This week’s Women Crush Wednesday is another contemporary woman who was a pioneer in the study of archaeological textiles, otherwise called a Grand Dame of Archaeological Textiles. Although she worked with a wide range of ancient and modern textiles from North Africa, Europe, and the British Isles, she also worked on a very important piece that belonged to one of the most famous Egyptian kings. Meet Grace Mary Crowfoot, nicknamed Molly!
Grace Mary Hood was born in Lincolnshire England in 1879 to Sinclair Frankland Hood of Nettleham Hall, and his wife Grace. She was the eldest of six children, two girls, and four boys. Their family were “landed gentry,” meaning they were part of a British social class of landowners who could live entirely from rental income or at least had a country estate.
Her grandfather Reverend William Frankland Hood collected Egyptian antiquities, which were displayed in a wing added to the main building of Nettleham Hall. Because of her family’s interests, they were able to put her in contact with many early archaeologists, including the illustrious William Flinders Petrie. Grace later became lifelong friends with Hilda Petrie.
She attended a finishing school in Paris when she was younger and was expected to attend Lady Margaret Hall in Oxford. But she did not attend as her mother discouraged it. As Grace was determined to make a useful contribution to society, she trained to become a professional midwife in 1908 at Clapham Maternity Hospital in London. This would prove very useful in her later years.
Her earliest archaeological experience was from 1908-1909. While on vacation in Italy with her family she was able to excavate the prehistoric remains in a cave at Tana Bertrand above San Remo on the Italian riviera. On this excavation, she found over 300 beads and signs of early occupation. These excavations were not published until 1926.
Life in Egypt
In 1909, Grace married John Winter Crowfoot, who she had met years before in Lincoln. He at the time was the Assistant Director of Education in Sudan, so she joined him in Cairo. While living in Egypt, their eldest daughters Dorothy, Joan, and Elisabeth were born.
During this period of her life, she began to study different plants in North Africa. She created several botanical volumes that contained photographs and line drawings of the wild plants. Many of these drawings are now located in Kew Gardens in London.
During WWI in 1916, she sent her daughters to England while she and her husband moved to Khartoum, Sudan. (For anyone who doesn’t know, this is where the White Nile and the Blue Nile meet to form the Nile.) Her husband was in charge of both education, as the Director of Gordon College (today Khartoum University), and antiquities in the area. Grace quickly immersed herself in the lives of the local women in a village called Omdurman.
Here is where she took up spinning and weaving. She became proficient on the looms that the Sudanese women used. Grace would later publish two papers on weaving and these looms. At the request of Flinders Petrie, she compared these weaving methods with an Ancient Egyptian model weaver that had been discovered in an 11th dynasty tomb. She found that the techniques and equipment had changed little since ancient times.
Throughout this time in Sudan, Grace was also collecting several locally made handicrafts, a few of which are in the British Museum’s collection as seen below.
By learning the locals’ handicrafts, she also got to know the Sudanese women and understanding their lives. She was introduced to the local tradition of Female Genital Mutilation, which at the time took its most severe form in Sudan. She was very cautious about how the locals would see an outsider intervening, so she founded the Midwives Training School in the early 1920s. They were able to train local midwives, improve conditions of childbirth, and at the same time try and tackle FGM.
Following the birth of her fourth daughter, Diana, and the end of WWI, she and her husband returned to England and their three older daughters, where they leased a house in Geldeston, Norfolk. This would be their family home for the next 60 years.
All four of her brothers died during and after WWI and Grace was deeply affected. She became a passionate supporter of the League of Nations Union.
Life in Palestine
In 1926, Grace’s husband was offered the Directorship of the British School of Archaeology in Jerusalem. Here he ran major excavations at Samaria-Sebaste in 1931-2 and 1935, the Jerusalem Ophel in 1927, and early Christian churches in Jerash in 1928-1930. Grace was in charge of living and feeding arrangements on-site for the archaeologists. Both of them were admired for their diplomatic and organizational skills in the smooth running of these expeditions. Grace was among the authors and editors for the final three volumes on the excavation on Samaria-Sebaste.
While living in Jerusalem, she gathered folk tales with her friend Louise Baldensperger. They then produced From Cedar to Hyssop: A study in the folklore of plants in Palestine (1932). This was an early work of ethnobotany.
Grace and her husband returned to England in the mid-1930s, in time to see their two eldest daughters married and the arrival of the first of 12 grandchildren.
A quick note on her absolutely talented children. Her daughter Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin was a renowned chemist who won the 1964 Noble Prize for Chemistry. Joan Crowfoot Payne followed in her mother’s footsteps and became an Egyptologist and curator at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. After a short career in acting, Elisabeth Crowfoot helped her mother study archaeological textiles and also became a Grande Dame. Her last daughter, Diana Crowfoot became a geographer.
She took an interest in village activities by setting up a local branch of Girl Guides, serving as a wartime secretary of the New Village Produce Association, and post-war chairwoman of its Labor Party. She also attended the House of Commons in 1949 when questions were raised about the continued prevalence of FGM in Sudan. She informed them about her experience with the subject and told them that an outright ban would just drive the practice underground and undo the two decades of work that the Midwives’ School had done.
Her Work with Archaeological Textiles
Based on her knowledge of weaving, Grace slowly became an expert on Archaeological Textiles and she consulted on a variety of pieces discovered. She also made reproductions of Egyptian finds of Flinders Petrie and other pieces for the British Museum. Her daughter Elisabeth helped her examine and analyze numerous textile samples from a variety of excavations.
Grace published short reports about textiles from the nearby Anglo-Saxon ship burial at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk. She was invited in 1949 to examine the linen wrappings of the Dead Sea Scrolls and she published two articles about this in 1951 and 1955. You can learn more about these linens here.
She also reconstructed a sword harness that was found in an excavation in Taplow (1883,1214.17a-e). The fabric had not been preserved, but she was able to reconstruct the weave based on the pressure point left by the tread on the gold wire that was preserved. This reconstruction is in the British Museum (1955,1012.1a-b).
Finally, in 1942, she published an article on the Tunic of Tutankhamun. As part of this, she rewove various of the applied bands from the garment in order to see how they were made. One of these pieces is on display in the Textile Museum in Leiden. Download her article and another article about the textiles found in King Tut’s tomb.
Through her work, she trained a generation of textile archaeologists included Audrey Henshall and her daughter Elisabeth (as seen in the photo on the left in 1921). She helped establish a new field of study, ensuring that textile remnants found at any site were henceforth preserved for analysis, instead of being cleared from the metal and other objects to which they remained attached.
During her last few years, she was often bed-ridden as she battled childhood tuberculosis and then leukemia. She died in 1957 and is buried next to the tower of the parish church of St. Michael and All Saints in Geldeston.
You can read these two articles about her life and her contribution to the study of the Sudan.
As I mentioned previously many of her drawings of the flora of North Africa and the Middle East are in Kew Gardens in London, and some of her textile pieces she collected in the Sudan and Palestine are in the British Museum.
Her unpublished papers and photos relating to her time in Egypt, Sudan, and Palestine are held in the Sudan Archives at Durham University Library and the Palestine Exploration Fund Archives in London. More papers along with her collection of textiles and spinning and weaving implements are now held in the Textile Research Center in Leiden, Netherlands.
- Some desert flowers collected near Cairo (1914). 35 plates.
- Flowering Plants of the Northern and Central Sudan (1928), 163 line drawings.
- From Cedar to Hyssop: A study in the folklore of Plants in Palestine (1932). 76 plates.
- The text of From Cedar to Hyssop (1932) is now available online.
- Some Palestine Flowers: 64 line drawings (1933)
- Textiles, other crafts and folk-tales
- North Africa and Middle East
- Models of Egyptian Looms (1921)
- A tablet woven band, from Qau el Kebir (1924). From 6th-century A.D. wrapping of a Coptic body.
- Methods of hand spinning in Egypt and the Sudan (1931). Earlier versions of this text were published in Sudan Notes and Records, issues 3 (1920) and 4 (1921).
- Pots, ancient and modern (1932)
- Ramallah embroidery (1935)
- Samaria-Sebaste 2: Early Ivories (1938)
- The tunic of Tut’ankhamun, (1942)
- Palestine Exploration Quarterly, 1865 to present, online
- Handicrafts in Palestine, Primitive Weaving I: Plaiting and finger-weaving (1943)
- Handicrafts in Palestine, 2: Jerusalem hammock cradles and Hebron rugs (1944)
- Folk Tales of Artas—I (1951)
- Folk Tales of Artas—II (1952)
- The linen textiles (1955). Description and analysis of the linen wrappers from the Dead Sea Scrolls.
- Europe and British Isles
- Anglo Saxon Tablet Weaving (1952)
- Textiles, Basketry and Mats (1954). Entry in History of Technology.
- The braids (1956). Tablet-woven braids from the vestments of St Cuthbert at Durham.
- The textiles (1983). Finds from Sutton Hoo ship burial by Elisabeth Crowfoot, expanding on earlier joint publications in 1951-2 by her mother and herself.
- North Africa and Middle East
Photo of her – Courtesy of John Crowfoot (her grandson) https://www.trc-leiden.nl/trc-needles/people-and-functions/authors-scholars-and-activists/crowfoot-grace-1877-1957
More photos – https://www.brown.edu/Research/Breaking_Ground/results.php?d=1&first=Grace&last=Crowfoot
Family photo – Short Biography pdf
Hand Spinning and Woolcombing book – Abe Books.com
Methods of Hand Spinning in Egypt and the Sudan – Amazon
John Crowfoot with Sudanese notables – Wikimedia Commons – John Crowfoot
Her replica of Anglo-Saxon textiles, relics of St. Cuthbert – https://durhamcathedral.wordpress.com/2018/05/16/shattering-perceptions-archaeology-1/
Possible recreation of the Tunic (At the Swedish Textile Museum)- https://www.reddit.com/r/ancientegypt/comments/ird3rm/syrian_tunic_of_tutankhamun_worn_by_him_as_an/
Images of the tunic – PDF