A Woman’s Work in Archaeology
The Life of Margaret Alice Murray: A Woman’s Work in Archaeology
By Kathleen L. Sheppard
(Plymouth, UK: Lexington Books, 2013), 292 pp., $85 (hardcover)
Reviewed by Adam John Fraser
Kathleen L. Sheppard brings a fresh contribution to the history of archaeology with this biography of Margaret Alice Murray. Murray’s life and work has been overshadowed by the legacy of her partner and mentor, Sir William Flinders Petrie. Furthermore, the social norms of Victorian and Edwardian Britain were not accommodating to independent women like Murray.
Sheppard begins by looking at Murray’s early life in India and describes how this background helped prepare her for the vibrant career she would have.
Sheppard then examines Murray’s time as a student at University College London (UCL), the only English university at the time that would admit women and, therefore, the only option for women like Margaret seeking a higher education.
Murray then spent two seasons in Egypt working as a field archaeologist. She still had to confront and cross gendered spaces in this environment. Despite the challenges of fieldwork, and of being a woman in a leadership position, she thrived.
Murray’s career from 1904 to 1935 is covered in three chapters. The first is an examination of her career at UCL. The second is dedicated to Murray’s work with women’s suffrage and improving the conditions of women at UCL. In her autobiography, My First Hundred Years,1
Murray did not acknowledge her role in the suffrage movement, but in reality she spent a great deal of time and effort working to achieve an equal standing for women both inside and outside the classroom.
The third chapter in this section of Sheppard’s book is dedicated to Murray’s engagement with the public, most notably her unwrapping of the mummy at the Manchester Museum in 1908. Murray was able to change the way the public viewed the study of Egypt—from the sensational to the rational.
Following this examination of Murray’s career, Sheppard changes her focus and explores Murray’s devotion to the study of witchcraft and the history of religion. For Murray, this interest was a natural progression from her mainstream academic interests.
In retirement Murray devoted her time to education in both the public and private sectors. She also continued to work with Petrie, who was then excavating in Palestine.
Kathleen L. Sheppard does a wonderful job demonstrating the diversity and richness of Margaret Murray’s life and career, and how much she contributed on both academic and social fronts despite her disadvantage as a woman in a man’s world.
1. (London: W. Kimber, 1963).
Adam John Fraser is the librarian at the Palestine Exploration Fund in London.
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