This week I am delving into the life of Egyptologist and religious philosopher Margaret Benson.
You may be thinking, I have no idea who this person is and to tell you the truth I didn’t either. So, here is my introduction to her life and adventures.
Margaret Benson was born on June 16th 1865 at Wellington College Berkshire, the fourth of six children of Edward White Benson, Archbishop of Canterbury, and his wife Mary Sidgwick. She attended Truro Girls’ High School (1879-1883). And continued her education at Oxford’s Lady Margaret Hall reading philosophy and political economy. One of Margaret’s supervisors, the Anglican priest, G,W, Gent described her intelligence as “remorseless”1.
In 1895, plagued by illness and frustrated, she found a place for those frustrations within Egyptology. Her brother Arthur noted that ‘Maggie was frail to start with, and her temperament led her to throw herself eagerly and enthusiastically into everything that she did, while her sensitiveness to impression made everything into a strain’2.
Then on a trip to Egypt intended to help her growing low-level illness, Benson found an outlet in Egyptology. She took up excavation and further studies; learning Arabic and hieroglyphics and threw Greek into the mix – I have a lot of respect for her veracity for languages. Having studied hieroglyphs, they are much more complex than people assume and require hours of patience to translate passages. Margaret’s talent for languages is something I clearly lack – probably due to my dyslexia, but this has never dimmed my enthusiasm.
Her brother Fred accompanied her on many of her trips to Egypt, including the following year when she began to dig at the Temple of Mut. Towards the end of a stay in Egypt in 1894, she visited the temple for the first time, although she noted in a letter to her mother that she went ‘having heard no more of it than that there were granite statues of cats’ head to be seen’3. Which I guess if you are a cat lover would be a great draw! Those with a little knowledge of ancient Egyptian gods and goddesses will know that a cat-headed deity comes in the form of Sekhmet.
This is bolstered by the excavation finding many Sekhmet statues. But just imagine seeing great cat heads poking out of the sand!
Margaret published the findings of this excavation with her co-author and friend Scottish Egyptologist Janey Gourley. Upon meeting Janet, Arthur describes the friendship that followed between the two women as one of her ‘chiefest friendship’4.
Egyptology became an absorbing interest for the next two years. In the preface to the publication of Benson and Gourley’s book they thank Flinders Petrie, Newberry, and Griffiths, and make an incredibly quick note of gratitude to the man who gave permission for the excavation to go ahead, M. de Morgan. Whose sense of ‘ liberality’ provided Margaret and Janet the first ‘permission to excavate’ given to women in Egypt5.
For these young women, this would have been a great achievement but yet it only gets a tiny nod in the opening pages surrounded by kind ladylike prose. The ability for these women to achieve this would have been bolstered by liberties given their social standing, they were, after all, fortunate enough to be educated women. It must be recognised that this was an inspiring step at the time and continues to be for a young woman in the 21st century with a passion for ancient Egypt just like Margaret Benson.
Her brother Arthur recounts in his book of a friend writing that Maggie ‘loved Egypt and she loved the ancient Egyptians, she seemed to absorb the very spirit that animated them.’6 Another friend wrote later that Margaret once said to her that Egypt was ‘in her very heart’7.
Margaret wrote to her mother in January 1895 saying how she is starting to be ‘ considered in the lights of an Egyptologist’ and that she was ‘really immensely happy’8.
He writes that the workmen she had hired to help in her excavations at Karnak were said to be devoted to her – singing about their great English princess of fabulous wealth. Arthur continues to state that he often thought about the ‘perplexed looks of a party of American tourists when they visited the excavation and had her thus pointed out to them by our donkey-boys. They must have thought it strange to see an English princess sitting in the sand, and quarrelling with a very disrespectful lady-in-waiting as to which of them could build the be castle’9.
The women also state that due to illness work was slower than hoped and so they have borrowed plans of certain portions of the temple from James Burton – had they had more time this is what they would have wanted to do. The women continue that ‘ above all we should have wished to finish completely the excavation to clear away the banks of earth which may yet hide treasures of the past, to dredge the lake, or dig when it was especially low for statues and monuments which may have been thrown into it10.
Reading the letters and thoughts of her friends, family and those who have written recently about her, I feel Margaret Benson conjures up characters seen on the silver screen. Just think of the character Evelyn played by Rachel Weisz in the 1999 film The Mummy, a strong intelligent woman who takes no prisoners and is captivated by solving mysteries left behind by the ancient Egyptians, staunchly defending her love and zest for the ancient Egyptians. See if you agree after reading this quote ‘Evelyn: Look, I … I may not be an explorer, or an adventurer, or a treasure-seeker, or a gunfighter, Mr.O’Connell, but I am proud of what I am. Rick: And what is that? Evelyn: I …am a librarian’ 11– very in keeping with the sentiments of Egyptologists – we are a passionate bunch. If you haven’t watched this film I highly recommend it, not necessarily for its Egyptological content but it’s a must alongside Indiana Jones as Egyptology students’ essential viewing.
Back to Margaret, she concluded the excavations in Egypt three seasons later having found much more than those at the time had expected to be found there, to them there was nothing of interest. However, Margaret and Janet proved them wrong, uncovering a number of Sekhmet statues, some of which still remain in situ at the Temple of Mut. One of her discoveries fairly early on in the excavations was a block statue of a scribe named Amenemhat. The statue dates to the reign of Amenhotep II, currently held in the Cairo Museum (CG566), and was found near the west wall of the court. Margaret was later given a cast of the statue that she could bring back to England once the excavations had concluded. She writes in a letter to her father about the discovery;
‘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’12
The excavation and clearance of the temple began in the northern and outer court of the temple where Mariette had previously worked. Benson and Gourley were working from Mariette’ map which had mistakes and discrepancies in it as he was not able to expose enough of the main walls13.
The first season of excavations sought to clear the temple and to note the errors on the older plans and begin to start a reconstruction with the idea of preserving some of the statues of Sekhmet littered about the site. The second season of work focussed on the first court being cleared, beginning at the gateway between the first and second courts. Her published letters often make references to exact or close dates of discoveries.
With the conclusion of the second season and the publication of their findings, it would be expected for this Egyptological career to blossom. However, that was not to be. Although Margaret would return to Egypt in 1897 this was to be her last foray into excavation, having suffered from poor health throughout her journeys coming once incredibly close to death. This poor fortune continued with Margaret suffering a heart attack. In 1900 she returned to Egypt as a visitor. Shortly after this trip, she began to complain of further issues relating to her lungs and 1906 there are references to nervous depression. 1907 saw Margaret suffer a mental breakdown and until her death in 1916, she suffered from mental health issues. She died at The Rowans on 13th May 1916 and was buried on the 16th May in Addington Park Croydon.
Her letters are a wealth of information and I would encourage you to go give them a read. Her excitement at the discoveries she had made, and a joy for learning about Egypt is clear to see in abundance.
- https://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-56291 Accessed 2019 Published 23rd September 2004
- Life and Letters of Maggie Benson Arthur Christopher Benson London J.Murray Publishing 1917 Page 122
- The Temple of Mut at Asher M.Benson and J. Gourley London J. Murray Publishing 1899 Page 9
- Life and Letters of Maggie Benson Arthur Christopher Benson London J.Murray Publishing 1917 Page 189
- The Temple of Mut at Asher M.Benson and J. Gourley London J. Murray Publishing 1899 Page viii
- Life and Letters of Maggie Benson Arthur Christopher Benson London J.Murray Publishing 1917 Page 152
- Life and Letters of Maggie Benson Arthur Christopher Benson London J.Murray Publishing 1917 Page 152
- Life and Letters of Maggie Benson Arthur Christopher Benson London J.Murray Publishing 1917 Page 191
- Life and Letters of Maggie Benson Arthur Christopher Benson London J.Murray Publishing 1917 Page 153-4
- The Temple of Mut at Asher M. Benson and J.Gourley London J.Murray Publishing 1899 Page X
- https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0120616/characters/nm0001838?ref_=tt_cl_t2 Accessed 04/02/2020
- Life and Letters of Maggie Benson Arthur Christopher Benson London J.Murray Publishing 1917 Page 192
- http://www.williamhpeck.org/margaret_benson accessed 20.02.2020
Life and Letters of Maggie Benson by Arthur Christopher Benson London J. Murray Publishing 1917 Page 150
https://www.themoviedb.org/movie/564-the-mummy/images/posters accessed 04.02.2020
Plate XIX Sekhmet Statue – The Temple of Mut at Asher by M. Benson and J. Gourley London J.Murray Publishing 1917 p196
Map of the Temple Excavations taken from The Temple of Mut at Asher by M. Benson and J. Gourley London J. Murray Publishing 1917 p36