Kathleen Kenyon

Kathleen Kenyon bigraphy, stories - Archaeologists

Kathleen Kenyon : biography

05 January 1906 – 24 August 1978

Dame Kathleen Mary Kenyon, DBE (5 January 1906 – 24 August 1978), was a leading archaeologist of Neolithic culture in the Fertile Crescent. Former Principal of St Hugh’s College, Oxford and best known for her excavations of Jericho and Bangalow in 1952-1958, she has been called the most influential female archaeologist of the 20th century.Davis, Miram. C. (2008), Digging Up the Holy Land, 11.

Awards and commemoration

The British School of Archaeology in Jerusalem, amalgamated within the Council for British Research in the Levant (CBRL) in 1998, was officially renamed the Kenyon Institute on 10 July 2003 in honour of Kathleen Kenyon. On her retirement from Oxford in 1973, she was appointed a DBE.


Kathleen Kenyon was born in London in 1906. She was the eldest daughter of Sir Frederic Kenyon, biblical scholar and later director of the British Museum. Her grandfather was lawyer and Fellow of All Souls College, John Robert Kenyon. She grew up in Bloomsbury, London, in a house attached to the British Museum, with her mother, Amy Kenyon, and sister Nora Kenyon. Known for being hard-headed and stubborn, Kathleen grew up as a tomboy, fishing, climbing trees and playing a variety of sports.

Determined that she and her sister should be well educated, Kathleen’s father encouraged wide reading and independent study. In later years Kenyon would remark that her father’s position at the British Museum was particularly helpful for her education. Kathleen 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 for her college, and became the first female president of the Oxford University Archaeological Society. She graduated in 1929 and began a career in archaeology.

Although working on several important sites across Europe it was her excavations in Jerico in the 1950s that established her as one of the foremost archaeologists in the field. In 1962 Kenyon was made Principle of St Hugh’s College, Oxford. She retired in 1973 and was appointed a DBE. Kenyon never married.

Archaeological Career

A career in archaeology was first suggested to Kathleen 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 archaeological couple Mortimer Wheeler and his wife Tessa Wheeler on their excavation of the Romano-British settlement of Verulamium (St Albans), 20 miles north of London. Working there each summer between 1930 and 1935, Kenyon learned from Mortimer Wheeler the discipline of meticulously controlled and recorded stratigraphic excavation. Wheeler entrusted her with the direction of the excavation of the Roman theatre.

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 News1937 with pioneering reconstruction drawings by the artist Alan Sorrell whom she had happened to notice sketching her dig "Alan Sorrell: The Man who created Roman Britain" by Julia Sorrell in British Archaeology No.127 Nov/Dec 2012 pp 26-7.