced the work on the excavations with lots of walks, swimming, and travel in her time off with friends and colleagues, who were mostly men of her generation. As a woman, Olga had a closer relationship with the local Bedouin women and villagers who worked for the expeditions. She became interested in women’s craft activities such as weaving, as well as dress and jewellery. Her role in the clinic meant that she was consulted by women on their medical needs and even called on if help was needed in childbirth. She was modern in her outlook and did not take kindly to being held back or excluded from something just because she was a woman. 

Lara: Are there any particular highlights from her letters and from her experiences that stand out for you, and did you find out anything that you didn’t know while researching and editing her letters?

Ros: What stood out for me was the general tone of the letters, full of resilience and a sense of humour. Although the major finds made were familiar to me on a very basic level, of course much more reading and research had to be done, and also on every topic mentioned from personalities to events.

Jack:  Yes, Olga had a great sense of humour and was clearly a lot of fun. What I found quite interesting was the relationship with the Petries. While Olga’s letters do not provide much new information about the Petries, they reflect some of the growing tensions with Hilda Petrie, and reflect Flinders Petrie’s enthusiasm for hard work, his disdain for frivolity, and dislike of onions. In one letter to her mother she writes about an incident with the camp cook:

“Did I tell you Mohammed [el-Kreti] asked very tenderly after you and said that he was in an awful dither when you came into the kitchen at Ajjul one day to ask him how he made the very delicious soup. The M.P. [Lady Petrie] was with you, and he dared not divulge the disgraceful fact that there were onions in the soup, and yet he was terrified that you would guess it. You know onions are anathema in a Petrie camp, and yet Prof. always comments on the excellence of the soup when it is particularly full of the noxious stuff.” Tell Duweir, 20 December 1934.

There were also really challenging moments, such as the murder at the hands of “Arab brigands” of the expedition leader, J.L. Starkey in 1938. Olga’s letters from this time reflect her apparent naiviety in the run up to the murder, and the shock and grief after it had happened.  It really became clear to me that the Tell ed-Duweir expedition took a lot of risks in continuing to work in southern Palestine during the Arab Revolt, even though they were convinced of their own safety.

“Your letters were a great help and comfort and I have had many more from all sorts of people. The whole thing is still so unbelievable, it is the only thing which helps us to carry on. Everything is continuing perfectly normally in camp, except that we have a guard somewhere about, but I will say this for them one never sees them and they are as distressed as anyone. The whole countryside is miserable, Gaza, Khan Yunis, Feluja [Faluja], they all know they have lost a friend, and the women in Qubeibeh wept bitterly.”

The other thing that is really good about the letters and photographs is that we have more information about the local workers, through their names and photographs. I hope that more work can be done to write these individuals into history to a greater degree, and perhaps even track down descendants living today.

Lara: Most of her letters were written home to her mother. How did her family feel about her work and travel? Would they have expected or hoped for a more traditional life for their daughter?

Ros: Olga’s mother would have encouraged her to travel, she herself was co-founder with Hilda Petrie of an Anglo-Czech organisation. Olga had been to school in Belgium, studied art in Italy and travelled to Italy on another occasion. Olga’s father was rooted in the country, teaching Olga to ride and fish. His influence can be seen in her ability to adapt to situations as necessary. Neither parent seemed interested in entering Olga into society.

Jack:  I think her parents, particularly her mother, were in support of her travels, as Ros mentioned.  She was very close to her mother, and she also came out and spent some weeks visiting her in Palestine and staying with her in the dig camp, so she understood and supported Olga fully.  Olga Tufnell never married, and it isn’t clear in the letters whether there was any pressure or expectation from her family in that regard.  She continued to lead an independent and fulfilling life.

Lara: What is the link between Olga’s work and the current UCL Institute of Archaeology?

After the excavations in Palestine had come to an end in 1938, she returned to London and worked on the publication preparations and artifact restoration (especially pottery) for the Wellcome-Marston Expedition to Tell ed-Duweir (ancient Lachish). This was interrupted by World War II.  The Tell ed-Duweir collection and publication project was based in the newly formed Institute of Archaeology at St. John’s Lodge in Regents Park. At that time, the Institute, which was part of the University of London, was not yet part of UCL, but it moved to its current location in Gordon Square in 1957. 

Olga ‘retired’ from her role after completing her work on the Lachish volumes at the same time as the move. So Olga’s career was closely connected to the Institute of Archaeology in its first 20 years, and to some extent its ‘prehistory’ because of Petrie’s role in the development of the institution and its displays. The IoA formally joined UCL in 1986, just one year after Olga’s death.  The Tell ed-Duweir collections and archive went to the British Museum.  Before her death, Olga had handed over her letters and photos to Heather Bell, the long serving librarian of the Institute of Archaeology. They later became part of the Palestine Exploration Fund collections.

Lara: Jack, how has Olga’s work, and that of her colleagues, informed and inspired your work in the Levant?

Jack: I’m fascinated by Olga and the work of these early archaeologists, and the history of biblical archaeology, particularly in the period of the 1920s and 1930s. It was such an interesting time of new discoveries as well as new technologies and opportunities, and all in the colonial context of the British Mandate in Palestine – which has made me interested in the intersection between archaeology, social history, and politics. I’ve become increasingly interested in the topic of history of archaeology of the region over recent years, having also written about another British archaeologist of the time, Phillip Guy.

In my most recent work in Jordan, while I’ve been with the American Center of Research (ACOR) in Amman in archaeology and cultural heritage, I’ve been working a lot with archives and photographs of archaeologists, though more American archaeologists working from the 1950s onwards.

I’ve also become more aware of the life of Lankester Harding, who was Olga’s friend and colleague and is featured in her letters, who went on to the Department of Antiquities in Jordan. I’m interested in the hidden histories of these foreign archaeologists, their relationships with the local communities and places they worked at and visited.

The letters and photos provide that additional, personal picture you don’t find in archaeological reports. Overall, I’m generally inspired and impressed by all these archaeologists were able to achieve with the limited time and resources they had during those times, and often under very challenging circumstances!  

Lara: Ros, you were lucky enough to know and work with Olga. How would you describe her?

Ros: Olga was a very quiet, dignified person who was much respected by her colleagues and students who came to her for advice. She also had great charm and there were always streams of visitors to see her. She was kind me and loved showing and explaining objects to me and trusting me with a lot of responsibility. She was the basis for my lifelong interest in the subject.

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