Kenyon, Kathleen (1906–1978)

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Kenyon, Kathleen (1906–1978)

One of the most productive and controversial British archaeologists of the 20th-century, who pioneered modern field methodology and contributed to the understanding of the role of the city in the growth of civilization. Name variations: Dame Kathleen Kenyon. Born Kathleen Mary Kenyon on January 5, 1906, in London, England; died on August 24, 1978, in Erbistock, Wales; daughter of Sir Frederic George Kenyon (director and principal librarian of the British Museum) and Amy (Hunt) Kenyon; graduated from Somerville College, Oxford, in 1928; awarded M.A., D.Litt, D.Lit, L.H.D.; never married; no children.

Began career as an archaeologist by joining the British Association's expedition to Southern Rhodesia (1929); excavated at Verulamium as part of Sir Mortimer and Tessa Wheeler's team (1930–35); participated in the Crowfoot expedition to Samaria (1931–34); helped found the University of London Institute of Archaeology (1937); was acting director of same (1942–46); served as secretary of Council for British Archaeology (1944–49); excavated the Roman town of Sabratha (1948, 1949, and 1951); was director of the British School of Archaeology in Jerusalem (1951–66); excavated at Jericho (1952–58); created CBE (1954); excavated at Jerusalem (1961–67); served as principal of St. Hugh's College, Oxford (1962–73); served as chair of the Council of the British School of Archaeology in Jerusalem (1967–78); created Dame of the British Empire (1973); was a fellow of the British Academy and Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries.

Principal general publications:

Beginning in Archaeology (1952); Digging Up Jericho (1957); Archaeology in the Holy Land (1960); Excavations at Jericho (vol. 1, 1960, vol. 2, 1965); Amorites and Canaanites (1966); Royal Cities of the Old Testament (1970); Digging up Jerusalem (1974); The Bible and Recent Archaeology (1978).

In 1952, Kathleen Kenyon arrived at the site of Jericho, in the Jordanian desert, to follow up on previous excavations which had linked the site to the Biblical story of Joshua. Instead, her application of new methods to Near Eastern archaeology revealed that virtually no traces of the Biblical era city remained. Soon, however, the papers would be full of the most significant revelation concerning Jericho, the fact that it had been occupied by about 6800 bce; it appeared to be, in fact, the oldest city in the world.

Kathleen Mary Kenyon was born on January 5, 1906, the first child of Sir Frederic and Amy Kenyon , both of Shropshire. Sir Frederic George Kenyon was director and principal librarian of the British Museum, as well as the president of the Society of Antiquaries, and the secretary of the British Academy until 1949, when he was succeeded by Mortimer Wheeler. He was a distinguished Biblical scholar, but Kathleen Kenyon considered her interest in Palestine to be a matter more of chance than of his influence. The title of her book The Bible and Recent Archaeology (1978), however, was chosen to echo his The Bible and Archaeology (1940). She attended St. Paul's Girls' School, where she became head girl, and Somerville College, Oxford. While reading modern history, she was also the president of the Oxford University Archaeological Society and a hockey blue. By the time of her graduation in 1928, she was determined to pursue a career in archaeology.

But Kenyon was entering a field which was largely male; while she was not the first to do so, she was one of only a few women who were able to rise to the top of the profession, which was somewhat zealously guarded. The most notable pioneer in this respect was Margaret Murray , the first female Egyptologist, who was able to overcome the bias in the field only with great perseverance. Murray was told at a 1913 meeting of the British Association that anthropology was not a fit subject for women, because there were many things women ought not to know, and she frequently had difficulty finding journals to publish her articles, if they were on matters not considered suitable for women. Another woman who helped break down, to some extent, the barrier in archaeology was Harriet Boyd Hawes , an American. Hawes was one of the first female excavators, and among the first generation of archaeologists to dig on Crete, where she excavated Gournia in 1901. Amelia B. Edwards , author and archaeologist, had an enormous impact on the field; she was among the first to recognize the need for dating sites by means of the objects found at them, and not only by written records. To encourage this, she founded a chair for the study of Egyptian archaeology at University College, London; the chair was first held by Flinders Petrie, the greatest British Egyptologist of the century, under whom Margaret Murray studied. Also, the first woman professor at Cambridge, Dorothy Garrod , was an archaeologist. Thus, Kenyon joined a small but very distinguished group of women who were successful in a field in which their male peers accepted them begrudgingly.

Kenyon's first experience with field archaeology was remarkable; rather than working on a British site, she joined (as an assistant and photographer) the 1929 expedition of Dr. Gertrude Caton-Thompson to Southern Rhodesia, where Kenyon supervised part of the excavation of Zimbabwe. She also contributed an article to Caton-Thompson's The Zimbabwe Culture, "Sketch of the Exploration and Settlement of the East Coast of Africa," her first publication. Kenyon came to prominence as one of Britain's finest young archaeologists during the excavation of Verulamium, a Roman British town, from 1930 to 1935. Sir Mortimer and Tessa Wheeler ran the dig until 1933, after which they left to work on the reports for the site and to excavate at Maiden Castle. Kenyon was left in charge of the site for the final season, during which she uncovered the Roman theater, the only one of its kind in Britain. The theater was the second site on which Kenyon published, but she was not involved with the Wheelers' report on the site, which proved largely erroneous. Her work at Verulamium was the beginning of a long personal and professional relationship with Sir Mortimer Wheeler; between the two of them, they were to perfect new methodologies which revolutionized field archaeology.

While spending the summers working at Verulamium, Kenyon also spent parts of 1931 to 1934 as a member of the Crowfoot expedition to Samaria, her first work in Palestine. In an obituary for J.W. Crowfoot, she stressed the success of the excavation (1931–35) in view of the close superimposition of the remains of the successive periods. Samaria, founded in the early 9th century bce, was the capital of the Kingdom of Israel, and remained an important community in Roman times, as Sebaste. It was Kenyon, however, who was largely responsible for the introduction, at Samaria, of new methods of excavation to Palestinian archaeology. She applied the stratigraphical techniques which Wheeler was developing on British sites to the tell (mound) of Samaria, with excellent results. While her pottery sequence for Samaria was considered questionable by her peers, there was no doubt that her work was "one of the most remarkable achievements in the history of Palestinian excavation," wrote G.E. Wright. She was surprised to find that buildings in Palestinian excavations were being dated by means of the material above their floors; this contrasted strongly with the British methodology of dating buildings on the basis of the most recent material found in the fill associated with the actual construction. Wheeler became the most vocal champion of the new methodology and, in fact, using Kenyon's work as his proof, denounced all archaeological work in Palestine prior to 1952. This created certain animosities, which slowed to some extent the spread of the Wheeler-Kenyon method in Near Eastern archaeology.

From 1935 to 1948, Kenyon worked on a number of sites in Britain and also became involved in matters of administration and organization, another area of her field in which she would excel. She excavated at, and published on, the following sites: the Jewry Wall site, Leicester, 1936–39; Viroconium, Shropshire, 1936–37; the Wrekin, Shropshire, 1939; South-wark, 1945–48; Breedon-on-the-Hill, Leicester, 1946; and Sutton Walls, Herefordshire, 1948–51. Thus, in addition to the extensive work in Palestinian archaeology which was to form the foundation of her reputation, she also made substantial contributions to the study of Iron Age and Roman Britain. During the Second World War, she worked for the British Red Cross, first as a divisional commandant and secretary (1939–42), and then as the director of the Youth Department, from 1942 to 1945. Between the years 1944 and 1949, she served as secretary of the new Council for British Archaeology; in this capacity, she helped to maintain British archaeology during the difficult war and postwar years. She was involved with Wheeler's 1937 establishment of the University of London Institute of Archaeology, for which she was secretary from 1935 to 1948, and then acting director from 1942 to 1946. She is credited with holding the Institute together during the war years, largely by force of personality. From 1948 to 1962, she was lecturer in Palestinian archaeology at the Institute and was a powerful force in supporting it; Max Mallowan, in his memoirs, wrote that Kenyon "was a dragon in promoting its welfare."

In 1948–49, and again in 1951, she directed the excavation of the Phoenician and Roman site at Sabratha in Tripolitania (now Libya). Also in 1948, she began a seven-year tenure as the treasurer of the Palestine Exploration Fund, an organization which she remained involved with throughout her life. In 1951, she became the director of the British School of Archaeology in Jerusalem, a position in which her organizational gifts were again utilized to good effect. The school, officially founded in 1919 but languishing from lack of funding until 1951, came to new prominence under Kenyon. The two principle reasons for this were the funds which she was able to secure from international sources, and her work on the site of Jericho, in Jordan. The excavation of Jericho (1952–58) is a landmark event in Near Eastern archaeology both because of the importance of the finds to our understanding of the development of civilization, and because of the impact of Kenyon's methods on other excavators.

The fact that an important Biblical story was attached to Jericho made it an obvious choice for the pioneers of archaeology in Palestine to test the usefulness of the new discipline in supporting the Biblical version of history. No more impressive find could be uncovered than the very walls which Joshua caused to collapse, after all. Work on the site (Tell es-Sultan) by John Garstang in the 1930s did indeed uncover collapsed walls and evidence of fire; these walls were identified as those of the Biblical period, and Jericho became a touchstone of the movement to use archaeology to support the history contained in the Bible. At the time when Kenyon arrived at Jericho, much work was being done in the Near East which sought to revise the theories which had been established in the '30s. The Biblical picture of a Hebrew invasion of Canaan, which had been supported by the work done by Garstang and his peers, was being refined to reflect new ideas and evidence suggesting a more extended, less military process. Kenyon's excavation of Jericho contributed to this movement in a number of ways, one being that the walls attributed to the Biblical era were discovered to be in fact those of an Early Bronze Age settlement of about 2350 bce. The entry into Canaan is generally considered contemporary with the Late Bronze Age, of which period of occupation little remained at Jericho due to massive erosion. The most surprising discovery at Jericho, however, was evidence of extensive domestic architecture dating back to the 7th millennium bce. Carbon fourteen testing yielded a date of roughly 6800 bce for the earliest Neolithic occupation of Jericho, making it the oldest known community in the world. The discoveries at Jericho led to a new understanding of the importance of urbanization to early civilization in the Near Eastern region.

The archaeological techniques which Kenyon rigorously applied to her excavations, and which are consequently known as the Wheeler-Kenyon method, depend on the careful observation and recording of stratigraphy. For most of the early history of archaeology, excavation was carried out in what can be called an architectural manner; that is, buildings and walls were excavated in their entirety, without their connections to the surrounding soil being recorded. Wheeler and Kenyon, on the other hand, advocated a system of excavation which followed the actual stratigraphy of a site, and emphasized the provenance of objects within the stratigraphy. Also, Kenyon insisted that "side by side with the recording of objects from the layers must go the interpretation of the significance of the layers." Thus, a wall would be excavated at right angles in order to maintain the connections between it and the associated floors and fill. When a site is excavated using the grid method, which Wheeler pioneered, the areas of earth left between the squares are known as baulks; it was these that Kenyon used for her always meticulous study of a site's stratigraphy. Precise stratigraphical control and systematic recording are the hallmarks of the Wheeler-Kenyon system.

While the principles of the system had been anticipated to some extent by excavators such as Petrie, W.F. Albright, and G. Reisner, it was Kenyon who had the largest share in popularizing it. The system spread gradually but inexorably through the Near East, aided by the many colleagues and students of Kenyon's who directed excavations, such as Peter Parr at Petra and Diana Kirkbride at Beidha. Archaeologists of many nationalities were influenced by Kenyon and adapted her methods to their needs; the exception to this, initially, were Israeli archaeologists, who were not able to observe firsthand the excavations at Jericho and later Jerusalem. Kenyon did manage to maintain professional relationships with her Israeli peers, although with some difficulties.

It was as a field archaeologist that Kenyon excelled, and it seems as though it was in the field that her true personality was most evident. Regarded as unyielding by some academic colleagues, she was seen as patient and open minded by those who worked with her in the field. As some recall, "she consulted us, as equals, and tried out her ideas on us, encouraging us to suggest counter-explanations if we disagreed with her." This can be contrasted with her administrative persona, which Max Mallowan recalls from their time together at the Institute of Archaeology: "Woe betide those who opposed her, or were not of the same mind." Even so, Mallowan remarks that "though often offensive in confrontation she spoke good behind one's back, and belied an occasional rough manner by great kindliness of heart." The dig at Jericho was marked by frequent festive occasions, including the "lowest Boat Race on record," which took place on the Dead Sea; on these occasions, Kenyon "participated with great zest" in the festivities.

From 1958 to 1961, Kenyon and Wheeler were both members of the committee (of six men and Kenyon) which the British Academy, with the sponsorship of the Rockefeller Foundation, created to study the provisions for research in the humanities and social sciences. The report, released in 1961, had the desired effect of generating a program for funding of the humanities through the Academy. Following this, Kenyon returned to excavating, this time at Jerusalem. Another important Biblical site, Jerusalem also had in common with Jericho a history of traditional excavation, and thus proved another excellent testing ground for Kenyon's methodologies. Although the site was a difficult one to excavate, she succeeded in establishing a coherent sequence for the walled cities.

By 1962, it seemed as though Kenyon, then at the height of her reputation as an excavator, would likely become the director of the Institute of Archaeology; instead, she became the principal of St. Hugh's College, Oxford. In his memoirs, Mallowan suggests that the reason why she did not become the director had less to do with qualifications than choice of pets. According to him, Kenyon (an acknowledged animal lover) was in the habit of taking in numerous stray dogs, who were not looked upon with favor by the rest of the Institute. This lead to a confrontation between Kenyon and the director, which was apparently only resolved with the offer of the St. Hugh's post. Despite this unusual origin, her appointment at St. Hugh's was to prove extremely successful, as she saw the college through more than a decade of growth and expansion.

In 1967, during the final year of her excavation at Jerusalem, Kenyon found herself involved in an administrative dispute with Wheeler, which apparently strained their relationship. Wheeler had spoken of retiring from his position as chair of the Council of the British School of Archaeology in Jerusalem, and Kenyon decided to run for the position; a heated debate broke out between those who supported her and those who preferred that Wheeler remain in the position. In the end, Wheeler preferred to withdraw, but not before suggesting that Kenyon was unsuitable for the position because of her political involvement with the Arabs (this occurred in the wake of the Six-Day War in June, during which Israel occupied Western Jordan), an opinion which she bitterly resented.

In 1969, Kenyon gave the Galton Lecture at the annual symposium of the Eugenics Society, their theme that year being biosocial aspects of sex. In speaking on "Women in Academic Life," her remarks were pointed, although often mixed with humor. She made it clear that the progress of female students and also female administrators was being held up largely due to "the surviving nineteenth-century attitude of men." She was not, she said, a "dyed-in-the-wool woman academic." Certainly, the events of her life show that she demanded equal treatment with her male peers and was not inclined to defer to them. While this may not always have endeared her to them, it did contribute to her becoming one of the most successful and influential archaeologists of the century.


The Times (obituary). August 25, 1978.

Hawkes, Jacquetta . Adventurer in Archaeology: The Biography of Sir Mortimer Wheeler. NY: St. Martin's Press, 1982.

Kenyon, Kathleen M. Digging Up Jericho. London: Ernest Benn, 1957.

——. "The Galton Lecture 1969: Women In Academic Life," in Biosocial Aspects of Sex. Oxford: Blackwell, 1970.

Mallowan, Max. Mallowan's Memoirs. NY: Dodd, Mead, 1977.

Moorey, P.R.S. "Kathleen Kenyon and Palestinian Archaeology," in Palestine Exploration Quarterly. January–June, 1979. pp. 3–10.

Moorey, Roger, and Peter Parr, ed. Archaeology in the Levant: Essays for Kathleen Kenyon. England: Aris & Phillips, 1978.

William MacKenzie , Graduate Student, Department of History, University of Guelph, Ontario

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Kenyon, Kathleen (1906–1978)

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