(a note on content)
Some of the stories in the exhibition feature racist, ableist, and/or homophobic medical terms which are offensive. As curators and writers of this exhibition, we have done our best to use these terms responsibly, with a view to appropriately contextualising and exploring these ideas and their history, and encouraging continuing critical thought in the interests of positive social change in the future.
While trying to address these issues squarely, we are also aware that we may ourselves use racist and ableist language naively or in error. As such, we welcome corrections and suggestions for improving the language used here, and encourage you to get in touch with us to help us learn and improve the language of the exhibition if you feel we have done so. The exhibition also features images of pathology specimens which include human organs.
Greater Zimbabwe Pot, Institute of Archaeology Collections, late 20th century.
Among the ancient collections in UCL’s Institute of Archaeology lies this contemporary object, a ceramic bowl from Zimbabwe. Though it is currently being used as a teaching tool for African studies, it also helps tell the history of over a century of female archaeologists at UCL.
The object was purchased around 2004 in a village in Zimbabwe. It is made of ceramic, covered with a dark grey metallic material over the outside, and embellished with a design. The type of pattern on the outside indicates that it was likely made to be sold to tourists as a decorative object (Du et al. 2021, pp.5 & 10).
Margaret Drower (1911-2012) acquired this bowl while visiting Zimbabwe to gather research for a biography of Gertrude Caton-Thompson, an archaeologist from UCL who led a female team of archaeologists in a dig at Great Zimbabwe in the early-twentieth century (Drower, 2004, p. 362).
Archaeology first began as a discipline in the nineteenth century when it branched out from antiquarianism in the 1870s and 1880s as a professionalised field (Diaz-Andreu, 2007, p.2). Like many other human sciences, it was used as a tool of imperialism to legitimise European superiority. By excavating and rationalising the histories of indigenous communities, archaeologists perpetuated the idea of Europeans as technologically and culturally more developed than the societies they colonised (Diaz-Andreu, 2007, p.210).
Women were very much a part of this work. As early as the 1880s, women formally participated in archaeological digs including Jean Dieulafoy (1851-1916) and Ester Van Deman (1862-1937). Many of them came from wealthy backgrounds and received a formal education, comprising of skills such as ancient and modern languages, painting, and drawing, which were helpful tools for archaeology. Though they came from a life of privilege, their work was not without struggles. Female archaeologists had difficulties receiving funding and have only recently had their contributions recognised in the histories of archaeology (Arwill-Nordbladh, 2008, p.143; Root, 2004, p.4). Their choice of a career that did not conform with gendered expectations and the resulting challenges they met with meant many of the pioneers were connected with feminism and the women’s suffrage movement (Root, 2004, p.19).
At UCL, prominent female archaeologists included Hilda Petrie (1871-1956), Margaret Murray (1863-1963), Gertrude Caton-Thompson and Kathleen Kenyon (1906-1978).
Margaret Murray studied Egyptian studies at UCL under Sir Flinders Petrie, an important British archaeologist and Egyptologist. She was the first woman to be appointed junior lecturer, was Petrie’s assistant, and conducted her own fieldwork in Malta. However, it took a while for her to establish herself professionally, only making lecturer in 1921, senior lecturer the year after, and assistant professor in 1924 at the age of 62. She also only attended one dig with Petrie, to Abydos in Egypt. This implies that she had to fight for her position, and that despite her contributions to Egyptology, she had to work hard to have it recognised (Arwill-Nordbladh, 2008, p.146).
Murray went on to teach Gertrude Caton-Thompson. Caton-Thompson’s most important project was the commission given by the British Association of the Advancement of Science to discover the origins of Great Zimbabwe (Arwill-Nordbladh, 2008, p. 152). The popular theory held by archaeologists at the time was that Zimbabwe could not have been founded by the Bantu people who lived there because they could not have developed something that elaborate. Therefore, they believed that Zimbabwe was once occupied by a "civilised nation" from either Europe or Asia (Weedman, 2001, p. 5). The research conducted by Caton-Thompson, Kathleen Kenyon, and D. Noire on this trip helped popularise the theory that the site was indigenous in origin, meaning that it was the indigenous people of Zimbabwe who founded it (Drower, 2004, pp. 362 & 364).
Though her work had a large impact on the understandings of the site, Caton-Thompson still perpetuated many of the racist ideas espoused by archaeologists at the time. She argued that while the indigenous people of Zimbabwe built Great Zimbabwe, she said it was because their work was so badly constructed it could not possible have been made by Europeans, criticising their work as “the product of an infantile, pre-logical mind” (Caton-Thompson, 1971, p.103).
And so, we come full circle back to Margaret Drower, an archaeologist and student of Margaret Murray, who ventured back to Great Zimbabwe to write the biography of Caton-Thompson where she was given this ceramic bowl by a local tour guide. Caton-Thompson had used the comparison of similar local ceramic bowls and those excavated at the site at Great Zimbabwe to prove that it was indigenous in origin (UCL History, 2012; Du et al. 2021, p.39).
Though it is evident that women have been heavily involved in archaeology at UCL and have had a lasting impact on the understandings of historic sites, it is worth noting that many of the women afforded the opportunity to participate in the field were anglophone, white, middle-class women with access to money and higher education. And though many of them faced professional challenges and fought for issues such as women’s suffrage, they were still complicit in the colonial project by perpetuating racist ideas of European superiority, as seen with Caton-Thompson’s criticism of the workmanship at Great Zimbabwe.
There are many more women, particularly women of colour, who have yet to have their contributions to archaeology fully recognised. Recent projects such as TrowelBlazers have sought to expand narratives of archaeology further by continuing to research into the lives and work of women and their contributions to the field (Trowel Blazers, 2020).
By Ailsa Hendry
Arwill-Nordbladh, Elisabeth. 2008. Twelve Timely Tales: On Biographies of Pioneering Women Archaeologists. Reviews in Anthropology 37(2–3): 136–168. DOI: 10.1080/00938150802038984.
Caton-Thompson, Gertrude. 1971.The Zimbabwe Culture: Ruins and Reactions. United Kingdom: Cass.
Diaz-Andreu, Margarita. 2007. A World History of Nineteenth-Century Archaeology: Nationalism, Colonialism, and the Past. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Drower, Margaret S. 2004. Gertrude Caton-Thompson (1888-1985), in Cohen, Getzel M., and Joukowsky, Martha Sharp. (eds.) Breaking Ground: Pioneering Women Archaeologists. Michigan: University of Michigan Press. 351–379.
Du, Yiru., Fuller, Sophia., Garfinkle, Jakob., Guzman, Sarah., and Luo, Qian. 2021. Research Documentation Report: Zimbabwe Ceramic Bowl. Internal UCL Report [Unpublished].
Root, Margaret C. 2004. Introduction: Women of the Field, Defining the Gendered Experience, in Cohen, Getzel M., and Joukowsky, Martha Sharp. (eds.) Breaking Ground: Pioneering Women Archaeologists. Michigan: University of Michigan Press. 1-33.
TrowelBlazers. 2021. Available at: https://trowelblazers.com/.
UCL History. 2012. In Memoriam: Margaret (Peggy) Drower MBE. Available at: https://uclhistory.wordpress.com/2012/11/16/in-memoriam-margaret-peggy-drower-mbe/.
Weedman, Kathryn. 2001. Who’s “That Girl”: British, South African, and American Women as Africanist Archaeologists in Colonial Africa (1860s-1960s). African, Archaeological Review 18(1):1–47.
LDUCPC-SOHO P.6ACCESSION NUMBER: A unique identifier assigned to, and achieving initial control of, each acquisition. Assignment of accession numbers typically occurs at the point of accessioning or cataloging.
Gold IUD and Uterus, UCL Pathology Collections, 1945-1988.
At first glance, the intrauterine device (IUD) within a disembodied uterus on display just seems like a standard medical specimen....
LDUAC-UCL1330ACCESSION NUMBER: A unique identifier assigned to, and achieving initial control of, each acquisition. Assignment of accession numbers typically occurs at the point of accessioning or cataloging.
Ceramic head, “Caricature female head, tinted pink, with red lips”, Institute of Archaeology Collections, date of manufacture unknown, collected early 20th Century.
Francis Galton coined the term ‘eugenics’ in 1883; it is derived from the Greek words εὐ, meaning good, and γενής, meaning to come into existence or to grow....