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.

Model Of Maori Pa On Headland

Model Of Maori Pa On Headland – Wikipedia

Written by Kim Biddulph who can also be found at @schprehistory

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

Read More:

Fox, A 2000. Aileen – A Pioneering Archaeologist. The Autobiography of Aileen Fox. Gracewing: Leominster.

Archaeopedia New Zealand’s Aileen Fox entry

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3 thoughts on “Lady Aileen Fox

  1. Judith Atkinson says:

    Ailleen used to visit my late husband, Prof. Richard Atkinson (died1974) on her visits to Cardiff. I always found her a rather formidable lady, think she rather disapproved of me as I was his much younger second wife!

  2. Jennifer Armstrong says:

    Aileen Fox was my lecturer at Exeter University in the late 1960s. I have very clear memories of an outing to Hembury hillfort with her and even more so of one to view the stone row, standing stones and hut circles on Dartmoor, with her striding out ahead of us from the Warren House Inn in her tweed skirt!

  3. Jacky Nowakowski says:

    Eileen Fox was an inspirational woman and a hard working and amazing field archaeologist. Her own story in her book about her life is a must read for any woman who wants to pursue her passion and interests. I was lucky enough to have met her several times and she visited my own excavations here in Cornwall in the 1990s when she was in her 90s. Mentally alert, fit and a strong personality who has inspired me. Afer all when you can start a new life in a completly new country in your 70s and continue to make new insights into archaeology how can one not be inspired by that!

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