Born into a Jewish family in 1911, Claire Epstein received a B.A. in Italian from UCL 1932, then worked for a few years translating Hebrew for the British. She joined the British Army in WWII and went on to become the first woman sergeant-major of the British Army’s Women’s Unit. When the Antiquity Authority sent Prof. Michael Avi-Yova to Ein Gev after its capture from Syria, he asked her to join him – this is how she got interested in archaeology. During the 1950s she excavated at the Roman site, Susita, near Ein Gev. In 1959, she began studying archaeology formally at UCL as a mature student, and (supervised by Kathleen Kenyon!) received her PhD in 1962.
Over her career, she carried out a lot of important work on the Chalcolithic Period; her 1985 article in BASOR is still commonly cited. The artefacts depicted in that article – of a donkey with a harness and a donkey carrying baskets – are still the earliest evidence for donkeys being used as pack animals. In fact, the author of this post was seeking copyright permission to use those images in her PhD when she first learned about Claire Epstein. During her lifetime, Claire won numerous awards for her work in archaeology. She died in 2000, five years after receiving the Israel Prize for her contributions.
Overall, she was a true trowelblazer: she fought actual Nazis, became the first woman sergeant-major in the British Army women’s unit, and she was also an archaeologist who did great work!
Post by Michelle de Gruchy
Edited by Suzie Birch
Photo of Claire Epstein by and used with permission of Peter L. Rosenburg (nytcs.com)