Women Crush Wednesday: Margaret Murray

This Women Crush Wednesday let’s talk about another woman who helped build the British Egyptological community. Her name was Margaret Murray.

Early Life

Margaret Alice Murray was born on July 13th, 1863 in Calcutta, India, which at the time was a major military city in British India. Her parents were James and Margaret Murray and she had an older sister named Mary. Her family were part of the wealthy British elite as her father managed paper mills in Seramproe and was a member of the Calcutta Chamber of Commerce. Her mother had come to India as a missionary and believed in being a service to others, something her daughters took to heart.

She travelled back and forth between India and Britain several times throughout her young life. In 1870, she and her sister were sent to England to live with their uncle John, who was a vicar. The girls never had any formal education, but their uncle did teach them when they lived with him. Though, he held a very misogynistic point of view, which did not settle well with Margaret. Her interest in archaeology also began during this time, as her uncle would take her to see many local monuments.

In 1873, their mother took the girls to Bonn, Germany. Here the girls learned German, which would later help Margaret a great deal. They returned to Calcutta in 1875 for two years before moving back to England. By 1880, the whole family was back in Calcutta and 17-year-old Margaret became a nurse at the Calcutta General Hospital, though her father disapproved. He believed that women should not have work outside the house, so he only let his daughter be a nurse for three months. By 1887, Margaret moved to England and became a social worker, helping local underprivileged people. She apparently had attempted to become a nurse but was refused because she was considered too short! (She was less than five feet tall.) Margaret later moved in with her father and lived with him until his death in 1891.

Life at University College London

University College London

While visiting her sister and brother-in-law in Madras (now Chennai), India in 1893, her sister saw an advertisement for an Egyptology course. This course was going to be at the newly established Egyptology Department at University College London (created by Amelia Edwards) and taught by Flinders Petrie, an already popular Egyptologist and archaeologist. Mary was always the more academically inclined of the two sisters and would have loved to take the course. But she was newly married with a baby living in India. So she insisted that Margaret should do it.

And Margaret did.

At the age of 30, she enrolled in January 1894 at UCL. Here she took classes on the ancient Egyptian languages by Francis Llewellyn Griffith and Walter Ewing Crum and soon got to know Flinders Petrie. He recognized her talent and passion and she became his copyist and illustrator for his books. He encouraged her to write her first research paper, “The Descent of Property in the Early Periods of Egyptian History,” which was published in the Proceedings of the Society for Biblical Archaeology in 1895. She essentially became Petrie’s assistant.

At the age of 30, she enrolled in January 1894 at UCL. Here she took classes on the ancient Egyptian languages by Francis Llewellyn Griffith and Walter Ewing Crum and soon got to know Flinders Petrie. He recognized her talent and passion and she became his copyist and illustrator for his books. He encouraged her to write her first research paper, “The Descent of Property in the Early Periods of Egyptian History,” which was published in the Proceedings of the Society for Biblical Archaeology in 1895. She essentially became Petrie’s assistant.

Although it seems that Margaret never technically graduated from UCL (although this was the first British university to grant degrees to women), she began to teach Egyptology courses in 1896, only two years after starting! She was appointed as a junior lecturer in 1898 and would go on to teach courses on Ancient Egyptian history, religion, and language. She referred to her students as “The Gang,” who compromised of several future Egyptologists including, Reginald Engelbach, Georgina Aitken, Guy Brunton, and Myrtle Broome. During this time, she also taught evening Egyptology courses at the British Museum.

During the 1902-1903 field season, Margaret joined Petrie and his wife, Hilda Petrie, on their excavations at Abydos. During the winter months when Petrie would excavate in Egypt, she was typically in charge of running the department at UCL. But this year, she joined as a site nurse, but Petrie quickly taught her excavation methods and she was given a senior position. During this season, she helped uncover the Osireion, which was a temple devoted to Osiris by Pharaoh Seti I. She published her site report in 1904 (The Osireion at Abydos)and it was considered groundbreaking.

Margaret returned to Egypt during the 1903-1904 field season where they excavated the Saqqara cemetery. Technically, she did not have permission to excavate here (which is essential today in archaeology and Egyptology), so she worked on tombs that had already been excavated. She transcribed the inscriptions of ten of these tombs and published her results (Saqqara Mastabas) in two parts in 1905 and 1937.

Throughout her career she was invited by several museums to help advise them on their Egyptological collections. She catalogued artefacts owned by the Dublin National Museum, the National Museum of Antiquities in Edinburgh, the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, and the Manchester Museum. She also donated some items to the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, which you can read more about here.

*There is an image of human remains below*

She is well respected at the Manchester Museum, as Margaret unwrapped one of their mummies. (This practice is of course not done anymore for a variety of ethical and conservation reasons.) She unwrapped the mummy of Khnum-Nakht, who was one of the mummies found in the “Tomb of the Two Brothers,” to an audience of about 500. She took an interdisciplinary approach to this unwrapping, which was adopted by later Egyptologists and called “The Manchester Method.” Margaret was the first women to ever publicly unwrap a mummy. To learn more about the recent discoveries regarding these two mummies, click here.

The coffins of “The Two Brothers”

Besides her academic achievements, Margaret was also dedicated to public education. She recognized that solid scholarship could be mixed with Egyptomania. She did multiple lecture series throughout her career. She was also pleased with the increased public interest in Egyptology following Howard Carter’s discovery of King Tut.

Her Feminist Activism

A bust of Margaret Murray in UCL’s Institute of Archaeology’s Library

Margret took an active role in the feminist movement in the early 1900s. She volunteered, donated, and took part in feminist demonstrations, protests, and marches. She was a member of the Pankhursts’ Women Social and Political Union and attended several marches including the Mud March of 1907 and the Women’s Coronation Procession of 1911. Many of her larger actions were concealed from her colleagues in order to retain her image in the male world of academia.

But she successfully campaigned for UCL to open a common room for women, as women were not allowed in the men’s common room. This room was later named after her, although now the room has been converted to an office. Margaret demanded better and more equal facilities and working conditions for the female students and staff at the University.

Her Folklore Research

During WWI, when excavations in Egypt were postponed, Margaret first worked as a nurse in France, before moving to Glastonbury to rest. Here she became interested in the local folklore, in particular the stories of the Holy Grail. She also became interested in the history of European witchcraft.

She began to publish articles and books on witchcraft. Her most popular was The Witch Cult in Western Europe. Based on her research, she believed that there was an ancient pre-Christian religion dating to the Paleolithic period that secretly continued in Europe. These followers worshiped a female deity, before a male horned god was worshiped and eventually represented the Devil.

She began to publish articles and books on witchcraft. Her most popular was The Witch Cult in Western Europe. Based on her research, she believed that there was an ancient pre-Christian religion dating to the Paleolithic period that secretly continued in Europe. These followers worshiped a female deity, before a male horned god was worshiped and eventually represented the Devil.

On a pop culture level, her books were quite popular. But scholars’ have since discredited her work. Much of her work was based on confessions from women in Scotland accused of witchcraft in the 16th and 17th century. These sources are not that reliable considered they may have confessed under threat of torture and Margaret based her thesis on the belief that the secret religion had continued from pagan times. Critics have also said that she used questionable methodology, poor sourcing, and selective quoting.

Regardless of this evidence, her work influenced Gerald Gardner, the founder of Wicca, which is the modern Pagan religion, along with many other Wicca pioneers. Her theories may have also influenced or derived the use of terms, concepts, and phrases such as “Old Religion,” “coven,” and “Horned God.” Read this article to learn more about if we should completely dismiss her theories of witchcraft.

Later Life

After WWI ended, Margaret returned to UCL in London. She also carried out two more archaeological digs on the islands of Malta and Menorca.

She was made assistant professor at UCL in 1924 and was awarded an honorary doctorate in 1927 for her work in Egyptology. Although she could have retired from teaching in 1927, she was reappointed each year until 1935, because she was such a popular lecturer. She also assisted Petrie and his wife on excavations in Palestine and Jordan in the 1930s.

After her retirement from UCL, she continued her interest in public education. She taught adult education classes on ancient Egyptian history and religion in the City Library Institute. Her general public book on Egyptian history, The Splendour that was Egypt, was published in 1949.

Margaret Murray and Hilda Petrie in their old age

Continuing her love of folklore, Margaret was elected the president of the Folklore Society in 1953, after joining it in 1927. She was 90 years old!

Margaret Murray being interviewed by the BBC in 1960

“I’ve been an archaeologist most of my life and now I’m a piece of archaeology myself.”

Quoted in The New Scientist, November 1961, when she was 96

In May 1962, Margaret moved to the Queen Victoria Memoiral Hospital for the last 18 months of her life. She published two more books during this time, The Genesis of Religion and My First Hundred Years, her autobiography.

A photo from her 100th birthday party

For her 100th birthday, two birthday celebrations were held; one in Ayot St. Lawerence and another at UCL. Her colleagues, former students, doctors, and friends attended and there was even a cake in the shape of the Egyptian hieroglyph for the number 100.

Four months later, apparently still planning future projects, Margaret Murray died on November 13th, 1963.

Check out these two articles about her life as an Egyptologist and a recipe for meat curry she gave another archaeologist.

Please enjoy this little comic about her life, created by Gabriel Moshenska.

Sources

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Margaret_Murray

https://trowelblazers.com/margaret-murray-2/

https://www.ancient-origins.net/history-famous-people/margaret-murray-mother-egyptology-grandmother-wicca-or-fairy-godmother-007832

https://storiesfromthemuseumfloor.wordpress.com/2018/03/02/margaret-murray/

https://www.fembio.org/english/biography.php/woman/biography/margaret-murray/

Photo Sources

Unwrapping Mummy – Manchester Museum (Trowelblazer)

Cartoon – Trowelblazers (Gabriel Moshenska 2014)

Bust at UCL library – Wikimedia Commons (Midnightblueowl)

Photograph of her with book – National Portrait Gallery, London (NPG x42538)

Painting of Margaret Murray – Winifred Brunton (her former student) in 1917; currently in the UCL Art Museum

Photo of her on her 100th birthday – UCL Records

Photo when she received her doctorate in 1933 – Petrie Museum https://www.vice.com/en/article/xye9yk/the-forgotten-egyptologist-and-first-wave-feminist-who-invented-wicca

The witch-cult in Western Europe – Amazon

The two Brother’s mummy – https://www.manchester.ac.uk/discover/news/ancient-dna-results-end-4000-year-old-egyptian-mummy-mystery-in-manchester/

Her being interviewed by the BBC in 1960 – Wikimedia Commons (Petrie Museum)

Flinders Petrie – https://arstechnica.com/science/2020/03/how-alternative-egyptology-and-scientific-archaeology-were-born-on-the-giza-plateau/3/

Hilda Petrie – Trowelblazers

Margaret Murray and Hilda Petrie – https://www.brown.edu/Research/Breaking_Ground/results.php?d=1&first=Hilda&last=Petrie

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