Gertrude Caton Thompson and Prehistoric Egypt

Gertrude Caton Thompson (1888-1985)

Gertrude Caton Thompson (1888-1985)

On February 1, 1888English archaeologist Gertrude Caton Thompson was born. Thompson was an influential archaeologist at a time when participation by women in the discipline was rather uncommon working primarily in Egypt. She was able to distinguish two prehistoric cultures in the Al-Fayyum depression of Upper Egypt, the older dating to about 5000 BC and the younger to about 4500 BC.

Gertrude Thompson traveled to Egypt with her mother in 1911 and attended several lectures on Ancient Greece given by Sarah Paterson at the British Museum. Her interest in archaeology was sparked and thanks to an inheritance received in 1912, Thompson was granted financial independency. She studied at the University College London and was taught by Margaret Murray, Flinders Petrie [1] and Dorothea Bate. In 1921, Gertrude Thompson performed excavations in Upper Egypt and one year later she attended courses Newnham College, Cambridge, before joining further excavations in Egypt with Petrie and Guy Brunton.

 Aerial view of Great Zimbabwe's Great Enclosure

Aerial view of Great Zimbabwe’s Great Enclosure

Gertrude Caton Thompson worked as an archaeologist, primarily in Egypt for the British School of Archaeology Egypt during the 1920s. In that period Caton Thompson also conducted fieldwork in Malta. During her time in Egypt, the archaeologist took part in excavations at Abydos, Badari, and Qau el Kebir. At the Badari region, Thompson excavated in arbitrary six-inch levels and recorded the exact position of each artefact. This kind of excavation method was novel and set Caton Thompson apart from her contemporaries. Around 1925, Caton Thompson and the geologist Elinor Wight Gardner started their first archaeological survey of the northern Faiyum. There, the scientists sought to correlate ancient lake levels with archaeological stratification. Gertrude Caton Thompson was especially interested in discovering Prehistoric Egypt and became one of the first archaeologists to look at the full-time spectrum from the Palaeolithic through to Predynastic Egypt.

During the late 1920s, Gertrude Caton Thompson was invited by the British Academy to start investigating the origins of ruins in southeastern Zimbabwe near Lake Mutirikwe. Even though James Theodore Bent and David Randall-MacIver had already excavated Great Zimbabwe, there was a big discussions regarding the question whether the site was the work of Africans or of another civilisation. As a result of her work on the area, Thompson concluded that Zimbabwe was the product of a “native civilisation”. This conclusion was received quite negatively in the contemporary archaeological community. Today’s archaeologists agree that the city was the product of a Shona-speaking African civilisation.

Gertrude Caton Thompson’s book The Desert Fayoum was illustrated by Mary Leakey in 1932, greatly influencing her later career in paleoanthropology.[2] A few years later. Caton Thompson, Elinor Gardner, and Freya Stark, initiated the first systematic excavation in the Yemen at Hadhramaut. Gertrude Caton Thompson retired from active fieldwork  after World War II. A long time friend of Dorothy Hoare, a colleague from Cambridge, Caton Thompson bought and shared a house with Hoare. After Hoare married Jose “Toty” M. de Navarro, another Cambridge lecturer in archaeology, the Navarros continued to share the house with Caton Thompson. When she and the Navarros retired from academic life in 1956, Caton Thompson moved with them to their home in Broadway, Worcestershire – Court Farm. She would reside with them and their son, Michael for the rest of her life. Gertrude Caton Thompson died in 1985, at age 97.

At yovisto you can learn more about Art and Decoration in Ancient Egypt in a lecture by Dr. Emily Teeter.

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