My history hero: Kathleen Kenyon (1906–78)

Chosen by Dr Alice Roberts, anthropologist and TV presenter

Kathleen Kenyon challenged biblical accounts with her pioneering work at the ancient city of Jericho. (Photo by Bettmann/contributor via Getty Images)

This article was first published in the October 2011 issue of BBC History Magazine 

Kathleen Kenyon was a pioneering archaeologist of Neolithic culture in the Middle East. She studied at Oxford before joining Mortimer Wheeler at St Albans in the early 1930s, where she learned his meticulous method of excavation. She then worked in Libya and Palestine before serving the Red Cross in London during the Second World War.

This article was first published in the October 2011 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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Kathleen Kenyon was a pioneering archaeologist of Neolithic culture in the Middle East. She studied at Oxford before joining Mortimer Wheeler at St Albans in the early 1930s, where she learned his meticulous method of excavation. She then worked in Libya and Palestine before serving the Red Cross in London during the Second World War.

By far her most famous excavations were in Jericho during the 1950s. Over a six-year period, she refined Mortimer Wheeler’s methods and shocked many people by reporting that the archaeological evidence did not support biblical accounts. She also helped popularise the discipline, writing compelling reports of her work for popular magazines. In 1973 she was named a dame of the British empire in recognition of her achievements.

When did you first hear about Kathleen Kenyon?

I first came across Kenyon’s name joined to that of another famous archaeologist, in something called the ‘Wheeler-Kenyon method’ – a particular way of excavating that improved the ability to date findings.

The ‘Wheeler’ in question was Kenyon’s mentor, an eminent archaeologist and great populariser of archaeology called Mortimer Wheeler. But when I found out the other person was a woman, I was drawn to find out more. Who was this woman who had made her mark on archaeology in the early 20th century?

What makes her a hero?

She was a pioneer of archaeology as a scientific discipline. She realised that historical accounts were biased and could be tested by looking at the physical evidence gathered through archaeology. Although her methods might have been improved and extended by subsequent generations of archaeologists, I think that her aims and intent are still ideals that the discipline strives for.

I think she must also have been a formidable, incredibly determined and brave woman. She excavated sites in Britain and abroad in Zimbabwe, Libya and Palestine. As well as having the courage to visit exotic places, she was also striking out in a field that was – and still is – dominated by men.

What was her finest hour?

Her excavations at Jericho uncovered important evidence of the earliest farmers in the Middle East. It’s such an epic site, with obvious biblical resonance, which Kenyon was not afraid to challenge. And this was such an interesting time to have investigated: a shadowy period just before we start to get written records of the past.

The Neolithic was the time when the foundations of modern society were laid down. But it’s still mysterious in so many ways. While we can now find out what people ate from the charred remains of seeds in hearths, or the fatty acids on the inside of cooking pots, we can only guess at what they believed – from their art and burial rituals.

If you could meet her what would you like to ask her?

I’d love to talk to her about her excavations, but I’d also ask her if her work was too all-consuming in the end. Were there things that she – as a woman – felt she had to sacrifice? It seems that the men around her might have been able to have careers and rich personal lives at the same time. But one biographer recorded that some of her friends apparently said that she had three loves in life: archaeology, dogs and gin. Did she have any regrets about that?

Can you see any parallels between her life and your own?

I admire her, but my life is very different from hers. I’m not an archaeologist, but I’m closely involved with archaeology through my work as a physical anthropologist – where I’m often studying ancient human remains – and as an author and television presenter.

I also spent more than a decade as an academic and I feel that it can still be a hard thing for a woman to do, especially if you want to have a family. I think it’s possible, but still very difficult. Perhaps if Kathleen had been born 100 years later, she could have had both, but then we might have lost her brilliant contributions to the emerging discipline of scientific archaeology.

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Dr Alice Roberts is a presenter on BBC TV programmes that include Coast, Digging for Britain and The Incredible Human Journey. She is also a qualified medical doctor, anatomist and physical anthropologist. Her latest book, Evolution: The Human Story was published by Dorling Kindersley in September.