When Margaret Benson (1865-1916) first travelled to Egypt in 1894 it was to recover from various ailments not trowelblaze, but trowelblaze she did. Enchanted by Egypt and its history, she was already making plans to return by the end of her trip. After an initial refusal she was granted permission to excavate the Mut Temple Precinct at Karnak, beginning in January 1895 — making her the first woman to conduct her own excavation in Egypt. At that time Mut was assumed to be unimportant and the temple itself was already mostly destroyed. Nobody thought Margaret Benson would find anything worthwhile, but then Margaret Benson had a habit of surprising people….
Margaret Benson’s academic interests were first properly kindled when she went up to Oxford, attending Lady Margaret Hall in 1893 [by my calculations, she must have crossed over with Gertrude Bell –Ed]. There she was responsible for shattering her (male) tutor’s idea that there was any difference in the ‘feminine’ intellect: her “utter remorselessness” in discussions put paid to that.
It was therefore true to form when Benson’s three seasons of excavations at Mut surprised everyone by unearthing several important statues.
Curious, enthusiastic, and unconventional (she once dressed in an ingenious costume of the goddess Mut of her own making, and confused American tourists who saw the director of a dig sitting on the ground arguing about sand castles rather than behaving more… director-ly), Benson was not trained in archaeology or Egyptology. However, she had created a network of professionals including Swiss archaeologist Edouard Naville (who interceded on her behalf with Henry de Morgan and helped her secure her excavation permit), and husband-of-Hilda Flinders Petrie to assist her. During her second season she was introduced to Janet Gourlay [post needed! –Ed], an Egyptologist who had studied with Petrie at UCL. The two women would become lifelong friends and publish the excavation together.
Benson’s excavations uncovered a number of Sekhmet statues some of which still stand in the temple courtyard,as well as several other statues of significance. They also cleared a large portion of the temple and corrected the existing plans of the layout. Benson and Gourlay’s excavation report is highly detailed regarding the position of the statues, the position of the walls, the reuse of bricks and more. Their report also contains a great deal of personality about their excavation process and their methods. Their documentation was sound and their work remains important to the history of the Mut Temple Precinct which is still being excavated today by Betsy Bryan of Johns Hopkins University and Richard Fazzini with the Brooklyn Museum.
Edited & additional content by Tori
Benson portrait sourced from wikicommons here
For more information on Margaret Benson see:
Benson M., and Janet Gourlay (1899) The Temple of Mut in Ashur [pdf available from here]
William Peck’s superb blog post on Benson and the excavations at Mut. William is also author of the Janet Gourlay biography linked to above.