Aileen Fox (née Henderson), born in 1907, had a privileged childhood of nannies and home tutoring, and she was never expected to go to university. Her mother only allowed her to take the entrance exams for Cambridge on the proviso that she would be presented at Buckingham Palace, which she duly was in 1926.
She started out as an assistant at the excavations of the important Roman fort at Richborough in Kent, potentially the first landing of the invading Romans. This was a very early example of a salvage or rescue dig, spurred on by the destruction of WWII. At that time workmen did most of the digging and assistants cleaned and catalogued the finds. She picked up the work very quickly and soon became indispensable. On her second season she ended up setting up a museum.
She worked under Dorothy Liddell (another TrowelBlazer who deserves recognition!) and with the future Mary Leakey on two digs in 1933, Hembury Hillfort in Devon, and Meon Hill Iron Age settlement in Hampshire. She learned to do her own digging, surveying and sampling there. That autumn she married the widowed archaeologist Cyril Fox, director of the National Museum of Wales. She kept busy helping him excavate and survey local sites while she had her family, but it was on his retirement that she really got going.
After being invited to direct excavations in bomb-damaged Exeter immediately after the Second World War, she taught at what would become Exeter University from 1948 to 1973. The prehistory of the south-west was sadly neglected and she set out to change that, spending many seasons digging and eventually writing the first proper synthesis of the archaeology of the area.
Aileen organised a one-year visiting lectureship at Auckland University in New Zealand. She ended up staying for ten years doing various jobs at the university and museum, rejuvenating the investigation of many Maori pa -hill forts- and helping set up the New Zealand Archaeological Association. It was a fitting end to an adventurous career.
Kim recounts hearing an anecdote from former county archaeologist for Buckinghamshire, Mike Farley, that shows Aileen had high standards for penmanship – he luckily missed out on having one of his papers sent back for being unreadable when all the exam papers were stolen from her car, along with a packet of ginger nuts!
Edited by Brenna
Fox, A 2000. Aileen – A Pioneering Archaeologist. The Autobiography of Aileen Fox. Gracewing: Leominster.
Archaeopedia New Zealand’s Aileen Fox entry