At 89 years old, Jean Sassoon is still working – she is in the process of publishing four titles as a result of 25 years of anthropological research into the Pokot people of Kenya. Jean’s career has been a varied one, combining archaeology and ethnography, from Britain to East Africa.
Jean studied archaeology at Edinburgh University in 1949 under Stewart Piggot (husband of trowelblazer Peggy Piggot) with whom she excavated two megalithic tombs in South Scotland, Cairn Holy and the white cairn of Bargrennan) and another, Bronze Age site.
Later she studied under Gordon Childe, Mortimer Wheeler and trowelblazer Kathleen Kenyon at the UCL Institute of Archaeology. While in London, she constantly worried the British Museum for a job- which eventually they gave her- and Jean became the first woman employed in the Antiquities Department there as an assistant in the ethnography department.
A couple of years later she married a veterinary virologist being posted to Nigeria. It was arranged, as she had been working with William Fagg at the British Museum, that she could work in the museum at Jos in Nigeria with Bernard Fagg. But, at the last minute, her husband’s post was redirected to Kenya at the peak of The Mau Mau uprising.
So it was that at the Coryndon Museum, Jean worked with Louis Leakey under armed guard. In 1955, she worked on the dig at the Olduvai Gorge with Leakey, where they found the remains of early hominins, including a tooth which took her ages to stick together, as a workman had smashed it. She was later rushed out of Olduvai Gorge overnight to the small hospital in Arusha, where she had an emergency appendectomy and ended up sharing a room with Hemingway’s daughter-in-law. She then recuperated in the Leakey household, where Richard Leakey, then 12, put his pet snake in bed with her to keep her company!
While in Kenya, Jean also worked on Louis Leakey’s collection of Miocene fossils from Lake Victoria and visited Rusinga and Mwafangano islands on board the “Miocene Lady” in company with geologists Drs Whitworth and Savage. She also excavated two burial mounds in the Rift Valley, carried out excavations of a Serikwa hole at Lanet with Merrick Posnansky, and another on the Uganda border with Susannah Chapman. She continued exploratory archaeology in central and North West Kenya. Later, whilst working with the British Council, she volunteered to catalogue and display the Museum’s sparse ethnographic collection. She spent many nights cataloguing in the evening in company with Glynn and Barbara Isaac who were researching Palaeolithic tools.
Jean took up collecting ethnographic material for the museum from multiple Kenyan ethnic groups. She became Hon. Ethnographer at the Kenya National Museum and lecturer in the University of Nairobi where she set up and ran the Material Culture Project of the Institute of African Studies. As her work progressed, she became increasingly interested in ethnoarchaeology and researched, among other subjects, traditional metalworking in Kenya, which she later produced a book on.
Jean also collaborated with yet another trowelblazer, Mary Leakey, on an investigation into ethnographic parallels for the manufacture and use of rock hollows and stone bowls. She has made ethnographic collections in Kenya and Ethiopia for museums in the U.K. and U.S.A. These include the British Museum, Pitt Rivers Museum Oxford, The Horniman Museum London, Peabody Museum Yale, and the Museum of Cultural History Los Angeles. She gave several lectures in the United States at Harvard, UCLA, Cleveland Museum and others and was the socioanthropological consultant for the U.N. on development projects in Kenya and Southern Sudan. She also received grants from the Rockefeller Foundation, Urgent Anthropology Fund of the Smithsonian, Pitt Rivers Museum Oxford, Royal Geographic Society,and University Women’s Association.
Post by Andrew Harris, based on an interview with Jean Sassoon in November 2016.
Images provided by Jean Sassoon and used with permission.