Katharine Woolley

Katharine Woolley at Ur

Katharine Woolley at Ur

Katharine Woolley (1888-1945) was a highly controversial figure. She is often remembered as the wife of the famous Leonard Woolley, rather than for her own impressive achievements.[1] Together Katharine and Leonard Woolley worked on excavations at the Mesopotamian site of Ur (now in Iraq), which discovered the Royal Cemetery. Leonard was the Director (1922-1934) and Katharine was an integral field assistant (1925-1934) in this venture, which was a joint partnership between the University of Pennsylvania’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and the British Museum in London.[2]  Her duties included drawing and reconstructing discoveries, producing press materials, and socializing with London’s elite to solicit donations for the excavation[3]

Ur Excavation Pit

Ur Excavation Pit and Staff

Ur Excavation Site 1930

Aerial Picture of the Ur Excavation Site in 1930

In one of Leonard Woolley’s letters from 1926, he wrote, “Speaking quite officially I can say that I consider the Expedition to be very much indebted to Mrs. Keeling" (referring to Katharine by the name of her deceased, first husband, which she bore until her marriage to Leonard Woolley in 1927).[4] However, Katharine was often criticized for having a strong, tyrannical personality, which was described by H.V.F. Winstone, Leonard’s biographer, as “demanding,” “ruthless,” and “calculating”[5].

One could argue that Katharine required this type of disposition to endure working in what was then the very male-dominated field of archeology. Her mere appearance at the excavations in Ur had caused some opposition among donors who objected to an idea of a woman working in the field.[6]  Indeed, this opposition prompted Katharine to marry Leonard Woolley in 1927 for the sake of convenience, in order to quell rumors and threats of lost donations from those who objected to the presence of a single woman in the venture.

How did Katharine cope with this uncongenial working environment?  To some extent we must speculate based on very limited information.  For in fact, upon her death, Katharine requested that all personal documents about her be destroyed[7]. The fulfillment of this request has left historians at a disadvantage.  Nevertheless, by synthesizing scattered records, including references to her in the works of other archeologists, we can reconstruct some of her story and appreciate in the process how Katharine’s life entailed defying conventional gender roles in a restrictive, traditional patriarchal setting.  

Katharine Woolley at the Ur Excavation Site

Katharine Woolley at the Ur Excavation Site

Katharine Woolley was born into a wealthy and well-respected family from Germany in 1888.[8] She suffered from grave medical conditions causing her to be an invalid for most of her life.[9] She attended Oxford University to study history, but was unable to finish her education for health-related issues.[10]  Instead, she decided to work as a British military nurse during World War I, in spite of her German heritage.[11] While working in 1919, Katharine met and married her first husband, Lieutenant Colonel Bertram Keeling, but apparently did so without consummating the marriage.  At the time, Keeling was a part of a team conducting geographical surveys of Egypt, prompting the newlyweds to travel together through the Middle East.[12] On September 20, 1919, a doctor was summoned to examine Katharine, as she was feeling particularly ill.[13] Upon inspection, the doctor spoke privately with Bertram Keeling. Later that day, in a fit of what may have been temporary insanity, Bertram Keeling shot himself at the foot of the Great Pyramid in the Giza desert.[14]  Many scholars speculate that the subject of the conversation with the doctor induced Bertram Keeling’s suicide.[15] Katharine was deeply distraught by the death of her husband and vowed never to marry again.[16]

Excavating the Royal Tombs

Katharine Woolley Excavating the Royal Tombs

Headdress of Queen Puabi

Headdress of Queen Puabi

Katharine then resumed her work as a nurse and traveled through Baghdad.[17] While on duty, she visited the Ur excavations, which Penn, again, was sponsoring jointly with the British Museum,  and impressed the crew with her illustration skills. Katharine was subsequently asked to become a voluntary field assistant.[18] Upon her acceptance in 1925, the excavation house was expanded, and she started receiving a slight stipend.[19] (She then actively engaged in all the excavations at Ur from 1925 onwards. Katharine’s initial role was “drawing [the findings] for the catalogue”, as Max Mallowan, an assistant on the excavation, who wrote the catalogue “couldn’t draw at all.”[20] She became internationally recognized for her drawings of metal objects, specifically her realistic drawing of the bronze head of Hamoudi.[21] Her work was often featured in the Illustrated London News, the major publication that promoted and popularized archeological digs.[22] In later digs, she began partaking in the reconstruction of artifacts. Katharine was responsible, for example, for the reconstruction of the famous headdress of Queen Puabi (Queen Shub-ad).[23] Additionally, she performed what in Britain would have been the traditional female domestic duties by “looking after the servants and keeping the house decent and comfortable” and “taking charge of visitors and acting as a guide.”[24] Katharine’s responsibilities developed to include enlisting financial support for the excavations by mobilizing public and private interests in the dig through the publication of her illustrations. Her family connections and formal upbringing also assisted in her ability to strategically socialize with the London elite.[25] According to a letter written by Leonard Woolley in August 8, 1926, “Miss Gertrude Bell” – here referring to the famous archaeologist and the first Director of Antiquities in Iraq – “several times said what a good thing it was that [Katharine] was with us.”[26]

Expedition House and Staff

Ur Expedition House and Staff

After visits to the excavation site by tourists and donors, rumors surfaced about Katharine’s presence on the camp.[27] American and Britons in university circles considered it scandalous for an unmarried woman to work on excavations, due to the traditional patriarchal structure of archeology and alleged sexual temptation.[28] A few donors threatened to withdraw their pledges over this issue.[29] In response, George Bryon Gordon, the Director the University of Pennsylvania Museum, wrote a personal and confidential letter in July 8th, 1926 to Leonard Woolley advising him “to removing that risk.”[30] His reasoning was that “the presence of a lone women with four men in camp makes a more interesting figure for some of them than the outline of ziggurats.”[31] Leonard Woolley countered in a letter on August 8th, 1926, by replying that, “I do think that the presence of a lady has a good moral effect on the younger fellows in the camp and keeps them up to standard”[32] After much correspondence, Gordon made it clear that Katharine must be married to continue working on the excavation site.[33] Katharine enjoyed male attention, yet refused romantic relationships after the misfortune of her first marriage.[34] In 1927, Katharine accepted Leonard’s proposal for a marriage of convenience under her condition that it remain unconsummated.[35]

The Woolleys in Pit X

Katharine and Leonard Wooley in Pit X

According to Max Mallowan (who may not have been aware of Katharine’s stipulations), the marriage “made [Leonard Woolley] more human and with advantage often diverted a single-mindedness which otherwise would have left no more time whatever for anything but work.”[36] Katharine prospered professionally from the marriage, too, as she quickly became second in command on the dig and helped direct the last season of excavations at Ur.[37] But in 1929, Leonard sent a letter to his lawyer requesting divorce papers, as Katharine refused to consummate the marriage. The divorce was never processed and the couple remained married until Katharine’s death in 1945.[38]

Excavating Grave Material at Ur

Katharine Woolley and Crew Excavating Grave Materials at Ur

Katharine was notorious for her strong, authoritative personality and intelligence. Most of the workmen on the dig were reportedly terrified of her.[39] Max Mallowan described her as “poisonous” with a “dominating and powerful personality,” and Gertrude Bell, first Director of Antiquities in Iraq, agreed by calling her “dangerous.”[40] However, Agatha Christie, the detective novelist who had met Max Mallowan at Ur in 1930 and who had later married him, described Katharine Wooley as an “extraordinary” character and a “great friend” yet as a “woman who played with fire and people.”[41] Agatha Christie and Katharine Woolley became unlikely friends, though their friendship subsided shortly after Agatha Christie and Max Mallowan were married.[42]

 

In short, many observers noted Katharine’s variability and extremity of moods, though this appears to have been the product of her deteriorating health.[43] Generally viewed by her colleagues as manipulative and vain, Katharine nevertheless had a strong disposition that enabled her to become a female pioneer of archeology.

Members of the 1924 Ur Excavation

Katharine Woolley with Two of the Members of the 1924 Ur Excavation Crew

Today, outsiders are most likely to encounter a trace of Katharine Woolley in Agatha Christie’s novel, Murder in Mesopotamia.It features a murder victim, under the name of Louise Leidner, the dominating and tyrannical wife of an archeologist, whom Christie later admitted having based on Katharine Woolley.[44][45] The novel is essentially “a study of the persona of Katharine Woolley.”[46] For her storyline, Christie also drew on Katharine’s first unfortunate marriage and her interactions with others for plot enhancement.[47]  The novel also features the Ur excavation site (Tell Yarimjah) and other archeologists from the dig, such as Max Mallowan, S. J. Burrows, Leonard Woolley, and Agatha Christie herself.[48] The book was even dedicated to “To my many archaeological friends in Iraq and Syria,” which included Katharine Woolley and Leonard Woolley among many others.[49] Agatha Christie was concerned about Katharine’s reaction to the novel.[50] However, as Max Mallowan wrote in his memoir, “Fortunately, and perhaps not unexpectedly, Katharine did not recognize certain traits which might have been taken as applicable to herself, and took no umbrage.”[51] This novel and her response epitomize the perceptions and obliviousness and vanity of Katharine’s disposition.

Katharine and Leonard Woolley measuring Draining Pipes

Katharine and Leonard Woolley measuring Draining Pipes

Katharine Woolley published a book in 1929 titled Adventure Calls.[52]The novel is centered on a woman who dresses as a man in order to enjoy a life of adventure and excitement. The character in this novel becomes a member of a two-person archeological team with a man, who shortly becomes her best friend. Near the end of the book, she reveals her identity to her partner and they get married and live happily ever after.[53] The subject of gender identification and role-play in this book reinforces many speculations about Katharine’s sexuality. Few scholars believed that she was man; many commented on her beauty and the fact that she never exhibited the manly features of an Adam’s apple or facial hair.[54] However, a recent theory by Henrietta McCall, an Egyptologist and curator at the British Museum, speculates that Katharine may have been affected by complete androgen insensitivity syndrome (CAIS).[55] That is, she was genetically male but resistant to male hormones, so that she exhibited the physical traits of a woman. People with CAIS have neither proper male nor female genitalia. [56]  Instead, their genitalia is often a “dimple” that is a third of the depth of a normal vagina.[57] This explains her refusal to consummate her marriage with Leonard and possibly the rationale for her first husband’s suicide.[58] It may explain, in other words, what the doctor observed when he examined Katharine’s body in 1919, and what he told Bernard Keeling, who immediately thereafter shot himself at the Great Pyramid in Giza.  There is no medical evidence that Katharine suffered from CAIS; however, a leading expert from Cambridge University agreed that CAIS could explain her physical appearance and two peculiar marriages. A DNA test would be necessary to absolutely confirm the presence of CAIS.[59]

Excavating the Royal Tombs

Katharine Woolley Excavating the Royal Tombs

It is tragic that Katharine, a female pioneer in a male-dominated field, is remembered for her personal life and sexuality.[60] The notorious attributes of Katharine’s life, such as the complaint letters from George Bryon Gordon, the marriage for convenience, negative perceptions of her personality, and speculations about her gender overshadow her contributions to the excavation. Although this is a common struggle among women who defy conventional gender roles in patriarchal careers, her successes were prominent and deserving of recognition.[61] In her obituary, Max Mallowan described her as an ‘archeologist,’ not simply the wife of an archeologist or an assistant. This touching tribute reiterates Katharine’s achievements in a male-dominated field. Katharine Woolley was a successful, strong woman who overcame significant obstacles to combine her interests and her innate abilities in popularizing archeology.

[1] Edward Luby, "The Ur- Archeologist." Biblical Archeology Review 23, no. 2 (1997).

[2] Lisa-Marie Shillito, "Katharine Woolley- Demanding, Dangerous, and Digging." Trowel Blazers, 1 November 2014. Accessed 28 Nov. 2014. (http://trowelblazers.tumblr.com/post/102875559227/katharine-woolley-dangerous-demanding-and).

[3] Luby, "The Ur- Archeologist." 

[4] Leonard Woolley, letter to George Bryon Gordon, 8 Aug. 1926, Correspondence- Exp. V Aug-Dec, 1926, General Correspondence of Expedition Records at Ur, University of Pennsylvania Museum Archives, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.

[5] Luby, "The Ur- Archeologist." 

[6] B.J. Richards, “More Deadly than the Male: the Life of Katharine Woolley.” Monkey Strums the British Museum (blog), 2012. Accessed 29 Nov. 2014. (http://bjrichards.blogspot.com/2013/01/more-deadly-than-male-life-of-katharine_4954.html).

[7] Andrea Rottloff, Archeologists (Mainz: Von Zabern, 2009), 149-151.

[8] Henrietta McCall, "Katharine Woolley and Archeology," lecture delivered at the British Museum (London), 8 Nov. 2012.

[9] Luby, "The Ur- Archeologist." 

[10] Shillito, "Katharine Woolley- Demanding, Dangerous, and Digging." 

[11] McCall, "Katharine Woolley and Archeology."

[12] Richards, “More Deadly than the Male."

[13]  Luby, "The Ur- Archeologist." 

[14] Richards, “More Deadly than the Male: the Life of Katharine Woolley.” .

[15] McCall, "Katharine Woolley and Archeology".

[16] Shillito, "Katharine Woolley- Demanding, Dangerous, and Digging." 

[17] Richards, “More Deadly than the Male".

[18] M.E.L. Mallowan, "Memories of Ur," Iraq 22 (1960), 7.

[19] McCall, "Katharine Woolley and Archeology".

[20] Leonard Woolley, letter to George Bryon Gordon, 8 Aug. 1926, Correspondence- Exp. V Aug-Dec, 1926, General Correspondence of Expedition Records at Ur, University of Pennsylvania Museum Archives, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.

[21] Shillito, "Katharine Woolley- Demanding, Dangerous, and Digging." 

[22] McCall, "Katharine Woolley and Archeology." 

[23] Luby, "The Ur- Archeologist." 

[24] Leonard Woolley, letter to George Bryon Gordon, 8 Aug. 1926, Correspondence- Exp. V Aug-Dec, 1926, General Correspondence of Expedition Records at Ur, University of Pennsylvania Museum Archives, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.

[25] McCall, "Katharine Woolley and Archeology." 

[26] Leonard Woolley, letter to George Bryon Gordon, 8 Aug. 1926, Correspondence- Exp. V Aug-Dec, 1926, General Correspondence of Expedition Records at Ur, University of Pennsylvania Museum Archives, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.

[27] Rottloff, Archeologists, 149-151.

[28] Luby, "The Ur- Archeologist." 

[29] McCall, "Katharine Woolley and Archeology." 

[30] George Bryon Gordon, letter to Leonard Woolley, 5 October 1926, Correspondence- Exp. V Aug-Dec, 1926, General Correspondence of Expedition Records at Ur, University of Pennsylvania Museum Archives, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.

[31] George Bryon Gordon, letter to Leonard Woolley, 8 July 1926, Correspondence- Exp. IV Jan-Jul, 1926. General Correspondence of Expedition Records at Ur, University of Pennsylvania Museum Archives, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.

[32] Leonard Woolley, letter to George Bryon Gordon, 8 Aug. 1926, Correspondence- Exp. V Aug-Dec, 1926, General Correspondence of Expedition Records at Ur, University of Pennsylvania Museum Archives, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.

[33] George Bryon Gordon, letter to Leonard Woolley, 5 October 1926, Correspondence- Exp. V Aug-Dec, 1926, General Correspondence of Expedition Records at Ur, University of Pennsylvania Museum Archives, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.

[34]  McCall, "Katharine Woolley and Archeology." 

[35] McCall, "Katharine Woolley and Archeology." 

[36]  Mallowan, "Memories of Ur," 13.

[37] Richards, “More Deadly than the Male: the Life of Katharine Woolley.” 

[38] McCall, "Katharine Woolley and Archeology." 

[39] Mallowan, "Memories of Ur," 8.

[40] Mallowan, Mallowan’s Memoirs (London: Collins, 1977).

[41] Robert Dyson, "Archival Glimpses of the Ur Expedition in the Years 1920 to 1926." Expedition 20, no. 1 (1977), 5-27.

[42] Richards, “More Deadly than the Male: the Life of Katharine Woolley.” 

[43] Luby, "The Ur- Archeologist." 

[44] Janet Morgan, Agatha Christie: A Biography. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1983).

[45] Agatha Christie, Murder in Mesopotamia (New York: Berkeley Books, 1936).

[46] G.W. Thomas, "Murder in Mesopotamia: Agatha Christie in the Middle East," The Armchair Detective 29 (1996), 83.

[47] Thomas, "Murder in Mesopotamia," 86.

[48] Thomas, "Murder in Mesopotamia," 87.

[49] Christie, Murder in Mesopotamia.

[50] Morgan, Agatha Christie.

[51] Mallowan, Mallowan’s Memoirs.

[52] Shillito, "Katharine Woolley- Demanding, Dangerous, and Digging."

[53] McCall, "Katharine Woolley and Archeology." 

[54] Richards, “More Deadly than the Male: the Life of Katharine Woolley.” 

[55]  McCall, "Katharine Woolley and Archeology." 

[56] "Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome," U.S. National Library of Medicine, May 2008. Accessed 24 Nov. 2014. (http://ghr.nlm.nih.gov/condition/androgen-insensitivity-syndrome).

[57]  Richards, “More Deadly than the Male: the Life of Katharine Woolley.” 

[58] McCall, "Katharine Woolley and Archeology." 

[59] Henrietta McCall, e-mail message to author, 2 Dec. 2014.

[60] Luby, "The Ur- Archeologist." 

[61] McCall, "Katharine Woolley and Archeology."

Katharine Woolley