MARGARET BENSON IN EGYPT
AND HER THREE SEASONS OF EXCAVATION IN THE TEMPLE
OF THE GODDESS MUT AT KARNAK
PART I: THE BACKGROUND
(Author's note: In 1976 The Brooklyn Museum began an excavation campaign in the Precinct of the Goddess Mut at Karnak and in 1978 The Detroit Institute of Arts joined the excavation as a supporting institution. One of the first priorities of the work was a complete examination of all previous exploration and excavation in the precinct, particularly that of Margaret Benson carried out in 1895-7. References in this article to recent excavations are to the work of the Brooklyn group.) 1
In the nineteenth century, Egyptian archaeology, as a male dominated occupation, was not prepared for Margaret Benson when, in 1895, she achieved the distinction of being the first woman to gain permission to conduct her own excavation in Egypt. A thirty year old semi-invalid of a distinguished English family, she had the rare good luck to ask for the concession to a site that seemed unimportant and a site that no one else wanted. It was assumed that even an woman amateur with no experience could do little harm at the nearly destroyed Temple of Mut, in a remote location south of the Amun precinct at Karnak. She worked there for only three seasons from 1895 to 1897 and she published The Temple of Mut in Asher in 1899 2 with Janet Gourlay, who joined her in the second season. In the introduction to that publication of her work she emphasized that it was the first time any woman had been given permission by the Egyptian Department of Antiquities to excavate; she was well aware that it was something of an accomplishment.
Our first intention was not ambitious. We were desirous of clearing a picturesque site. We were frankly warned that we should make no discoveries; indeed if any had been anticipated, it was unlikely that the clearance would have been entrusted to inexperienced direction. 3
Margaret Benson was born June 16, 1865, one of the six children of Edward White Benson. Her father's career as an Anglican clergyman and educator was illustrious. He was first an assistant master at Rugby, then the first headmaster of the newly founded Wellington College.He rose in the service of the church as Chancellor of the diocese of Lincoln, Bishop of Truro and, finally, Archbishop of Canterbury. E. W. Benson was a learned man with a wide knowledge of history and a serious concern for the education of the young. He was also something of a poet and one of his hymns is still included in the American Episcopal Hymnal.
Edward White Benson
Archbishop of Canterbury
Three of Margaret's brothers attained some degree of fame. Arthur Christopher, the eldest, was first a master at Eton and then at Magdalen College, Cambridge. A noted author and poet with an enormous literary output, he published over fifty books, most of an inspirational nature, but he was also the author of monographs on D. G. Rossetti, Edward Fitzgerald and Walter Pater. He helped to edit the correspondence of Queen Victoria for publication, contributed poetry to The Yellow Book, and wrote the words to the anthem "Land of Hope and Glory". Most important to the study of the excavator of the Mut Temple, he was the author of The Life and Letters of Maggie Benson, 4 a sympathetic biography which helps to shed some light on her short archaeological career. The third son of Edward White Benson was no less well know in English literary circles. Edward Frederick Benson was a popular novelist whose works have recently been revived. He also wrote several reminiscences of his family in which he included his sister and described his involvement in her excavations. He helped to supervise part of the work and he prepared the plan of the temple which was used in her eventual publication. His younger brother, Robert Hugh Benson, took Holy Orders in the Church of England, later converted to Roman Catholicism and was ordained a priest in that rite. He also achieved some fame as a novelist and poet and rose to the position of Papal Chamberlain. Hugh accompanied the family to Egypt in 1897 but did not participate in the excavation.
These four male Bensons are included in every encyclopedia and biographical dictionary since the turn of the century, yet Margaret does not get a line, even as the daughter of her famous father. Her archaeological efforts are known only to specialists in the field of Egyptology. Her publication of the excavation is cited in every reference to theTemple of Mut in the Egyptological literature, but she is known to history as a name in a footnote and little else.
Margaret Benson was born at Wellington College during her father's tenure as headmaster. Each career advancement for him meant a move for the family so her childhood was spent in a series of official residences until she went to Oxford in 1883. She was eighteen when she was enrolled at Lady Margaret Hall, a women's college founded only four years before. One of her tutors commented to his sister that he was sorry Margaret had not been able to read for "Greats" in the normal way. He would have liked to have had her work compared to men of her own standing. 5 When she took a first in the Women's Honours School of Philosophy, he said, "No one will realize how brilliantly she has done." 6 Since her work was not compared to that of her male contemporaries, it would have escaped noticed. In her studies she concentrated on political economy and moral sciences but she was also active in many aspects of the college. She participated in dramatics, debating and sports but her outstanding talent was for drawing and painting in watercolor. John Ruskin himself praised her work and invited her to study at his school. Her skill was so superior he thought she should be appointed drawing mistress if she remained at Lady Margaret Hall for any length of time.
Margaret was a serious scholar with serious concerns. She began a work titled "The Venture of Rational Faith" which occupied her thoughts for many years. Another of her writings was "Capital, Labor, Trade and the Outlook". Both of these are mentioned often by her brothers but they seem to have left little trace. From the titles alone they suggest a young woman who was deeply concerned with problems of society and the spirit and this preoccupation with the spiritual was to be one of her concerns throughout the rest of her life. In some of her letters from Egypt it is clear that she was attempting to understand something of the spiritual life of the ancient Egyptians, not a surprising interest for the daughter of a churchman like Edward White Benson.
In 1885, at the age of twenty, Margaret was taken ill with scarlet fever while at Zermatt in Switzerland. This is the first indication of a life of continuous bad health. By the time she was twenty-five she had developed the symptoms of rheumatism and the beginnings of arthritis. From then on her life was a series of journeys in search of cures or physical relief. She made her first voyage to Egypt in 1894 because the warm climate was considered to be beneficial for those who suffered from her ailments. Wintering in Egypt was highly recommended at the time for a wide range of illnesses ranging from simple asthma to "mental strain." Lord Carnarvon, Howard Carter's sponsor in the search for the tomb of Tutankhamun, was one of the many who went to Egypt for reasons of health. Like Margaret Benson, he also stayed on to pursue an amateur interest in archaeology.
On Margaret's first visit to Egypt in 1894 she arrived at Alexandria in January. After Cairo and Giza she went on by stages as far as Aswan and the island temples of Philae. She commented on the "wonderful calm" of the Great Sphinx, the physical beauty of the Nubians, the color of the stone at Philae, the descent of the cataract by boat, which she said was "not at all dangerous". By the end of January she was established in Luxor with a program of visits to the monuments set out.
This place grows on one extraordinarily. I don't feel as if I should have really had an idea of Egypt at all if I hadn't stayed here -- the Bas-reliefs of kings in chariots are only now beginning to look individual instead of made on a pattern, and the immensity of the whole thing is beginning to dawn -- and the colours, oh my goodness! You get to see them more every day.7
Her letters from the first trip are full of details of the sights and sound of the country; the animals and birds, the little gossip concerning other visitors and tourists, occasional comments on ancient Egyptian religious beliefs and reactions to the contemporary Egyptians she encountered. A typical aside: "The children are very nice when they are not either lying or begging."
During her first visit she began a study of hieroglyphs and of Arabic. The ancient language and script she found fascinating but she was not as interested in reading classical Arabic. Her interest was maintained by the variety of animal and bird life for at home in England she had been surrounded by domestic animals and had always been keen on keeping pets. By the time her first stay ended in March, 1894, she had already resolved to return in the fall. When Margaret returned to Egypt in November she had already conceived the idea of excavating a site and thus applied to the Egyptian authorities. She asked for permission to clear the Temple of Mut at Karnak but she was refused. Edouard Naville, the Swiss Egyptologist who was working at the Temple of Hatshepsut at Dier el Bahri for the Egypt Exploration Fund, wrote to Henri de Morgan, Director of the Department of Antiquities, on her behalf. Permission to excavate was granted at the beginning of January, 1895. From her letters of the time, it is clear that this was one of the most exciting moments of Margaret Benson's life because she was allowed to embark on what she considered a great adventure.
Margaret's physical condition at the beginning of the excavation was of great concern to the family. Her brother Fred (E. F. Benson) wrote about this at length.
Did ever an invalid plan and carry out so sumptuous an activity? She was wintering in Egypt for her health, being threatened with a crippling form of rheumatism; she was suffering also from an internal malady, depressing and deadly; a chill was a serious thing for her, fatigue must be avoided, and yet with the most glorious contempt of bodily ailments which I have seen, she continued to employ some amazing mental vitality that brushed disabilities aside, and, while it conformed to medical orders, crammed the minutes with such sowings and reapings as the most robust might envy.... All the local English archaeologists were , so to speak, at her feet, partly from the entire novelty of an English girl conducting an excavation of her own, but more because of her grateful and enthusiastic personality....8
It should be remembered that the "English girl" was thirty years old when she began the excavation.
Margaret Benson had no particular training to qualify or prepare her for the job but what she lacked in experience she more than made up for with her "enthusiastic personality" and her intellectual curiosity. In the preface to The Temple of Mut in Asher she said that she had no intention of publishing the work because she had been warned that there was little to find. She also said that if she had known what was to come of it she would have kept better records and "ordered many things differently." In 1901, after her work at the Temple of Mut was over, she wrote to her mother: "Such a lot of times in my life I've been driven this way and that... things stopped just when I thought I was getting to them, or like Egyptology, opened just when I could do nothing else....".9 She chose to excavate because it seemed a project of interest to her at a time when her ever-active mind needed stimulation and her health made it necessary to be in the warm climate of Egypt.
A view of the excavation
conducted by Margaret Benson
As the work progressed over three seasons the obligation of the excavator to publish became obvious to Margaret Benson. In the introduction to The Temple of Mut in Asher acknowledgments were made and gratitude was offered to a number of people who aided in the work in various ways. The professional Egyptologists and archaeologists included Naville, Petrie, de Morgan, Brugsch, Borchardt, Daressy, Hogarth and especially Percy Newberry who translated the inscriptions on all of the statues found. Miss Katharine Gent (Mrs. Lea), 10 a Colonel Esdaile, 11 and Margaret's brother, Fred, helped in the supervision of the work in one or more seasons. Funding was obtained from a number of individuals including members of the Benson family.
It is usually assumed that Margaret Benson and Janet Gourlay worked only as amateurs, with little direction and totally inexperienced help. It is clear from the publication that Naville helped to set up the excavation and helped to plan the work. Hogarth 12 gave advice in the direction of the digging and Newberry was singled out for his advice, suggestions and correction as well as "unwearied kindness." Margaret's brother, Fred, helped his inexperienced sister by supervising some of the work as well as making a measured plan of the temple which is reproduced in the publication. Fred (E. F. Benson) was qualified to help because he had intended to pursue archaeology as a career, studied Classical Languages and archaeology at Cambridge, and was awarded a scholarship at King's College on the basis of his work. He organized a small excavation at Chester to search for Roman legionary tomb stones built into the town wall and the results of his efforts were noticed favorably by Theodore Mommsen, the great nineteenth century classicist, and by Mr. Gladstone, the Prime Minister (who was also an amateur archaeologist). E. F. Benson went on to excavate at Megalopolis in Greece for the British School at Athens and published the result of his work in the Journal of Hellenic Studies. His first love was Greece and its antiquities and it is probable that concern for his sister's health was a more important reason for him joining the excavation than an interest in the antiquities of Egypt. 13
It is interesting to speculate as to why a Victorian woman was drawn to the Temple of Mut. The precinct of the goddess who was the consort of Amun, titled "Lady of Heaven", and "Mistress of all the Gods", is a compelling site and was certainly in need of further exploration in Margaret's time. The site is somewhat deserted in appearance today, and was much more so in the 1890s. Its isolation and the arrangement with the Temple of Mut enclosed on three sides by its own sacred lake made it seem even more romantic. 14 When she began the excavation three days was considered enough time to "do" the monuments of Luxor and Margaret said that few people could be expected to spend even a half hour at in the Precinct of Mut.
On her first visit to Egypt in 1894 she had gone to see the temple because she had heard about the granite statues with cats' heads (the lion-headed images of Sakhmet). The donkey-boys knew how to find the temple but it was not considered a "usual excursion" and after her early visits to the site she said that "The temple itself was much destroyed, and the broken walls so far buried, that one could not trace the plan of more than the outer court and a few small chambers". 15 The Precinct of the Goddess Mut is an extensive field of ruins about twenty-two acres in size, of which Margaret had chosen to excavate only the central structure. Connected to the southernmost pylons of the larger Amun Temple of Karnak by an avenue of sphinxes, the Mut precinct contains three major temples and a number of smaller structures in various stages of dilapidation. She noted some of these details in her initial description of the site, but in three short seasons she was only able to work inside the Mut Temple proper and she cleared little of its exterior.
Outside the Contra Temple
The known history of interest in this site began around 1760 when an Arab sheikh excavated statues of Sakhmet for a Venetian priest. Serious study of the temple complex was started at least as early as the expedition of Napoleon at the end of the eighteenth century when artists and engineers attached to the military corps measured the ruins and made drawings of some of the statues. During the first quarter of the nineteenth century, the great age of the treasure hunters in Egypt, Giovanni Belzoni carried away many of the lion-headed statues and pieces of sculpture to European museums. Champollion, the decipherer of hieroglyphs, and Karl Lepsius, the pioneer German Egyptologist, both visited the precinct, copied inscriptions and made maps of the remains.16 August Mariette had excavated there and believed that he had exhausted the site. Most of the travelers and scholars who had visited the precinct or carried out work there left some notes or sketches of what they saw and these were useful as references for the new excavation. Since some of the early sources on the site are quoted in her publication, Margaret was obviously aware of their existence. 17
On her return to Egypt at the end of November, 1894, she stopped at Mena House hotel at Giza and for a short time at Helwan, south of Cairo. Helwan was known for its sulphur springs and from about 1880 it had become a popular health resort, particularly suited for the treatment of the sorts of maladies from which Margaret suffered. When she got to Luxor she was greeted by the locals as an old friend. People at every turn asked if she remembered them and her donkey-boy almost wept to see her.
"On January 1st, 1895, we began the excavation" -- with a crew composed of four men, sixteen boys (to carry away the earth), an overseer, a night guardian and a water carrier. The largest the work gang would be in the three seasons of excavation was sixteen or seventeen men and eighty boys, still a sizable number. Before the work started Naville came to "interview our overseer and show us how to determine the course of the work".
A good part of Margaret's time was occupied with learning how to supervise the workmen and the basket boys. Since her spoken Arabic was almost nonexistent, she had to use a donkey-boy as a translator. It would have been helpful if she had had the opportunity to work on an excavation conducted by a professional and profit from the experience but she was eager to learn and had generally good advice at her disposal so she proceeded in an orderly manner and began to clear the temple. On the second of January she wrote to her mother: "I don't think much will be found of little things, only walls, bases of pillars, and possibly Cat-statues. I am already in treaty for a tent. I shall feel rather like --
'Massa in the shade would lay While we poor niggers toiled all day' -- for I am to have a responsible overseer, and my chief duty apparently will be paying. I find that I am beginning to be considered in the light of an Egyptologist. 18
She is described as riding out from the Luxor Hotel on donkey-back with bags of piaster pieces jingling for the Saturday payday. She had been warned to pay each man and boy personally rather than through the overseer to reduce the chances of wages disappearing into the hands of intermediaries. The workmen believed that she was at least a princess and they wanted to know if her father lived in the same village as the Queen of England. When they sang their impromptu work songs (as Egyptian workmen still do) they called Margaret the "Princess" and her brother Fred the "Khedive".
PART II: THE EXCAVATIONS
The clearance was begun in the northern, outer, court of the temple where Mariette had certainly worked. Earth was banked to the north side of the court, against the back of the ruined first pylon but on the south it had been dug out even below the level of the pavement. Mariette's map is inaccurate in a number of respects suggesting that he was not able to expose enough of the main walls.
At the first (northern) gate it was necessary for Margaret Benson to clear ten or twelve feet of earth to reach the paving stones at the bottom. In the process they found what were described as fallen roofing blocks, a lion-headed statue lying across and blocking the way, and also a small sandstone head of a hippopotamus. In the clearance of the court the bases of four pairs of columns were found, not five as on Mariette's map. After working around the west half of the first court and disengaging eight Sakhmet statues in the process, they came on their first important find. Near the west wall of the court, was discovered a block statue of a man named Amenemhet, a royal scribe of the time of Amenhotep II. The statue is now in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo 19 but Margaret was given a cast of it to take home to England. When it was discovered she wrote to her father:
My Dearest Papa, We have had such a splendid find at the Temple of Mut that I must write to tell you about it. We were just going out there on Monday, when we met one of our boys who works there running to tell us that they had found a statue. When we got there they were washing it, and it proved to be a black granite figure about two feet high, knees up to its chin, hands crossed on them, one hand holding a lotus. 20
The government had appointed an overseer who spent his time watching the excavation for just such finds. He reported it to a sub-inspector who immediately took the block statue away to a store house and locked it up. An appeal was made to Daressy who was kind enough to reverse the decision. He said it was hard that Margaret should not have "la jouissance de la statue que vous avez trouve" and she was allowed to take it to the hotel where she could enjoy it until the end of the season when it would become the property of the museum. The statue had been found on the pavement level, apparently in situ, suggesting to the excavator that this was good evidence for an earlier dating for the temple than was generally believed at the time. The presence of a statue on the floor of a temple does not necessarily date the temple, but many contemporary Egyptologists might have come to the same conclusion.
One visitor to the site recalled that a party of American tourists were perplexed when Margaret was pointed out to them as the director of the dig. At that moment she and a friend were sitting on the ground quarreling about who could build the best sand castle. This was probably not the picture of an "important" English Egyptologist that the Americans had expected.
As work was continued in the first court other broken statues of Sakhmet were found as well as two seated sandstone baboons of the time of Ramesses III. 21 The baboons went to the museum in Cairo, a fragment of a limestone stela was eventually consigned to a store house in Luxor and the upper part of a female figure was left in the precinct where it was recently rediscovered. The small objects found in the season of 1895 included a few coins, a terra cotta of a reclining "princess", some beads, Roman pots and broken bits of bronze. Time was spent repositioning Sakhmet statues which appeared to be out of place based on what was perceived as a pattern for their arrangement. Even if they were correct they could not be sure that they were reconstructing the original ancient placement of the statues in the temple or some modification of the original design. In the spirit of neatness and attempting to leave the precinct in good order, they also repaired some of the statues with the aid of an Italian plasterer, hired especially for that purpose.
Margaret was often bed ridden by her illnesses and she was subject to fits of depression as well but she and her brother Fred would while away the evenings playing impromptu parlor games. For a fancy dress ball at the Luxor Hotel she appeared costumed as the goddess Mut, wearing a vulture headdress which Naville praised for its ingenuity. The resources in the souk of Luxor for fancy dress were nonexistent but Margaret was resourceful enough to find material with which to fabricate a costume based, as she said, on "Old Egyptian pictures."
The results of the first season would have been gratifying for any excavator. In a short five weeks the "English Lady" had begun to clear the temple and to note the errors on the older plans available to her. She had started a program of reconstruction with the idea of preserving some of the statues of Sakhmet littering the site. She had found one statue of great importance and the torso of another which did not seem so significant to her. Her original intention of digging in a picturesque place where she had been told there was nothing much to be found was beginning to produce unexpected results.
The Benson party arrived in Egypt for the second season early in January of 1896. After a trip down to, they reached Luxor Aswan around the twenty-sixth and the work began on the thirtieth. That day Margaret was introduced to Janet Gourlay who had come to assist with the excavation. The beginning of the long relationship between "Maggie" Benson and "Nettie" Gourlay was not signaled with any particular importance. Margaret wrote to her mother: "Yesterday morning (January 30), Jeanie (Lady Jane Lindsey) came with me, and a Miss Gourlay who is going to help...". By May of the same year she was to write (also to her mother): "I like her more and more -- I haven't liked anyone so well in years". Miss Benson and Miss Gourlay seemed to work together very well and to share similar reactions and feelings. They were to remain close friends for much of Margaret's life, visiting and travelling together often. Their correspondence reflects a deep mutual sympathy and Janet was apparently much on Margaret's mind because she often mentioned her friend in writing to others. Little is know about Janet Gourlay today. After her relationship with Margaret Benson she faded into obscurity and even her family has been difficult to trace, although a sister was located a few years ago.
For the second season in 1896 the work staff was a little larger, with eight to twelve men, twenty-four to thirty-six boys, a rais (overseer), guardians and the necessary water carrier. More constant supervision was given to the work as the nature of it demanded. With the first court considered cleared in the previous season, work was begun at the gate way between the first and second courts. An investigation was made of the ruined wall between these two courts and the conclusion was drawn that it was "a composite structure" suggesting that part of the wall was of a later date than the rest. The wall east of the gate opening is of stone and clearly of at least two building periods while the west side has a mud brick core faced on the south with stone. Margaret thought the west half of the wall to be completely destroyed because it was of mud brick which had never been replaced by stone. She found the remains of "more than one row of hollow pots" which she thought had been used as "air bricks" in some later rebuilding. It is now believed that this wall exhibits four construction phases. Originally built of mud brick, like many of the structures in the Precinct of Mut, the south face of both halves of the wall was sheathed with stone one course thick no later than the Ramesside Period. During the Ptolemaic Period the core of the east half of the mud brick wall was replaced with stone but the Ramesside sheathing was retained. Sometime after the temple fell into disuse the remaining mud brick half on the west was partly hollowed out and used as a dwelling or magazine (which may account for the rows of pots Margaret thought to be rebuilding)
| The Excavations: Second Part|
What is most important about the description of the 1896 season is the demonstration of attention that was being paid to building techniques, to additive construction and to possible rebuilding. Here the untrained excavator was beginning to understand some of the problems of clearing a temple structure in Egypt. In the eastern, stone, wing of the wall/pylon two interior chambers were observed and the smaller of the two was cleared but the larger was left because the ground and debris was hard and, after an initial trial, seemed unrewarding. Mariette's plan of the second chamber probably seemed accurate after a superficial examination so a complete clearing seemed unnecessary. In any case, there were "more pressing things to be done." This was perhaps the real reason for not clearing what Mariette mapped as a corridor but what has later proved to be two rooms and the beginning of a stairway.
When the work had progressed through the doorway into the second court they came on the colossal head of a lion in dark stone, described as black granite, measuring almost four feet high. Other fragments were found and the original height of the seated statue was estimated between fourteen and sixteen feet high. The following year de Morgan, the Director General of the Department of Antiquities, ordered the head sent to the museum in Cairo The finding of the large lion head is mentioned in a letter from Margaret to her mother dated February 9, 1896, 22. but the exact day was not, so we only know that it was found between January 30 and February 9. In the same letter she also mentions the discovery of a statue of Ramesses II on the day before the letter was written. 23.
Her published letters often give exact or close dates of discoveries whereas her later publication in the
Temple of Mut in Asher was an attempt at a narrative of the work in some order of progression through the temple and dates are often lacking. About the same time that the giant lion head was found some effort was made to raise a large cornerstone block but a crowbar was bent and a rope was broken. This incident was not mentioned in the publication and is only described in a letter. The end result of the activity is not explained at that point and the location of the corner not given but it can probably be identified with the southeast cornerstone of the Mut Temple mentioned later in a description of the search for foundation deposits.
Somewhere near the central axis of the second court, but just inside the gateway, they came on the upper half of a royal statue with nemes headdress and the remains of a false beard. There had been inscriptions on the shoulder and back pillar but these had been methodically erased. The lower half was found a little later and it was possible to reconstruct an over life-sized, nearly complete, seated statue of a king. The excavators published it as "possibly" Tutankhamun, an identification not accepted today, and it is still to be seen, sitting to the east of the gateway, facing into the second court.24 A large statue of Sakhmet was also found, not as large as the colossal head, but larger than the other figures still in the precinct and in most Egyptian collections. It was also reconstructed and left in place, on the west side of the doorway where it is one of the most recognizable landmarks in the temple.
In the clearance of the second court a feature described as a thin wall built out from the north wall was found in the northeast corner. It was later interpreted by the nineteenth century excavators as part of the arrangement for a raised cloister and it was not until recent excavation that it was identified as the lower part of the wall of a small chapel, built against the north wall of the court. The process of determining any sequence of the levels in the second court was complicated by the fact that it had been worked over by earlier treasure hunters and archaeologists. In some cases statues were found below the original floor level, leading to the assumption that some pieces had fallen, broken the pavement, and sunk into the floor of their own weight. It is more probable that the stone floors had been dug out and undermined in the search for antiquities. The statues might also have pushed over deliberately in acts of random vandalism.
An attempt was made to put the area in order for future visitors as the excavation progressed. This included the reconstruction of some of the statues as found and the moving of others in a general attempt to neaten the appearance of the temple. Other finds made in the second court included inscribed blocks too large to move or reused in parts of walls still standing. These were left in place and are still visible when the grass has been recently cut. The statue identified as Ramesses II, mentioned in Margaret's letter of February 9, was found on the southwest side of the court, near the center. It was a seated figure in pink granite, rather large in size, but when it was completely uncovered it was found to be broken through the middle with the lower half in an advanced state of disintegration. It could not be restored or reconstructed with the methods of the time. The upper part was in relatively good condition except for the left shoulder and arm and it was eventually awarded to the excavators.
Mention was also made of several small finds from the second court including a head of a god in black stone and part of the vulture headdress from a statue of a goddess or a queen. The recent ongoing excavations carried out by the Brooklyn Museum have revealed a female head with traces of a vulture headdress as well as a number of fragments of legs and feet which suggest that the head of the god found by Margaret Benson was from a pair statue representing Amun and Mut. Another important discovery she made on the south side of the court was a series of sandstone relief blocks representing the arrival at Thebes of Nitocris, daughter of Psamtik I, as God's Wife of Amun.25
At some time during the season Margaret was made aware of the possibility that foundation deposits might still be in place. These dedicatory deposits were put down at the time of the founding of a structure or at a time of a major rebuilding, and they are often found under the cornerstones, the thresholds or under major walls, usually in the center. They contain a number of small objects including containers for food offerings, model tools and model bricks or plaques inscribed with the name of the ruler. The importance of finding such a deposit in the Temple of Mut was obvious to Margaret because it would prove to everyone's satisfaction who had built the temple, or at least who had made additions to it.
They first looked for foundation deposits in the middle of the gateway between the first and second courts. Nothing was found even though they continued down to what was assumed to be virgin soil. At the same time another part of the crew was clearing the innermost rooms in the south part of the temple. Under the central of the three chambers they discovered a subterranean crypt with an entrance so small that it had to be excavated by "a small boy with a trowel". This chamber has been re-cleared in recent years and proved to be a small rectangular room with traces of an erased one-line text around the four walls. In antiquity the access seems to have been hidden by a paving stone which had to be lifted each time the room was entered.
The search for foundation deposits continued in the southeast corner of the temple (probably the place where the crowbar was bent and the rope broken). Again no deposit was found but in digging around the cornerstone, below the original ground level, they began to find statues and fragments of statues. As the earth continued to yield more and more pieces of sculpture, Legrain arrived from the Amun Temple, where he was supervising the excavation, and announced his intention to take everything away to the storehouse. In The Temple of Mut in Asher Margaret wrote that Legrain "yielded to our representations so far as to allow us to take the statues back for the present to the hotel...",26 but in a letter to her mother she said, "I very nearly wept, and called Fred, who was slightly rude. M. Legrain became more polite and finally said if we chose to take the whole responsibility of their safety, we could take them back (to the hotel)...".27 Anyone can imagine how hard it must have been to find objects of great interest only to have them immediately locked up in a distant store house with no chance of enjoying them, even for a few days. Aside from the pleasure of the find, it was important to have the objects at hand for study, comparison and the copying of inscriptions.
On the day of the discovery (February 14, 1896) Fred wrote to his mother: Maggie is so much better; doesn't get tired and was so lively the other night at dinner with the Whites and Lady Galloway, that you wouldn't know your own daughter. I think the winter has just crystallized all the cure set up before.28 Apparently the work of excavation agreed with Margaret. Certainly the climate of Luxor in February must have been good for her and the occupation of supervising the discovery of exciting objects was not proving too taxing. E. F. Benson's letters home remind us that it was for her health that Margaret was in Egypt. Like Lucie Duff Gordon, who also went to Luxor for medical reasons, Margaret could not abide an enforced idleness. Her choice of excavation as a pastime had a good effect on her and a reasonably good result for Egyptology.
When no more statues came out at the southeast corner work was continued down through four feet of foundation sand but still no deposit was found. The hole was filled up to make that area of the temple a little less dangerous. Nearby, in the middle of the rear of the Mut Temple, are the remains of a small attached structure, designated a "contra-temple", for want of a better name. Composed of two small rooms and cult chamber, it does not communicate directly to the larger temple but must be entered from the lake side. The clearance of the interior was only partly completed. It was not until the recent excavations that a complete plan was possible and all of the preserved elements of the decoration were visible.
As Margaret Benson turned her attention to excavation around the outside of the contra-temple more Sakhmet statues were found as well as a" squatting sandstone figure"29 -- a block statue -- and the base of a second one which had been built into the wall and required a crowbar to remove. The intention had been to excavate for about one month but on the Thursday of the week when the month would have been up , Osman Amar, one of the boys, found what he described as "a stone with a man's foot sticking out beneath" on the southern sloping bank of the temple. After some digging two statues were revealed. These later proved to be among the most important discoveries of the excavation. One was an over five foot high kneeling figure of Senenmut, the well-know official of the time of Hatshepsut, with a lengthy inscription mentioning his building accomplishments, significantly including work in the Mut Temple.30
The second statue was of a man named Bakenkhonsu, a High Priest of Amun in the reign of Ramesses III.31 Arrangements were immediately made to move the statue of Senenmut off to Cairo but a carriage track had to be made around the temple so that it could be moved to a boat on the Nile.The fragment of the statue Margaret called Ramesses II and two other pieces were given to the excavators. Everything else from that season was retained by the Department of Antiquities. The image of the king was a constant reminder to the family of the days when Maggie, as she was familiarly know by her family, excavated at Karnak in Egypt, and it is often mentioned in the memoirs of E. F. Benson.
The statue identified as Ramesses II
now thought to be Amunhotep II
The work that was to have ended at the close of February continued well into the next month because it was not until the 20th of March that Margaret was in transit to Cairo on a boat appropriately named "Ramesses III." She wrote to her mother in route about the activity on the river which largely consisted of massive troop movements. She said that one could not but be thankful that "they are going against these fanatic tribes, who raid villages, under the control of a drunken Calipha..".32 Margaret was in Egypt at an exciting time. General Gordon had been killed at Khartoum in January, 1885, and the Anglo-Egyptian forces had been on the defensive in the south for over a decade. In March of 1896 the decision was reached to move on the "Calipha", the successor to the Mahdi, and begin the reconquest of the Sudan.
During that year Margaret's friendship with Janet Gourlay continued to grow and she was concerned that her mother like her new-found friend as much as she did. Her letters home, as she traveled from Egypt throughEurope, are filled with "Nettie" Gourlay. After Margaret's return to her father's official residence at Lambeth Palace her letters to Janet Gourlay were constant and intense, but comments by various of Margaret's acquaintances indicate that her friendships were always intense.33
1896 may have seen the beginning of the companionship between Margaret and her new friend, but it was also the year of a great personal tragedy for her and her family. On the return from an official tour of the congregations in Ireland, her father stopped to visit with Mr. Gladstone at Hawarden. He died there on October 11 while he and Gladstone were attending a church service. The loss of such a forceful father must have been enormous to his daughter. The lasting effect of his death on Margaret has never been spelled out but it may have been one of the contributory factors to her later mental state. A family decision was made that four Bensons would return to Egypt for the next season, partly because of Margaret's continued bad health and partly because her brother Hugh was also not well, so for the excavation season of 1897 Margaret was accompanied by her mother and two brothers, Fred and Hugh. Fred continued to help with the supervision of the work as well as make the measurements for the plan to be published, but Hugh evidenced little interest in the excavation.
Fred left a word picture of the Benson family in Egypt: Hugh would join the archaeologists of his family, with the spoils of a day's shooting, two quail and a jackal, and at sunset the enriched procession returned to Luxor, for there was a scribe (a recently discovered statue) on a trolly with the spoils of the chase sacrificially disposed at his feet, and Mohammed told my mother the strange story of the golden dahabeah that cruised at midnight when the moon was full on the horse-shoe lake. Laden it was with pearl and amber, and heaped with jewels and all the richness of it was the property of anyone who could set foot on its deck without a word of exclamation. But so rich, sumptuous, and glittering were its treasures that none could board it without an ejaculation of delight that its store was his. Then, on his astonished cry, the golden dahabeah would sink, and he would find himself immersed in the horse-shoe lake.... When Mohammed told that tale to those of his own sex, the dahabeah was peopled with unveiled houris of seductive loveliness of no great moral integrity, but that was not polite for female ears.34 Hugh, recovering from his illness, spent his time at leisure but his stay in Egypt did give him time to form a closer association with his sister.
In the formal account of the excavation the season of 1897 was said to have started under more favorable circumstances than before. There was a larger party for the supervision of the work and more money for the employment of the workmen. The three goals that year were the continued clearance of the temple, the search for foundation deposits, and the expectation of more statues. An additional project was to make an accurate plan of the temple, correcting the errors of Mariette and other earlier efforts in so far as was possible. With all of these intentions there was always the underlying wish to learn more of the temple's history and to leave the site in good condition, without "unseemly rubbish heaps." The successes of the previous season dictated the decision to reopen the area around the southeast corner of the temple where the cache of statues had been found. The general clearance was to be carried on at the same time because it required less immediate supervision. As to the search for foundation deposits, trial pits were made at the southeast corner and "in one of the gateways," the specific gate not identified, but the results were again negative.
Workmen were hired on January 9 and the digging started the following day, before the supervisors arrived. An urgent message was sent, asking Margaret and her company to come and bring the new rope and crowbar. The men had started in the southeast corner of the temple where the search for foundation deposits had been carried on and by the time the English party had arrived two statues had already been uncovered. One of them was an inscribed, but headless, block statue of the Fourth Prophet of Amun, Mentuemhat of Dynasty 25-26,35 and the second was the upper portion of a second statue, presumably of the same man.
The Mentuemhat statues
It was a life-sized representation unusual in that the pate was bald but the head was fringed with hair, rare in Egyptian art but certainly one of the great masterpieces of sculpture regardless of its period.36 The preserved part of the inscription did not give the owner's name but included titles that made the identification virtually certain. To quote the excavation report: Such a find would in itself have been a not meager reward for the season's excavation, yet though it was by far the best find of the year, perhaps the best yield of the temple, there was much to follow".37 And this had come out of the ground on the first day of the newly resumed work. The bust presumed to be, and the headless statue identified as, Mentuemhat were the subjects of an article published jointly by Newberry and Janet Gourlay.38 As far as we know this was the only publication about the work in the Temple of Mut she was involved in other than the excavation report.
The excavations near the southeast corner were extended to the west along the south face of the rear wall. Again the yield was astonishing. In the first day's work in this trenching process fourteen pieces of statues were uncovered, including one remarkable Saite Period head. After finishing what was later designated "Trench A" in the record, a similar trench was opened to the west of the contra-temple (Trench B). From the two areas came a pieces of fifteen inscribed statues, a sphinx, three heads and parts of an alabaster statue. Added to the eleven statues from the same area the previous year, this became an impressive haul. With this success, a third trench (Trench C) was cut on the east side for about forty feet, starting from the southeast corner.39 The results were not so impressive although there were still fragments of sculpture found. An incidental discovery in this area was a clay pot containing forty-nine coins of the time of Nero.
While the trenching was going on clearance continued along the rear of the Mut temple as it faces the lake, and in the contra temple. Rooms and chambers continued to be cleared and some small sculpture was found including a marble foot from a classical statue. In the last few days of the season an attempt was made to put the temple in order by leveling the mounds of earth and filling holes. More Sakhmet statues were repaired and "restored to their former dignity of appearance and position."
From a reading of The Temple of Mut in Asher, published in 1899, it would be impossible to know that the 1897 season nearly ended in tragedy. While on the excavation, Margaret was taken with a chill which developed into a case of pleurisy. Her condition was so serious that she was expected to die, but the fluid around her lungs was tapped and drained and she survived. This was done under conditions that are best only imagined, by an able doctor at the Luxor Hotel. Her brother Fred said that it was through a feat of faith and will that she managed to continue living.
Although she was to return to Egypt one more time, it was not to excavate. 1897 was to be her last season of work in the precinct of the goddess. The illness at Luxor was followed later by a heart attack. Her health, never good, became progressively worse. In 1900 she returned to Egypt as a visitor and in a letter to her mother during this trip she mentioned that Newberry had asked her to join him in the production of an exhaustive history of Egypt . It was her feeling that she would have to spend time visiting museums in Europe for this project and she was pleased to say that Newberry seemed to think her prose style would make it a better book. If she was able to do anything toward this collaboration, it is not known.
Shortly after the trip to Egypt she began to complain in her letters about problems with her lungs and by 1906 there are references to a condition of nervous depression. By 1907 she suffered a mental breakdown and from that time to her death in 1916 she was rarely free from mental suffering, derangement and hallucination. It is difficult to know the sequence and progress of her illness from the writings of her brothers but sometime after 1907 she was entrusted to an order of the Sisters of Mercy for care. From them she was transferred to the Priory, Roehampton, a private institution for the mentally ill. Her older brother, A. C. Benson, pointedly wrote that he was able to see her in 1910, the implication being that her condition had been so grave that even close members of the family were not able to visit her. Around 1913 she was moved to the care of a doctor and his wife at Wimbledon where she was able to lead a more-or-less normal life.
Margaret and her mother, Mary Benson
A. C. Benson wrote: "At last a physical malady of the heart developed and once or twice her mind was cleared of all delusion; but her strength slowly declined."40 The night she died in May, 1916, her nurse heard her repeat the lines of a hymn:
As pants the hart for cooling streams
when heated in the chase
So longs my soul, O God, for Thee
And Thy refreshing grace.41
Margaret Benson, daughter of the Archbishop of Canterbury, sister of three authors famous in their own time, talented artist and author in her own right, excavator of the Temple of the Goddess Mut at Karnak and the first woman to conduct her own excavation in Egypt, died peacefully in her sleep.
After the work of Benson and Gourlay in the
Temple of Mut, excavations and studies have been carried out by French archaeologists under the direction of Maurice Pillet and Henri Chevrier. Since 1976 the Precinct has been the focus of the new series of excavations by the Brooklyn Museum under the direction of Richard A. Fazzini, with the assistance of the Detroit Institute of Arts. The scope of the present excavation is much more extensive than the work carried out by Benson and Gourlay but their work remains an important chapter in the understanding of the site. What they accomplished can well stand comparison with that of their "professional" contemporaries. Gerhard Haeny said: "Today people tend to minimize the excavation report of the two ladies, however, this is unjust because there is hardly a report by any Egyptologist of that time that will yield so many well-observed details about the location where statues were found, about reused blocks, the condition of walls and similar facts. However, these details are strewn through a very personal description of the process of excavation and a successful attempt to order these finds into a picture of Egyptian history which is superseded today." 42. It is true that the interpretation of Egyptian history may be dated and outmoded, but the basic work of the excavation and the manner in which it was reported was as sound as anything done at the time. The personalities involved in the excavation of the Temple of Mut in the 1890s are as fascinating in their own right as they are little known.
William H. Peck
Visitors to the site after the excavation.
1. My thanks to Richard A. Fazzini, friend and colleague, who made a number of valuable suggestions which have much improved this article.
2. Margaret Benson and Janet Gourlay; The Temple of Mut in Asher: An account of the excavation of the temple and of the religious representations and objects found therein, as illustrating the history of Egypt and the main religious ideas of the Egyptians, London, John Murray, 1899
3. Temple of Mut, p.v
4. Arthur Christopher Benson: The Life and Letters of Maggie Benson, London, John Murray, 1917
5. Life and Letters: p.52
6. Life and Letters, p. 87
7. Life and Letters. p.169, Margaret to her Mother, Luxor, Feb. 1, 1894
8. E. F. Benson, Our Family Affairs, George H. Doran, New York, 1921, pp.312, 313.
9. Life and Letters, pp. 291, 192
10. It was Mrs. Lea's brother who was Margaret's tutor for her studies at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford.
11. Presumably the husband of Margaret's paternal cousin, Kitty McDowall Esdaile.
12. Among the professionals who are credited with aiding Margaret Benson, D. G. Hogarth is seldom mentioned. At that time, according to T. G. H. James, Hogarth had been sent by the Egypt Exploration Fund to assist Naville at Dier el Bahri, but also to observe and report on his methods which were under some criticism. David George Hogarth (1862-1927) was a distinguished archaeologist who worked in Cyprus, Ephesus, Carchemish, Crete and at Asyut in Egypt. During his career he was keeper of the Ashmolean Museum, director of the BritishSchoolAthens, director of the Cretan Exploration Fund, and president of the Royal Geographical Society. In W. W. I. he organized the Arab Bureau in Cairo which employed, among others, T. E. Lawrence, Hogarth's protege. in
13. There is some confusion in biographical reference books concerning E. F. Benson. He is sometimes credited with excavating in Egypt for the Hellenic Society, probably resulting from a confusion of his Greek and Egyptian experience. He is better know today as the prolific author of popular novels.
14. The title of Margaret Benson's publication, The Temple of Mut in Asher, refers to the Sacred Lake or "Isheru" (Asheru, Ascheru), a word of uncertain origin which refers to semicircular bodies of water where leonine goddesses such as Sakhmet are appeased. See also E. Otto's entry on "Ascheru" in Lexicon der Agyptologie I, cols. 460-62.
15. Temple of Mut, p.9
16. The map probably to be attributed to G. Erbkam, a member of Lepsius' party, is one of the most accurate and useful early maps preserved.
17. In a section beginning on page 288 in The Temple of Mut she discussed the notes of James Burton (1840) and manuscript maps of BurtonBritish Museum and called to her attention by Newberry). She also mentions the work of the Lepsius expedition of the 1840s, The Monuments of Upper Egypt by Mariette and notes made by Bouriant. and Hay (all preserved in the
18. Life and Letters, p. 190
19. Cairo CG No. 566
20. Life and Letters, p. 192, Letter from Margaret to her father, February 13, 1895.
21. Cairo JE Nos. 2172, 29245
22. Life and Letters, p. 200
23. As noted by Charles van Sicklen in Varia Aegyptiaca 3, 1987, this piece has been reattributed in the Kimbell Museum to Dynasty XVIII and is probably a representation of Amenhotep II or Tuthmosis IV.
24.This statue is presently the subject of a study by the author. It is clearly not a representation of Tutankhamun. The correct identification is confused by some recutting of the face. A complete discussion of this art historical problem will be forthcoming.
25. Cairo JE No. 31886
26. Temple of Mut, p.54
27. Life and Letters, p.202
28. Life and Letters, p.201
29. Cairo CG No. 568
30. Cairo CG No. 579
31. Cairo CG No. 581
32. Life and Letters, p.205
33. In Margaret's personal copy of The Temple of Mut in Asher, which came into the hands of Richard Fazzini, Margaret methodically annotated the table of contents and many of the chapters to show that she wrote chapters I-IV,VI-VIII, X, XII, and XIV alone; V and XVIII with Janet Gourlay, and aided Janet on chapter XIII; Janet wrote IX, XI, XV and XVI alone. It should be noted that Janet wrote the chapter relating to Mentuemhat, whose bust she later published with Newberry. On page ix Margaret lined out the words "the most essential part of the publication" which refered to Newberry's translations of the inscriptions. Perhaps she changed her mind about their importance in relation to the work of excavation.
34. E. F. Benson: Mother, George H. Doran, New York, 1925, pp. 41, 42.
35.CG 646. The inscriptions on this statue tell us that Mentuemhat was a prince who organized the construction work at the temple of Mut Montouemhat, quatrieme prophete d'Amon, 'prince de la ville', Cairo, 1961, and Richard Fazzini and William Peck, "The Precinct of Mut During Dynasty XXV and Early Dynasty XXVI, A Growing Picture", Journal of the Society for the Study of Egyptian Antiquities, Vol. XI, No. 3, May, 1981. and one who had restored the temple of "the mistress of the sky" in beautiful stone to last for eternity. The current excavations have identified much more work of Dynasty XXV in the Mut temple than had been previously thought, suggesting that this was not boasting on the part of Mentuemhat. See J. Leclant,
36. CG 647. The bald pate may have some religious significance, see J. Quaegebeur, A. Rammant-Peeters, "Le pyramidion d'un danseur en chef de Bastet", Orientalia Lovaniensia Analecta 13, 1982, p. 186.
37. Temple of Mut, p.66.
38. Gourlay and Newberry in Recueil de Travaux, XX (1898), pp. 188-92
39. The contents of the three trenches are listed in detail in Porter-Moss, II,2, pp. 260,261.
40. Life and Letters, p. 409.
41. Life and Letters, p. 410
42. Gerhard Haeny in BABA 9, 1970, p.95, note 94
<!--[if !vml]--><!--[endif]--> <!--[if !vml]--><!--[endif]--> <!--[if !vml]--><!--[endif]-->