The Housewife’s Jericho

by Dr Amara Thornton

30 Oct 2015

My story, for this blog anyway, begins in a second-hand bookshop in Hampstead, London. It’s my first port of call for browsing old archaeology titles whenever I’m in the mood to add to my library (too often).  As my eyes scanned the shelves I spotted a blue spine that read “Lady Wheeler A Book of Archaeology”. Interesting, I thought, and so I bought it.

Margaret Collingridge (“Kim”) Wheeler (1916-1990) was an archaeologist. At the time of the book’s publication, she was also the third wife of one of Britain’s most famous archaeologists – Sir Robert Eric Mortimer Wheeler.  A Book of Archaeology (1957) is her edited volume of extracts from archaeological reports, books and personal accounts, selected to showcase the enduring appeal of archaeological discovery.  It went into at least 3 editions, and her Second Book of Archaeology followed in 1959.

This isn’t a book review, so I won’t go on any further about A Book of Archaeology.  Here it’s a window onto some of the themes I’m currently exploring in my British Academy Postdoctoral project on the history of popular publishing in archaeology. One obvious theme is the public impact of scholarship. A second is women ‘in the field’ – this topic of increasing interest is reflected in projects such as Breaking Ground and Trowelblazers, and bespoke Wiki-edit-athons. Related to both, a third theme traces the lengthy history of as yet unsung women authors of ‘popular’ archaeology.

I’ll explain with a case study: the highly publicised 1950s excavations at Jericho and the two ‘popular’ books produced during the course of the work. Margaret Wheeler wrote one; dig director Kathleen Kenyon wrote the other. 


Detail of a photograph of the excavation team at Jericho in 1958. Copyright UCL Institute of Archaeology.

The ancient city of Jericho, with its important Biblical connections, had already been excavated several times by the early 1950s.  But in 1952, with new techniques and methods to reinterpret the site, Kathleen Kenyon and a large international team (including Margaret Wheeler) began work there.  Almost immediately the publicity wheel began.

Courtesy of BBC Genome, we now know that Kathleen Kenyon was listed as giving radio interviews about the dig and the discoveries made in 1952, 1953 and 1955. She also wrote several articles on this topic for periodicals in the UK and abroad. Among these was a series for the Illustrated London News (ILN) in 1953 when ancient tombs featuring spectacular Neolithic plastered skulls and remarkably preserved domestic objects, textiles, furniture and food were discovered. As further evidence of the city’s evolution and the domestic lives of its Neolithic inhabitants was revealed she wrote a second series for the ILN in 1956.

Chatto & Windus published Margaret Wheeler’s Walls of Jericho the same year.  By that point Wheeler had been a member of the Jericho team as a field supervisor for three seasons; her book combines a personal account with the story of Jericho.  It is clear to me that Wheeler wrote Walls with the 1950s British housewife in mind.  She compares ancient plastered floors with curved edges of the Pre-Pottery Neolithic period uncovered during the excavations to the latest design developments in the Ideal Home Exhibition.  The mud-bricks that Pottery Neolithic “Jerichoans” used to build houses are “bun-shaped”. Her light and playful tone irritated archaeologist Gerald Wainwright, who dismissed the book as “very feminine” in his Times Literary Supplement review.  But underlying the “amusing” anecdotes and her vibrant cartoons of dig life and work is a clear story of method, collaboration, skill and luck that traces the ancient history of the site and its modern context in less than 200 pages. Originally priced at 21s in hardback, the book was reissued in 1958 for Reader’s Union members, and in 1959 as a cheap paperback Grey Arrow book for 3 shillings and sixpence.

Kathleen Kenyon’s Digging Up Jericho was published by Ernest Benn Ltd in 1957.  Although Kenyon’s work has a much more authoritative and serious tone than Margaret Wheeler’s, Digging was not meant to be the complete scientific publication of the site – rather it was an accessible work on its history and the findings of the excavation.  Furthermore, like Wheeler’s Walls it was written in the first person.

Curious to see these two women in action?  Fear not. Their approaches to communicating Jericho are available on BBC Archive, where digitised episodes of the 1950s archaeology series Buried Treasure can be found. The Walls of Jericho (note the episode title is identical to Margaret Wheeler’s book, which was about to be published when it aired) gives us a fascinating insight into the workings of the dig, the finds discovered, and the background context of mid-century Jordanian/Israeli politics – the ancient city was adjacent to an Arab refugee camp.  Glyn Daniel (chair of the popular archaeology TV game showAnimal, Vegetable, Mineral), Kathleen Kenyon, Margaret Wheeler and Mortimer Wheeler introduce the filmed footage from the studio; Kenyon and both Wheelers are our narrators and guides on site.

Kathleen Kenyon is rightly considered a pioneering female archaeologist of the 20th century. Having achieved numerous professional accolades and crucially positions in academia as Lecturer at the Institute of Archaeology and then Principal of St Hugh’s College Oxford, she deserves her place in the Hall of Fame.  But Margaret Wheeler represents another category of women in archaeology of whom there were and are many – women archaeologists married to male archaeologists. Here is another issue still relevant to women today: maintaining personal professional profiles alongside sometimes more famous and certainly, in the past, more salaried husbands with a substantially better chance of professional promotion and academic position. Margaret Wheeler had none of Kenyon’s professional kudos.  She wrote Walls for wives like herself.


Davis, K. 2008. Dame Kathleen Kenyon: Digging Up the Holy Land. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.

Kenyon, K. 1957. Digging Up Jericho. London: Ernest Benn Limited.

Wainwright, G. 1957. Before The Potter’s Wheel. Times Literary Supplement Historical Archive [Online].14 June.

Wheeler, M. 1956. Walls of Jericho. London: Chatto & Windus.

Wheeler, M. 1957. A Book of Archaeology.  London: Cassell.

The Times. 1990. Lady Wheeler. Times Digital Archive [Online]. 26 December.

Amara Thornton is a British Academy Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London.  She is also Coordinator of the Institute’s History of Archaeology Network.

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