Gertrude Caton-Thompson, Women's Networks, and Racial Politics in Great Zimbabwe

In 1928, Gertrude Caton-Thompson led the first all women archaeological expedition to study the ruins of a stone city in Great Zimbabwe. It was this bit of information that led to me to discover an archaeological network teeming with women that spanned continents and at least a century. More interesting yet, Thompson’s expedition in Zimbabwe stoked racial tensions locally and across the British Empire, and her findings of the site challenged racist archaeological theories that had been used to defend and sustain Europe’s colonization of Africa.

During a trip to Egypt with her mother in her youth, Caton-Thompson had found her passion for archaeology, which was further nurtured by her friendship with Gertrude Bell and T. E. Lawrence. In 1921, she formally began her education at University College, London. And as an aspiring archaeologist in a male-dominated field, Caton-Thompson couldn’t have asked for a better teacher than the towering Margaret Murray, the first woman in the United Kingdom appointed as a lecturer in archaeology. Caton-Thompson also studied under Dorthea Bate, a founding figure of archaeozoology, and soon after arriving at UCL, Caton-Thompson embarked on her first field experience to Abydos, led by the famous Flinders Petrie. Petrie was an Egyptologist and archaeologist who developed an invaluable method of dating excavation sites that helped piece together the history of ancient cultures, a method which Caton-Thompson later took with her on her own exhibitions. As one of Murray’s best students, Caton-Thompson accompanied Murray and Edith Guest on a cave excavation in Malta. Caton-Thompson quickly took her place in a rather prestigious network of archaeologists.

After her education with Murray and Petrie, Canton Thompson continued work in Egypt, implementing the dating methods she learned from Petrie and making a name for herself. In 1925, she began what would become a long working relationship with geologist Elinor Wight Gardner in Fayum, one of Egypt’s oldest cities. There Caton-Thompson and Gardner initiated the first archaeological survey of the Fayum Oasis, conducted general surveys of the region, and excavated numerous sites. Three years later the Council of the British Academy sent Caton-Thompson to study ruins in southern Africa, which had caused contention among archaeologists and the local region, then known as Rhodesia.

The stone ruins were first “discovered” by German geologist Karl Mauch in 1871, but discovered only in the way Europeans discover things that were built by, and known to, thousands of indigenous people for centuries. Mauch claimed that the ruins were far too impressive to be built by a local population of Africans, the Shona, so he concluded that the ruins were the product of a Biblical civilization from the North, the Queen of Sheba. Mauch’s conclusions about the ruins and the people who built them were not that of a single racist but a reflection of cultural beliefs embedded in the very fabric of the Empire. Europeans viewed African culture as inferior and dismissed any evidence of their long history in the region by claiming instead that African civilizations flourished only because of the influence and integration of Northern and lighter skinned peoples.

 Cecil Rhodes, the genocidal Imperialist for whom Rhodesia was named, was pleased to use Mauch’s findings to bolster his Imperialist agenda in the region. In the 1890s, Rhodes commissioned amateur nobody J. Theodore Bent to determine the origins once and for all. While Bent did not buy into the Queen of Sheba theory, he, like Mauch, disregarded evidence of Shona origins and concluded it was built by a northern race. To add further insult to injury, Rhodes appointed local journalist Richard Hall as curator, which resulted in the desecration of the city as he removed artifacts and layers of archaeological evidence. This too was not unique to one man but indicative of a history of Europeans destroying archaeological sites in Africa and claiming artifacts as property of the Empire.

When Caton-Thompson and her team of women arrived in 1928, they had their work cut out for them. Prior to her arrival, only one other archaeologist had studied the site, David Randall-MacIver, who claimed in 1905 that the city was, in fact, of African origin. Caton-Thompson and her team, however, would provide the much needed concrete data to back up MacIver.

Kathleen Kenyon, fresh out of the university at Oxford, was responsible for the fieldwork at the site and analysis of the historical evidence. Architect Dorothy Noire drew the architectural reconstructions of the site. In addition to the expertise of Kenyon and Noire, Caton-Thompson brought her meticulous and scientific approach and method of sequence dating to the excavation. She was able to prove once and for all that the date of the city was medieval and that it was of African origin, thereby disrupting a century of racist anthropological and archaeological theory.

When she presented her findings at the British Association for the Advancement of Science in Johannesburg, she met much resistance, either on account of her gender or the nature of her findings-- probably a whole lot of both. Raymond Dart, well-known paleoanthropologist, disagreed with Caton-Thompson and is said to have spoken “in an outburst of unscientific indignation and charged the startled Chairman with having called upon none but the supporters of Miss Caton-Thompson’s theory.” She kept letters written by locals and collected much of the mostly negative press surrounding her work at Zimbabwe. In such a racially divided region, her work, explains Martin Hall in Farmers, Kings, and Traders, caused a rift between the local community and herself that lasted for years following excavation. In the end, however, her evidence and conclusions were incontrovertible.

Caton-Thompson’s work in Africa further expanded her network and brought her into the acquaintance of Louis Leakey. In 1933, she hired Mary Nicol, more famously known as the paleoanthropologist Mary Leakey, to illustrate her book The Desert Fayum. Caton-Thompson is not only credited with influencing Mary’s career path but also with introducing her to Louis, whom Mary later married and carried out a successful professional partnership with until his death. In 1937, Caton-Thompson continued her working relationship with Elinor Gardner, and the two teamed up with travel writer Freya Stark to join the Wakefield Expedition to Yemen. With the expedition team, they performed the first systematic excavation of the 5th century B.C. Moon Temple of Hureidhaat.

Caton-Thompson’s biography is exciting and her long list of accomplishments far exceed what I’ve mentioned here. But her story is only a small part of a much bigger network of women, without whom her story might not have been possible. Although men like Flinders Petrie were willing to encourage women in the discipline, it was the mentorship and support of women like Murray that kept the field open to other women. As Murray mentored Caton-Thompson at the start of her career, Caton-Thompson did the same for  Kathleen Kenyon. The network was held together by strong working relationships that lasted decades, like that of Guest and Murray or Caton-Thompson and Gardner.

This strand of mentorship and partnership was reflected also in their analysis and writing. Anthropologist Kathryn Weedman argues that many women archaeologists from 1860s to 1960s “often stressed indigenous development over external influences,” which contradicted the work of their male colleagues; Caton-Thompson’s work at Great Zimbabwe serves as only one example. Weedman suggests that Western ideologies and the racist and misogynistic social stratification of colonization positioned both women and Africans below white European men. It was this inferior place in society that prompted women archaeologists to look at indigenous cultures and people differently than men did. Facing opposition inside the profession from male colleagues and outside the profession with long-standing social stigma surrounding women in male-dominated fields, the individual successes of these women were often the joint effort of many who worked to keep the field open to the next generation.

Further Reading

Getzel M. Cohen and Martha Sharp Joukowsky, eds., Breaking Ground: Pioneering Women Archaeologists (Ann Arbor: University of Michican Press, 2004).

Kathleen L. Sheppard, The Life of Margaret Alice Murray: A Woman’s Work in Archaeology (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2013).

Kathryn Weedman, “Who’s ‘That Girl’: British, South African, and American Women as Africanist Archaeologists in Colonial Africa,” The African Archaeological Review 18, no. 1 (2001): 1–47.


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