Jan 052016


Today is the birthday (1906) of Kathleen Kenyon noted British archeologist whose digs in Jericho and Jerusalem helped change the pattern and aims of archeology in the Near East. Her book, Digging Up Jericho (1957), made her a celebrity in Britain and subsequently in Europe when it was translated into multiple languages.


She was the eldest daughter of Sir Frederic Kenyon, biblical scholar and later director of the British Museum. Her grandfather, John Robert Kenyon, was a lawyer and Fellow of All Souls College, and her great-great-grandfather was the politician and lawyer Lloyd Kenyon, 1st Baron Kenyon. She grew up in Bloomsbury in London, in a house attached to the British Museum, with her mother, Amy Kenyon, and sister Nora Kenyon. Kenyon’s father encouraged wide reading and independent study and in later years she noted that her father’s position at the British Museum was particularly helpful in her self education. Kenyon was an excellent student, winning awards at school and particularly excelling in history. She studied first at St Paul’s Girls’ School, where she was Head Girl, before winning an Exhibition to read History at Somerville College, Oxford. While at Oxford, Kenyon won a Blue in hockey and became the first female president of the Oxford University Archaeological Society. She graduated in 1929 and began a life-long career in archaeology.


Working in archaeology was first suggested to Kenyon by Margery Fry, librarian at Somerville College. After graduation Kenyon’s first field experience was as a photographer for the pioneering excavations at Great Zimbabwe in 1929, led by Gertrude Caton-Thompson. Returning to England, Kenyon joined the team of Mortimer Wheeler and his wife Tessa Wheeler on their excavation of the Romano-British settlement of Verulamium (St Albans). Working there each summer between 1930 and 1935, Kenyon was schooled by Mortimer Wheeler in the discipline of meticulously controlled and recorded stratigraphic excavation, which later led to her own refinements – a vital component in her own work. Wheeler entrusted her with the direction of the excavation of the Roman theatre.

As a small aside I have to mention the 1950s television show “Animal Vegetable or Mineral” where three distinguished archaeologists, under the chairmanship of Glyn Daniel, attempted to identify ancient artifacts, presented each week by a different museum. Mortimer Wheeler was a regular panelist and Kenyon appeared once. I can’t imagine such a show being produced these days – archeologists sitting around discussing the details of pots, sculptures and such !!! Impossible. Wheeler was famous for announcing now and again, “I was there when they dug it up.” Here’s a sample – absolutely hilarious.


In the years 1931 to 1934 Kenyon worked simultaneously at Samaria, then under the administration of the British Mandate for Palestine, with John Crowfoot and Grace Crowfoot. There she cut a stratigraphic trench across the summit of the mound and down the northern and southern slopes, exposing the Iron II to the Roman period stratigraphic sequence of the site. In addition to providing crucial dating material for the Iron Age stratigraphy of Palestine, she obtained key stratified data for the study of Eastern terra sigilata ware.


In 1934 Kenyon was closely associated with the Wheelers in the foundation of the Institute of Archaeology of University College London. From 1936 to 1939 she carried out important excavations at the Jewry Wall in the city of Leicester. These were published in the Illustrated London News (1937) with pioneering reconstruction drawings by the artist Alan Sorrell whom she had happened to notice sketching her dig.

During the Second World War, Kenyon served as Divisional Commander of the Red Cross in Hammersmith, London, and later as Acting Director and Secretary of the Institute of Archaeology of the University of London. After the war, she excavated in Southwark, at The Wrekin, Shropshire and elsewhere in Britain, as well as at Sabratha, a Roman city in Libya. As a member of the Council of the British School of Archaeology in Jerusalem (BSAJ), Kenyon was involved in the efforts to reopen the School after the hiatus of the Second World War. In January 1951 she travelled to the Transjordan and undertook excavations in the West Bank at Jericho (Tell es-Sultan) on behalf of the BSAJ.


Her Initial findings were first viewed by the public in the Dome of Discovery at the Festival of Britain 1951 with a reconstruction drawing by Alan Sorrell. Her work at Jericho, from 1952 until 1958, made her world famous and established a lasting legacy in the archaeological methodology of the Levant. Ground-breaking discoveries concerning the Neolithic cultures of the Levant were made in this ancient settlement. Her excavation of the Early Bronze Age walled city and the external cemeteries of the end of the Early Bronze Age, together with her analysis of the stratified pottery of these periods established her as the leading authority on that period. Kenyon focused her attention on the absence of certain Cypriot pottery at City IV, arguing for an older destruction date than that of her predecessors. Jericho was recognized as the oldest continuously occupied settlement in history because of her discoveries. At the same time she also completed the publication of the excavations at Samaria. Her volume, Samaria Sebaste III: The Objects, appeared in 1957. Having completed her excavations at Jericho in 1958, Kenyon excavated in Jerusalem from 1961 to 1967, concentrating on the ‘City of David’ to the immediate south of the Temple Mount.

Although Kenyon had no doubt the sites she excavated were linked to the Old Testament narrative she nevertheless drew attention to inconsistencies, concluding, for example, that Solomon’s “stables” at Megiddo were totally impractical for holding horses, and that Jericho fell long before Joshua’s arrival. Consequently, Kenyon’s work has been cited to support the Minimalist School of Biblical Archaeology.


Kenyon’s work is now seen as transitional between old-school Biblical archeology and modern Near Eastern archeology. The goal of the former was simply to support Biblical narratives and, in consequence, focused on sites mentioned in the Bible. Modern Near Eastern archeology broke away from a focus on Biblical sites to view the Levant as worthy of study independently of Biblical history. As such we now have a much broader view of the historical cultures of the region as context for Biblical analysis. One of the great casualties of this method is the whole Exodus and Conquest of Israel sequence, which is completely unsupported by archeology (not to mention the absence of evidence for the kingships of David and Solomon). Kenyon hastened the demise of classic Biblical archeology although she still had one foot in that camp.

Kenyon was in her last year as principal of St Hugh’s college, Oxford in 1973 when I was finished with required studies in theology and could spend some time on optional papers. I could have asked to have been taken on by Kenyon as my tutor, but chose instead to focus on Byzantine church history. One of my college mates did work with Kenyon and, as I had suspected, spent a term identifying and memorizing potsherds. I knew this would be his fate having already read Archaeology in the Holy Land which is precious little more than page upon page of pen and ink drawings of assemblages with attendant dates. It took me decades to recover. Nowadays I understand their importance, but I leave the meticulous work to the experts and simply draw on their conclusions. As it happens, Byzantine church history was just as tiresome in that it was taught by an absolute dullard with not an original thought in his brain.

From 1948 to 1962 Kenyon lectured in Levantine Archaeology at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London, her teaching complementing her excavations at Jericho and Jerusalem. In 1962, she was appointed Principal of St Hugh’s College, Oxford, and retired in 1973 whereupon she was appointed a Dame of the British Empire.

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Jericho was known in antiquity for a number of products including olives and dates – timeless products enjoyed as much today as thousands of years ago. I suggest making a plate of foods associated with the region. I do this for a quick light meal. The centerpiece can be flatbread with yoghurt and olives, to which you can add goat cheese, dates, figs, and even a pomegranate for good luck.

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