Gertrude Caton-Thomas

My first encounter with a female archaeologist was when I discovered the Amelia Peabody series by Elizabeth Peters, which recounts the adventures of the fictional Egyptologists and archaeologists Amelia Peabody, her husband Radcliffe Emerson, and their extended family. Amelia is based on Amelia Edwards, English novelist, journalist, traveler and Egyptologist, who advocated for researching and preserving ancient monuments and relics from being destroyed by modernization and tourism.

Many years later, I came across Gertrude Caton-Thompson, an English archaeologist whose thorough methods resembled Radcliffe Emerson’s and whose disdain for the traditional role of women at the time resembled Amelia’s. Caton-Thompson’s exposure to Egypt came in her teens, when she and her mother traveled to the Mediterranean, including Athens, Jaffa and Alexandria, and Egypt.

But, before becoming an archaeologist, Caton-Thompson had other careers. During World War I, she volunteered with the Soldiers and Sailors’ Families Association and the Women’s Emergency Corps, before Arthur Salter recruited her to work for the Ministry of Shipping and Supply. She was eventually promoted to Salter’s private secretary in the Allied Maritime Transport Council and Executive, where Salter served as executive chairman and secretary. After the war, she and Saler went the Paris Peace Conference in March, 1919 where she acted as his personal assistant, as he served as secretary of the Supreme Economic Council.

Caton-Thompson’s became interested in pre-historic sites while visiting Menton, France during World War I. There, she encountered an excavation of a Paleolithic site and volunteered as a “bottle washer.” Caton-Thompson returned to the site in 1921 and helped with the excavation before beginning her archaeological training. She enrolled at the University College of London, taking classes in Egyptology with renowned Egyptologists Flinders Petrie, Margaret Murray, and Dorothea Bate, under whom she studied paleontology (studying fossils) at the Natural History Museum in Kensington, as well as taking Arabic lessons at the School of Oriental Studies. In October, Caton-Thompson applied to join Petrie’s excavations for the British School of Archaeology in Egypt in Abydos and was accepted.

An excavation in Malta led Caton-Thompson to attend Newham College, Cambridge where she became a research fellow in January 1933, studying geology, zoology, paleontology, anthropology, prehistory, and surveying. After her fellowship, Caton-Thompson returned to Egypt to work with Petrie who was now at Qua clearing Middle Kingdom tombs. While conducting her own excavations nearby, Caton-Thompson excavated the site using her new technique, dividing the site into strips and recording the exact location of each artifact found before clearing the site six inches at a time. She also sifted hearths and floors looking for tiny artifacts. This was the first time that a prehistoric settlement had been scientifically excavated in Egypt.

Caton-Thompson went on to excavate in Great Zimbabwe, and South Arabia. Her assertion that Great Zimbabwe was created not by a “degenerate off shoot of a higher Oriental civilization, [but] a native civilization,” the Bantu was not very well received. However, recent research has validated Canton-Thompson’s view and modern archaeologists now agree that the city was built by the Shona-speaking African civilization.

Caton-Thompson was appointed to many positions during her career, serving as Vice-President of the Royal Anthropological Institute, appointed the first woman president of the Prehistoric Society, and a founding member of the British Institute of Archaeology in East Africa, as well an Associate, then a Research Fellow at Newnham College, Cambridge eventually becoming a member of the governing body for her work, Caton-Thompson received the Cuthbert Peek award of the Royal Geographical Society, Rivers Medallist of the Royal Anthropological Institute, the Huxley Medallist, and the Burton Medal of Royal Asiatic Society. Her collections were sent to the British Museum and the Cambridge Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology. Around 3,500 of Caton-Thompson’s artifacts are housed at the British Museum.

Written for Sheroes of History by Selena Moon. Selena received her Bachelor’s in History from Smith College and her Master’s in History and Public History Certificate from the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 2017, focusing on writing history for the public.

Find out more…

Read more about Great Zimbabwe in this article

Discover Gertrude’s papers at Cambridge here

Find out more about Gertrude and other female archaeologists on the brilliant Trowelblazers website

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