Margaret Murray’s Egyptological Career

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A review of The Lady and the Looking Glass: Margaret Murray’s Life in Archaeology, by Kathleen Sheppard.

Although academic research on women scientists has become more common in the recent past, there are still many gaps that need to be filled to obtain a more accurate picture of academic cultures in the early modern and modern periods. The beginnings of Egyptology, and especially British Egyptology, is an excellent example of the many ways in which women contributed to the shaping of an academic field – even modern day Egyptology students are familiar with (and dependent on) what is known as ‘Porter and Moss’ (Bertha Porter and Rosalind Moss, Topographical Bibliography of Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphic Texts, Reliefs, and Paintings, 6 vols., Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1927-1939).  However, detailed studies about the lives and work of women scientists are still lacking.

The dissertation by Kathleen Sheppard fills one of these gaps by delivering a study of Margaret Murray (1863-1963), who is known to modern day Egyptologists as the author of the monograph The Splendor That Was Egypt (1949) and as the woman who worked with William Matthew Flinders Petrie (1853-1942) in the early days of Egyptology at the University College London (UCL). While Petrie is known as one of the great men of Egyptology, and the Egyptology Museum at UCL is named after him, Margaret Murray is almost forgotten, and her publications are not usually part of the academic education of contemporary students. Kathleen Sheppard claims that Margaret Murray deserves better, and in delivering her detailed study does much to remedy the situation.

In the Introduction, Sheppard sets out the theoretical framework of gender/feminist studies (‘Feminist Women’s History’, p.9), the genre of ‘biography’ (p.20), and the development of ‘Orientalism and Egyptology’ (p.26) that she uses in her analysis.  The following four chapters are then structured according to significant periods in Margaret Murray’s life. The first chapter looks at the first thirty years (1863-1894) of Murray’s life, with a focus on her childhood in India. Sheppard states that India “in many ways was more lenient and allowed women to take on roles that they never would have been able to at home” (p.48) and also that her time in India “made her ready to be in the field” (p.78).

Chapter 2 focuses on the beginning of Murray’s Egyptological career, starting with her time as a student in the newly founded Egyptology Department at UCL (in 1892). The description that Sheppard quotes from Murray’s experiences as a student learning Egyptian Hieroglyphs will cause some modern Egyptology students to remember their own classes: ‘“To a class utterly ignorant of grammar, we were generally completely confused by the end of the lesson, and said to each other, ‘Did you get that last translation? May I copy yours?’”’ (p.110). Sheppard also includes details on the writing of Murray’s first Egyptological article under the guidance of the famous Flinders Petrie (pp.111-112), which indicated the capability of Murray to conduct independent research. The development of Margaret Murray in her time as a student and then assistant to Petrie is described with background information that helps the reader to understand Murray’s situation. One context that Sheppard details in this section is the development of the then relatively recent discipline of Egyptology (pp.90-105). Another is the situation at UCL regarding female students compared to that at the universities of Cambridge and Oxford (especially pp.107-109). Both contexts created the specific situation in which Murray became the first female Egyptologist. Predictably, there were difficulties to overcome:

In fact, her experience on the excavation began with the first of many occurrences of gender discrimination that Murray would experience throughout her career. At the beginning of the dig, she received one morning’s worth of training from Petrie and was sent off immediately to lead an all-male crew […] Her group, not surprisingly, was unwilling to be led by a woman so she turned them around and marched them back to camp, where she was met by Petrie. (p.118)

Another context that is necessary to understand Murray’s work is the theory of hyperdiffusionism, which influenced Murray’s The Splendor That was Egypt (p.129 and following).

Chapters 3 and 4 concentrate on Murray’s teaching, an area of her professional life in which she did so well that she should presumably be credited with a share in the success of her former teacher Flinders Petrie, who could, as a result, devote his time to digging in Egypt and research. From the notebooks of her students, she is known to have been a “good, clear, and concise instructor” (p.185). But Murray did much more than teaching and administrative work; she not only devised and revised the curriculum of the Egyptology course (including the development of a diploma program, encompassing eighty hours of coursework each term), she also wrote a textbook on Egyptian Hieroglyphs and a book about Sahidic Coptic. Sheppard describes additional contexts, for example feminist and suffrage movements that Murray was deeply involved in (p.152), which allow us to better place Murray in this period. As a result of her beliefs, Murray always attempted to support female students and to facilitate their (academic) interactions with their male fellow students. The episode about the insufficient female common room that Sheppard relates serves as an excellent example of the type of difficulties Murray must have had to overcome on a daily basis while doing her actual work (p.169).

Throughout her dissertation Kathleen Sheppard draws on a wide variety of literature on the respective cultural and historical contexts that truly brings the times and circumstances of Murray’s milieu to life. The result is an exciting and extraordinary piece of work that, despite the dearth of source material in comparison to what would be available on the lives of British male Egyptologists, delivers a contextual analysis of Margaret Murray that has the feel of a thick description. The variety of settings that Sheppard uses with profound skill to contextualize the life of Margaret Murray is impressive and sets an example for possible other biographies of female scientists to come: ‘Finally, the history of the discipline must move away from “Great Men” for us to paint a clearer picture of history. This dissertation is a step in that direction’ (p.263).

Annette Imhausen
Historisches Seminar
Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universität Frankfurt am Main
warner@em.uni-frankfurt.de

Primary Sources

Special Collections, University College London
Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology Archives, University College London
Manchester Museum Archives

Dissertation Information

University of Oklahoma. 2010. 299pp. Primary Advisor: Katherine Pandora.

 

Image: “Margaret Murray at the Manchester Museum, 1908”, Athena Review Image Archive.

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