This week, Manchester Museum is involved in not one, but two festivals!
The Civilisations Festival, connected with the BBC ‘Civilisations’ series – the first episode of which was aired last night – and also the Wonder Women Festival, celebrating pioneering women across Manchester. As part of this celebration we are running a series of blog posts about the women who have shaped Manchester Museum, our collection, and the University of Manchester.
Margaret Murray is the focus for today’s Story from the Museum Floor, and is today’s featured Wonder Woman. She was a pioneer – an Egyptologist who shook the institutional foundations, improving the status of women, but also by targeting some of her publications, lectures and classes for a general audience, she extended Egyptology beyond academia, telling the stories of the treasures, myths and history of an ancient civilisation…
Women and Egyptology at Manchester
From archaeologists to academics, from the curious to the curators, there is a long history of women in Egyptology at Manchester Museum. These are the pioneers who have made and shaped our collection and have impacted significantly on Egyptology becoming not just an academic discipline, but at the forefront of an interdisciplinary approach, which a century on, is something that is being advocated and championed by universities worldwide. Here is the story of one of those women …
Margaret Alice Murray (1863-1963) was born on 13 July 1963 in Calcutta, British India, the daughter of wealthy English parents, and her life was to take her on ground-breaking adventures across the archaeological and theoretical landscapes of Egyptology, folklore and feminist political reform.
Margaret Murray in 1928 (Image from the National Portrait Gallery)
It has been suggested that her early years growing up in India had a lasting impact on her life, Amara Thornton considers that Margaret Murray had a “hybrid transnational identity” that was both British and Indian.
Although she had no formal learning before studying at University College, London, Margaret and her sister, Mary, were given a strong Christian education by their uncle, John, a vicar who believed in the inferiority of women – these were both things that Murray would reject through her career, however it was uncle John who ignited her passion for archaeology.
Mummies and Manchester
Margaret Murray is perhaps best-known in Manchester for the unwrapping of mummy, Khnum-Nakht, one of Manchester Museum’s famous residents, popularly known with Nakht-Ankh, as the ‘Two Brothers’.
Her Egyptology career began in 1894, when she commenced study at University College, London, in the newly opened department of Egyptology, learning hieroglyphs under the Francis Llewelyn Griffith, and while her classmates were struggling, with the aid of a grammar book by Adolf Erman and her fluency in German, she began to forge ahead. It was at UCL that she developed both a professional relationship and a friendship with William Matthew Flinders Petrie, producing the drawings for the publications of his excavations at Qift and Koptos. Petrie encouraged her to publish her research and it was he who appointed her as Junior Lecturer in 1899, making her the first female lecturer in archaeology in the United Kingdom – the first of several pioneering firsts for Murray!
Margaret Murray was very aware of British Egyptomania, and recognised that along with an academic interest, there was a popular fascination around ancient Egypt, and to supplement her income from lecturing gave public classes and lectures at the British Museum and at Manchester Museum.
And following the excavations at Deir Rifa in 1907, and the receipt of the entire tomb group of the ‘Two Brothers’, in 1908 it was Margaret Murray herself who led the unwrapping of Khnum-Nakht. This was the first time that a woman had publicly unwrapped a mummy.
Margaret Murray, supervising the public unwrapping of Khnum-Nakht, shown here with Miss Hart-Davies, Mr Standen and Mr Wilfred Jackson (May 1908).
This unwrapping was not just remarkable because Murray was a woman. The unwrapping of mummies through the nineteenth century had rather been ‘unrollings’, a curiosity, even a voyeuristic experience of ‘undressing’ and exotic Egyptian princess…
Murray’s unwrapping took an interdisciplinary approach and has been hailed as the beginning of what has become known as the ‘Manchester Method’. And the ‘Two Brothers’ continue to reveal their secrets through scientific methods, very recently DNA testing has confirmed the identity of our two elderly residents as half-brothers.
Egyptologist and Pioneer
Margaret Murray’s impact on academic Egyptology has often been overshadowed by the achievements of WMF Petrie, but Murray was an acclaimed archaeologist and a researcher in her own right.
Her first fieldwork in Egypt was as part of Petrie’s 1902-3 excavation in Abydos, and then during the following season in Saqqara. The publication of her transcriptions and translations of the inscriptions on the mastaba tombs at Saqqara proved particularly influential within the Egyptological community, with Petrie recognising Murray’s contribution to his own career.
Margaret Murray had joined the Abydos excavation as the site nurse… However, Petrie himself taught her how to excavate, and consequently she was given a senior position on the site. Perhaps unsurprisingly for the time, there were many workers on the site who did not want to take orders from a woman.
Murray was a strong and determined woman, and this experience, along with discussions with other female excavators (some of whom were active in the feminist movement) that shaped her future involvement in Feminist campaigning.
Feminist and Campaigner
Murray was an Egyptologist and an archaeologist in a man’s world. This was a world that she, and many others around her fought to change. She joined the Pankhursts’ Women’s Social and Political Union, took an active role at protests and marches, including the 1907 Mud March and the Women’s Coronation Procession in June 2011.
Water-colour portrait of Margaret Murray by her former student, Winifred Brunton; it is dated 1917, when Murray would have been 53 or 54 (photo: Stuart Laidlaw; UCL Art Museum – Image from Archaeology International)
Just as she found out in the field, Margaret Murray lectured at University College at a time when academia was likewise a difficult place to find your way as a woman – despite her lectureship, UCL was not to appoint a female professor until 1949. Therefore, she spent much time at UCL campaigning on behalf of both staff and students for an improvement women’s status, facilities and working conditions at the University.
And it is said that if campaigning failed, she could always resort to witchcraft…
The Grandmother of Wicca
At Manchester Museum, Murray is famed as an Egyptologist, however, during the First World War, with no possibility of continuing excavations in Egypt, ever the researcher, Murray turned her focus to folklore and the witch-cult hypothesis – the theory that the witch trials of Early Modern Christendom were an attempt to extinguish a surviving pre-Christian pagan religion devoted to a Horned God.
Margaret Murray appears never to have been afraid of taking risks, and although her comprehensive publication on witchcraft have since been academically discredited, her work had a lasting impact on the emerging religious movement, and consequently becoming known as ‘The Grandmother of Wicca’.
On the shoulders of giants
Margaret Murray celebrated her 100th birthday on 13 July 1963, with a speech and presentation being made in her honour.
Margaret Murray at the celebration of her 100th birthday. (Image from Archaeology International)
She died later that year on 13th November, leaving an indelible mark, paving the way for so many female Egyptologists, academics and researcher …
… Living, studying and working in Manchester, it has been very easy to be both a woman and an Egyptologist, and perhaps even easier to take this combination for granted.
Margaret Murray is one among many pioneering women connected with the University of Manchester upon whose shoulders we stand.
Find out more about Egypt and Sudan at Manchester Museum on the Curator’s blog, Egypt Manchester.
You can read about some more of Manchester’s pioneering women on our #WonderWomen site.
For more information:
Drower, M. S. 2004. “Margaret Alice Murray”
Herridge, T. (Trowel Blazers) Margaret Murray The Marvellous, Mud-Marching, Mummy-Unwrapping Margaret Murray
Murray, M. A. 1921. The Witch-Cult in Western Europe.
Sheppard, K. L. 2012. “Between Spectacle and Science: Margaret Murray and the Tomb of the Two Brothers”
Thornton, A. 2014. “Margaret Murray’s Meat Curry”
Whitehouse, R. 2013. “Margaret Murray (1863–1963): Pioneer Egyptologist, Feminist and First Female Archaeology Lecturer“
Wikipedia – Margaret Murray
ancient-egypt.co.uk – The Two Brothers
Egypt at the Manchester Museum (Blog of Campbell Price, Curator of Egypt and Sudan)