05 January 2008

Kathleen Kenyon and the Birth of Quantitative Archaeology

On this date in 1906, Dame Kathleen Kenyon was born.

Daughter of the Biblical scholar Sir Frederick Kenyon, Kathleen was born into the study of history. Her father would later become Director of the British Museum. She studied history at Oxford, before beginning her career as a photographer on the Great Zimbabwe expeditions of Gertrude Caton-Thompson. As rare as a female archaeologist was in Kenyon's day, it was even rarer in Caton-Thompson, and the elder scientist must have been a heavy inspiration on young Kathleen. Her next work was with Sir Mortimer Wheeler, and it was this work that I want to center on in today's blog.

Wheeler was a star in the world of archaeology. Keeper of the London Museum, he was a precious rarity in science, an extremely talented researcher with an uncanny ability to translate his findings to a larger audience. He was the first to lay out excavations in a grid system to keep track of where items were found to a more specific degree than was previously common. Kenyon learned this system from him at Verulamium, a Roman excavation north of London. She then took Wheeler's ideas and expanded on them, and improved them.

Where Wheeler had concentrated primarily on the horizontal arrangement of artifacts, Kenyon was just as interested in the vertical, the depth at which things were found. Her tweaks to Wheeler's strategy became the Wheeler-Kenyon Method.

In the Wheeler-Kenyon Method, excavation sites are divided into 5x5 meter squares, in a grid. Anytime you see old video of excavation sites, with large squares cut into the earth, they were using Wheeler-Kenyon. Kathleen Kenyon's addition was to leave walls, 1 meter thick, remaining between all of Wheeler's squares. This allowed the layers of soil and other materials to be analyzed alongside the artifacts they held. So much information had previously been swept away, the artifacts seeming to be the important thing. The value of what Kenyon did cannot be overestimated. She realized that the context of the artifacts would be as important as the pieces themselves, and that the layer of sediment surrounding them could tell volumes about when the piece was buried and what was going on there at the time.

Kenyon went on to become principal at St. Hugh's College at Oxford, and was honored as a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire upon her retirement. She died five years later, but left behind a science firmer and more robust than she had found, something to which every scientist would do well to strive.

Tomorrow: Daylight Savings Time and the Energy Crisis

No comments: