This pairing of Raising Horizons women are linked through their connections to questions of African identity and colonial archaeology.
Gertrude Caton Thompson and Dr Peggy Brunache
We have written about G. C. T. (she calls herself that in her photo albums, so we feel it’s ok!) twice before on TrowelBlazers, but there’s so much more that can be said about this pioneering archaeologist of the early-mid 20th century.
Her extensive links to other trowelblazers are significant, as they point to the influence that senior women had on her, and she in her turn had on the next generation of archaeologists. Just as she was taking an active role in the burgeoning women’s suffrage movement, her interest in the past was increased by attending lectures given by Sarah Paterson at the British Museum. After a war-time hiatus, from 1921 she was taught by Dorothea Bate and Margaret Murray, later joining the latter and likely Hilda Petrie on excavations in Egypt that winter, before continuing her education at Newnham, Cambridge. Blanche Athena Clough was President at this time, and she must also have met other women studying history, classics and archaeology, like Jane Harrison.
During the 1920s Caton Thompson ensured she was superbly well-trained in a wide range of fields, and gained experience in different regions: she dug in Malta with Margaret Murray and Edith Guest in 1922, then in 1924 returned to Egypt, including with Winifred and Guy Brunton. Here she began to develop her interests in scientific investigation of settlement and landscape, and over the next several decades she brought her multi-disciplinary knowledge to bear on many sites in the Middle and Near East, with a scientific, systematic approach to excavation and frequent collaborations, including with Elinor Gardner.
While Caton Thompson’s career extended for many later years, it was in 1929 that she took one of the few individuals she directly trained with her to the field- a young Kathleen Kenyon. Together with another young woman, Dorothy Norie, the small team funded by the British Association aimed to undertake work at the iconic site of Great Zimbabwe, whose cultural origins had been under dispute. A mix of racist presumption and biblical mythologies had led to claims of non-local influences.
Just getting to the then-Rhodesia was a trial: it was a solid month’s journey from Egypt, battling floods and rail strikes, but enlivened by stopping at Kharga on Christmas Day in order to scope out future fieldwork potential (and consume a packed dinner of champagne, turkey and plum pudding). Once at Great Zimbabwe, the project was extensive and challenging: in addition to working at Great Zimbabwe itself, the team surveyed and dug five other sites, which included overnight sleeping in cars and avoiding leopards.
In the end, by using the cutting-edge stratigraphic techniques Caton Thompson was a world expert in, she confirmed earlier work suggesting that these imposing structures had indeed been built by the indigenous Bantu population. Whilst there is some tension with an outsider in a colonial context deciding on the authenticity of native culture, the importance of this archaeological finding in political terms is shown by the re-naming of Rhodesia in the 1960s to its current “Zimbabwe”. Even if she was acting from a scientific motive rather than an anti-racist one, Caton Thompson’s legacy remains to this day.
Issues of identity and origins are central to the work of Dr Peggy Brunache, lecturer at University of Dundee and the University of Alabama at Birmingham. A Haitian-American who was raised in Florida by working class immigrant parents, Peggy’s career has focused on the history and archaeology of diasporic communities of America and the Caribbean, from colonial to modern times. In particular, she explores how food, and its archaeology, is about who we are. She notes: “Food has never been about the simple act of consumption and survival. It unites communities and conjures up nostalgia.”
Peggy was always interested in science, but after being unable to pursue screen writing at college, she took anthropology courses and got interested in archaeology as a hands-on pursuit. Following museum experience, she took Kathleen Deagan’s fieldschool at St. Augustine, Florida, and was hooked. Following this, in the early 1990s Peggy wanted to develop her experience of the sector through working in cultural resources management (heritage and commercial archaeology), rather than immediately pursuing another degree. This allowed her expand her skills with various companies along the eastern seaboard of America (listen to Peggy speaking her about her experience as a Black woman in CRM, and her wider career.)
Drawn to study the history and archaeology of diaspora communities, Peggy then gained an MA at University of South Carolina looking at the transatlantic slave trade by examining the spatial archaeology of a palace complex in Benin, West Africa. For her subsequent PhD at the University of Texas with Professor Maria Franklin, she focused on Caribbean archaeology, and chose Guadeloupe to research how enslaved women expressed their identity through their cuisine (read her thesis here).
She moved to Scotland in 2007 for personal reasons, began a family, and finished her PhD thesis. Since then she has taught American and Caribbean history and archaeology to students at different institutions (read about her experience teaching at Edinburgh here), echoing her desire to make academia accessible.
In 2015 Peggy was a Visiting Scholar at Northern Kentucky University and worked as a senior collaborator with the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center on the Parker Academy project, investigating the site of one of the first schools to offer racially and gender integrated classes to children in the US. In 2016 she received a prestigious Ford Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship to direct future excavations, archive research and public outreach in collaboration with the Freedom Center.
Peggy’s research has indicated that modern day “Creole” and “Soul Food” has a heritage that stems from the foods eaten by enslaved populations of the Caribbean plantations, and today she also shares her interests in culture and food outside academia, appearing regularly on BBC Radio Scotland’s Kitchen Café, and acting as culinary consultant to the acclaimed Scottish ‘Southern Fried’ Food Festival. She can be seen in upcoming BBC 2 series ‘A Black History of Britain’.
Written by Becky