Ur was an important city-state in ancient Mesopotamia, perhaps best known for the ziggurat monument and Royal Tombs. One of the main periods of excavations from 1922 to 1934 were jointly funded by the British Museum and the University of Pennsylvania, and the story of these early excavations is often told with reference to director Sir Charles Leonard Woolley, and his assistant Max Mallowan, who would go on to became an important archaeologist in his own right. There is another character however whose role in these excavations was equally important, and that is Katharine Woolley (nee Menke). Katharine was described by fellow trowelblazer Gertrude Bell as “dangerous” and Agatha Christie as “an extraordinary character”, and it is rumoured that Christie based a murder victim in one of her novels on her. Woolley was certainly a woman who made an impression, and her story has more than a little mystery and drama, and also unfortunately tragedy.
Katharine was as a student at Oxford, however she left before finishing her degree and worked as a British military nurse. She married her first husband, Lieutenant Colonel Bertram Keeling, in 1919 and travelled with him to Egypt, but after only 6 months of marriage, he committed suicide in the Giza desert. The details surrounding his death are unclear, but this obviously had an impact on Katharine. She resumed her nursing career and ended up visiting the Ur excavations whilst on duty in Baghdad. She attracted the attention of the excavators with her illustration skills, and was invited to join the team. She began working as a field assistant for the project in 1924.
Many texts allude incorrectly to the fact that she was present on the Ur excavations solely to accompany her husband, Sir Charles Leonard Woolley, when in fact she found herself there entirely through her own talents. She ended up marrying Leonard for convenience as it was her only option to remain on the dig after the funders expressed discomfort at the thought of an attractive young widow working in the field alone with a team of men. She quickly became ‘second in command’ at the dig, and she was also responsible for the reconstruction of the famous headdress of Queen Pu-abi amongst others. She would go on to lead excavations in the final year of the dig, and played an important role in fundraising and producing press materials for the project. In 1929, Katharine published a book, Adventure Calls, about a woman who pretends to be a man so that she can have a life of excitement and adventure, including joining an archaeological team!
Katharine interviewed the young Max Mallowan for his place on the team, and it was also due to Katharine that Agatha Christie was allowed to visit the excavations. Initially the two became good friends, but suffered a falling out when Christie became romantically involved with Mallowan (they would later get married). Although Katharine was married to Leonard, it is suggested that she enjoyed the attention of being the only woman on site and wasn’t pleased when Mallowan directed his attention elsewhere. Christie was not welcome back and Mallowan left the team shortly after. It is these aspects of the story that may be responsible for Katharine’s reputation as being difficult to work with! Sadly her work was overshadowed by this reputation and with speculations about her sexuality/gender, which is rumoured to have been linked to the suicide of her first husband (for a discussion of this see this blog about an unpublished paper on Woolley). More important than the details (confusing as they are) of her personal life, were Katharine’s archaeological illustrations and reconstructions which were critical to publicising and promoting the discoveries at Ur. Without her contributions the importance of the Ur excavations would not have been recognised, and the success of her husband’s career was in no small part due to her work.
Of course, there are those among us who prefer to judge her character but what we can see for ourselves – active fieldwork and a fondness for felines, which surely can’t be a bad thing…!
Post submitted by Lisa-Marie Shillito
Edited by Brenna
Image: Katharine Woolley and Sheikh Hamoudi Ibn Ibrahim, the excavation’s foreman, sorting finds (1928–29 season). © Trustees of the British Museum; Cover Image:Expedition house and staff, 1928-29. Max Mallowan (third from left), Hamoudi, C. Leonard Wolley, Katherine Wolley, Father Eric R. Burrows. Courtesy of the Penn Museum, image no. 191365.