Gertrude Caton Thompson (1888 – 1985) attributed her interest in archaeology to her early encounters with antiquity – gained on holidays abroad. Indeed, a trip to Rome is where Gertrude recalled feeling “the first stirrings of interest in past civilisations”.
Following her formal education, which she looked back on in later life as entirely lacking in sensible subjects (science – in any form -, mathematics, Latin, etc), Gertrude lived a care-free life of privilege and parties. But her interests weren’t frivolous: in 1911 she became active in the women’s suffrage movement, becoming a joint secretary for the London Branch, and she had been enthralled by a lecture course on Ancient Greece, given by Sarah Paterson at the British Museum. In 1914 she joined the war effort – a period which marked the turning point in her life.
Sarah Paterson’s “compelling” lectures had led Gertrude to read further back into prehistory. Her opportunity to put this fledging interest into practice came in 1915 – while on a holiday in Menton in the south of France, she volunteered as a “bottle washer” at a Palaeolithic site being excavated at Rochers Rouges.
Following the war, Gertrude was encouraged to remain in the civil service, but by then she had had her first taste of fieldwork and had even met Gertrude Bell and TE Lawrence (at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919). Her heart and mind was set on another career: archaeology.
In 1921 she returned to Menton to assist with the excavations and that summer she enrolled at numerous institutions studying Egyptology (with Margaret Murray!), Arabic, palaeontology, and even surveying – fully equipping herself to apply to join Flinders Petrie’s excavations for the British School of Archaeology in Egypt that autumn.
The rest is a fascinating history. Gertrude Caton Thompson brought a new and scientific approach to her excavations, which led her into conflict with archaeological and anthropological luminaries Flinders Petrie and Raymond Dart. She made major contributions to archaeology across Africa and the Middle East – frequently working with other women, notably Dorothea Bate, Freya Stark and Elinor Gardner. She is also credited with influencing a young Mary Leakey!
[Keep an eye out for upcoming posts on Gertrude Caton Thompson’s archaeological work, including some of her most notable work at Great Zimbabwe in the 1930s.]
Caton Thompson, G. 1983. Mixed memoirs, Paradigm Press.
Cohen, G. M. & Joukowsky, M. S. 2006. Breaking Ground: Pioneering Women Archaeologists, University of Michigan Press.
Written by Alison Atkin (@alisonatkin)
Edited by Tori (@ToriHerridge)
RAI 36032 Portrait of Gertrude Caton Thompson. Photograph by Ramsey & Muspratt, Cambridge, 1938. Copyright The Royal Anthropological Institute. All rights reserved. Not to be reused without permission.