“We live in a very comfortable tomb on the side of the cliff with nothing behind us but the desert until you reach the Red Sea.”–Olga Tufnell to her mother, in a letter dated 24th Nov 1927, from Qau el-Kebir, Egypt.
Olga Tufnell was one of the many trowelblazers who came to archaeology by a sideways route, but fell in love with fieldwork in the Near East. She was from a very well-off background, and the wide cultural interests of her mother, Blanche, which included travel, music and the arts, may have given her a head start. She had an elite education, including a semi-finishing school experience in Italy, where she took art classes, and in fact her considerable skills as a draftsperson became part of her archaeological career.
Olga’s mother also happened to be a close friend of (and related by marriage to) trowelblazer Hilda Petrie. At Hilda’s suggestion, a young Olga was taken on by the Petries – huge figures in Near Eastern and Egyptian archaeology- as the grand-sounding ‘Assistant Secretary to the British School of Archaeology in Egypt’. Her main role was fundraising, and helping with the annual exhibition of finds at UCL, but she sometimes also got to work on mending and illustrating pottery. Olga’s career-changing moment came in 1927 at the age of twenty two, when she was invited to join the final Petrie excavations at Qau el-Kebir in Egypt. She seems to have bitten by the archaeology bug, and stayed on to dig Tell Fara in Palestine, where she supervised excavations, and then the following two seasons at Tell Ajjul (until 1932), where she found an amazing burial complete with entire horse skeleton.
These experiences were the seminal years in Olga’s training, and she took pride in being one of the ‘Petrie Pups’, along with others of her generation, some forming close personal and professional friendships – including the respected Egyptologist Margaret Murray.
Just after working at Tell Ajjul, Olga joined James Starkey (another of the Petrie crew) digging at Tell ed-Duweir, identified as the Biblical city of Lachish. Olga’s letters show she was given significant responsibility on site, and was part of the team that over six seasons discovered the famous Lachish Letters, although eventually the project ended just after Starkey was killed.
During WWII, Olga worked in diverse roles including with the BBC. After the war she began to publish on the results from Tell ed-Duweir along with other project members, which she continued for another 20 years. Her contested challenge to the accepted Iron Age chronology of the region was finally proven correct by later excavations.
Olga continued to work in Near Eastern archaeology, especially pottery, and in the late 1950s she dug at Nimrud, where she likely met yet another trowelblazer, Agatha Christie, who worked there alongside her husband Max Mallowan. She also developed an interest in more recent Near Eastern culture, and collaborated with Violet Barbour in the development of the Palestine Folk Museum. Her interest in ornament seems to have led directly to what became the final major project of her life. From 1962, she undertook an exhaustive and meticulous collaborative study on scarab seals in Palestine, which used her early training in pottery chronology to show how scarab seals could be used for the same purpose.
As with many early trowelblazers, she took an interest in young students and researchers and was much loved and respected by her colleagues. The Tufnell archive is housed at the Palestine Exploration Fund, and the Lachish archive and collection are at the British Museum.
Letter: Ref. PEF-DA-TUF-0093
Written by John MacDermot, Palestine Exploration Fund. All images were provided with permission of the Palestine Exploration Fund.
Editing and additional content by Becky, posted by Suzie.