Research Article

Margaret Murray (1863–1963): Pioneer Egyptologist, Feminist and First Female Archaeology Lecturer

  • Ruth Whitehouse (UCL Institute of Archaeology, London WC1H 0PY, United Kingdom)


Margaret Murray, who was born 150 years ago, was one of the first archaeologists to be employed at UCL and one of the most distinguished, although her role in the history of archaeology is often underestimated. This article provides a brief outline of the career and contribution of a highly productive and innovative, if sometimes controversial, scholar, who also participated in the wider social movements of her time, particularly the campaign for women’s suffrage.

How to Cite: Whitehouse, R. (2013). Margaret Murray (1863–1963): Pioneer Egyptologist, Feminist and First Female Archaeology Lecturer. Archaeology International, 16(1).

Rights: Copyright: © 2013 The Author(s)




Published on
23 Oct 2013
Peer Reviewed

2013 marks the 150th anniversary of Margaret Alice Murray, born on 13 July 1863, and the 50th anniversary of her death on 13 November 1963, just a few months after the publication of her autobiography, My First Hundred Years. The life of this remarkable woman is well worth celebrating, both in the archaeological world at large and especially in UCL, where she spent her entire academic career, from 1894, when she became one of the first students of the new discipline of Egyptology, until 1935, when she retired as Assistant Professor of Egyptology. In 1899 she was appointed to a junior lectureship, making her the first female lecturer in archaeology in the UK. She undoubtedly deserved to succeed Flinders Petrie to the Edwards Chair of Egyptology when he retired in 1933, but this was clearly a step too far for UCL. While taking pride in its progressive attitudes, the College did not appoint its first female professor until 1949.1 UCL did however award Murray an honorary doctorate in 1931 and made her an honorary fellow the following year. The occasion of her 100th birthday was marked by the presentation of an address from the Professorial Board (Fig. 1). It is worth noting, in relation to the Institute of Archaeology, that Murray’s life and career may have been a significant influence on Tessa Verney Wheeler, who played a major role in the foundation of the Institute, together with her husband Mortimer Wheeler. Tessa Verney would have known Murray both during her student years at UCL before World War I (although she studied History and Languages rather than Egyptology) and as a colleague in the 1930s, after she was married to Wheeler (Carr, 2012: 55–65).

Fig. 1
Fig. 1

Margaret Murray on the occasion of her 100th birthday which was marked by the presentation of an address from the Professorial Board (UCL Records).

Margaret Murray is often thought of primarily as one of Flinders Petrie’s assistants and her work is wrongly overshadowed by that of the ‘great man’ (whom she regarded as a genius, though not without flaws). Certainly she sometimes acted as his assistant in the field, where she proved herself an accomplished draughtswoman as well as an excavator, while back home in UCL she took on much of the teaching and administration while Petrie was away excavating in Egypt. She should, however, be judged as the independent scholar she undoubtedly was, who conducted her own excavations in Malta, Menorca and Palestine, and published a long list of scholarly articles and books on Egyptology and other archaeological subjects.

Teaching and departmental work at UCL

At an early stage she took over the teaching of beginners’ language classes and later went on to teach courses on ‘Egyptian History’, ‘Egyptian Religion’, ‘Manners and Customs’ and ‘Origins of Signs’. According to Rosalind Janssen (1992: 11–12), she was also the chief architect of the intensive two-year training course that was instituted in 1910, which led to a diploma known as the College Certificate in Egyptology. As well as training in Egyptian language and archaeology and fieldwork experience with Petrie in Egypt, the course included, apparently at Margaret Murray’s insistence, anatomy of the skeleton, physical anthropology, ethnology, mineralogy, drawing to scale and photography. This very practical syllabus stood the test of time, much of it surviving into the era of Petrie’s successors. Many of the students who passed through the Department in the pre-war years went on to make their names in Egyptology and many recorded their debt to Margaret Murray. In 1931 they showed their appreciation by clubbing together to buy the robes required for her honorary doctorate, which she could not afford herself.

It is clear that Margaret Murray played a major role in departmental and college affairs, expressing her love for her Alma Mater, ‘that great and splendid establishment’, in the chapter in her autobiography which she devoted to her experiences as both a student and a member of the academic staff of the College – including ‘entertaining, though wildly inaccurate memories of UCL in the late nineteenth century’ (Harte and North, 2004: 144). She took an interest in everyday concerns such as food (she served for many years on the Refectory Committee) and relaxation (arguing for a better common room for the women staff, who not only were separated from the men at that period but also had to put up with a smaller and stuffier room).

Excavation, fieldwork and museum activities

Margaret Murray only once excavated in Egypt with Petrie, at Abydos in 1902–03 (see above Fig. 1 in Picton, 2013). In her autobiography she records with some indignation a test that Petrie set her, sending her out by herself on the first day to lead the workmen across to the site. The men at first ignored the diminutive figure (she was 4ft 10ins tall) and refused to follow her orders; however, after she marched them back to camp and insisted that they lose a day’s pay, she had no further trouble. She recalls that Petrie’s male assistants underwent no such trials (Murray, 1963: 118–119).

Her independent excavations took place in the 1920s and 1930s on the Mediterranean islands of Malta, where she excavated the important prehistoric site of Borg in-Nadur, and Menorca, where she excavated two Bronze Age megalithic sites at Trepuco and Sa Torreta. In both islands the excavations were published in exemplary form for their time as Excavations in Malta (3 vols), 1923–29, and Cambridge Excavations in Minorca (3 vols), 1932–38. In 1937 she undertook a small excavation at Petra, in Jordan, and subsequently wrote a guidebook to the site, Petra, the Rock City of Edom (1939) and another book, A Street in Petra (1940).

As well as excavation she carried out other fieldwork; for instance in 1903–4 she spent a season at Saqqara, copying the sculptures on the walls of tomb-chapels. She also spent much time cataloguing collections in museums, including the National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland in Edinburgh, the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin, the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford and the National Museum of Malta in Valletta. One of her most public activities took place in Manchester Museum in 1908 when she undertook (together with John Cameron) the unwrapping of a mummy, in front of an audience of five hundred (Fig. 2; Murray, 1910; Sheppard, 2012).

Fig. 2
Fig. 2

Margaret Murray (third from left) unwrapping a mummy at the Manchester University Museum in 1908. The other people in the picture are (from left to right): Mr Wilfred Jackson, Miss Hart-Davies and Mr Standen (photo: courtesy of Manchester Museum, The University of Manchester).


Margaret Murray published prolifically throughout her long life, producing on average at least one article a year, as well as a large number of books, with a total publication list of over 150 items. Initially her journal papers were on various aspects of Egyptology, but later expanded to include the archaeology of other areas, as well as folklore and ancient religion. Her books included the excavation reports described above, introductory textbooks on Egyptian and Coptic grammar, general books about ancient Egypt, as well as volumes on divine kingship and the witch cult in Western Europe. Her autobiography was published a few months before her death and even in her last few months, which were spent in hospital, she was still busily writing. This is not the place for a full bibliography, but I have included the most important books in the ‘References’ to this paper (Murray 1904; 1905; 1905–37; 1911; 1913; 1930; 1934; 1949; 1949). A list of her main publications can be found in Drower 2004.

Folklore and witchcraft

An issue that has cast a cloud over Margaret Murray’s lasting reputation is the promulgation of her views on witchcraft – though these need to be considered in their historical context. Her basic thesis was that that there was a pervasive witch cult in Europe that preserved the essential elements of a pre-Christian religion involving the worship of a horned god and originally practising human sacrifice. This theory, propounded in a number of books (Murray 1921; 1930; 1954) and a long series of articles as well as an entry in the Encyclopaedia Britannica of 1929, was based on extremely literal interpretations of the witch trials of the Early Modern period, of folklore and of some archaeological evidence. Though long discredited in academe, her views were influential at the time and as late as 1953 she became President of the Folklore Society. Subsequently her views on witchcraft played a founding role in the formation of the modern Wiccan and other Neopagan movements – which has added to the discomfort of present-day female archaeologists, including myself, who would like to claim her as a worthy female ancestor, but do not wish to be associated with non-mainstream (not to say crackpot) theories of this kind.

Many of us experience similar difficulties with the Mother Goddess theory, equally rejected by mainstream archaeology and also supported by prominent female archaeologists such as Jacquetta Hawkes and Marija Gimbutas. There is of course no justification for the abandonment of academic rigour, but it is not too difficult to understand why female archaeologists might prefer historical narratives that attribute power to women (whether as goddesses or witches) over the prevalent male-oriented accounts, where women are largely invisible or figure only in domestic roles. A final point one might make is that different but equally unacceptable theories propounded by male archaeologists of the time are given much more lenient treatment in the literature. Flinders Petrie himself, a supporter of eugenics, believed that Egyptian Civilisation could not have been the product of African peoples but was created by a race of intrusive white people – a view that is as clearly discredited as Murray’s witch cult, and arguably more damaging, but which is rarely considered to tarnish Petrie’s reputation.2

Margaret Murray’s belief in witchcraft had a personal side and she seems sometimes to have practised magic herself. Drower (2004: 121) reproduces a quotation from Max Mallowan’s entry on Murray in the Dictionary of National Biography (1961–70: 78):

Indeed, on one occasion she cast a spell on an intended victim [a colleague of whose appointment she disapproved] in a saucepan at the Institute of Archaeology in the presence of two reputable witnesses, and achieved her aim with conspicuous success. The subject immediately fell ill, and was promoted to some higher and more suitable office.

As Murray does not mention the subject in her autobiography, we do not have her own views on the matter, but, given her generally very rational approach to superstition (clearly expressed in the chapter on ‘The Occult’ in her autobiography), I attribute it to the spirit of mischief that is manifest in other accounts in that book, rather than to a real belief in the efficacy of the spells (Murray, 1963: 175–183).

The Women’s Movement

Margaret Murray was an active supporter of the movement for women’s suffrage. She was a member of the Women’s Social and Political Union, led by Emmeline Pankhurst and she participated in the first procession of protest to the Houses of Parliament in 1907. She does not seem to have taken part in any of the illegal activities of the suffragette movement, but in her autobiography she describes some of these actions with approval, combined with sympathy for the sufferings of the women in prison and disapproval of the differential treatment meted out by the police to working-class women and ‘ladies’ who took part in the protests. She regarded the case for women’s votes as self-evident and she believed women were the equals of men in their abilities, though clearly not in the way they were treated by society. She also writes approvingly of the work of Marie Stopes, another UCL scholar,3 commenting that ‘like all reformers she was not particularly popular among her colleagues, but her work for women was outstanding’ (Murray, 1963: 173).

Within UCL she was a constant advocate of the interests of women, both staff and students, and she also supported the interests of women outside the college. For instance, Drower (2004: 119) records how during the First World War she became an active member of a committee set up by Elsie Inglis to bring Serbian girls to England to train as doctors (an organisation that persisted after the war, with Murray’s continuing active support, later known as the Yugoslav Medical Women’s Scholarship Fund). Her feminism extended into her scholarship, which included studies of various aspects of women’s lives in ancient Egypt, including social conditions and the roles of women in religion which, as she recounts in her autobiography, were regarded by Petrie and others as too ‘unpleasant’ for women to study.

In her own words

We do not learn much about Margaret Murray’s private life from her autobiography, except in relation to her childhood and her family, but we do get a clear picture of her personality. She emerges as determined, resourceful, industrious, socially and politically aware and with a mischievous sense of humour. A few quotations serve to illustrate these traits. In a discussion of the grammatical terms that created problems for her and her fellow students learning Egyptian, she glosses the term ‘Semantic Object as an epithet of aversion’ (which I confess I have never heard of) as ‘He is just a horrid little Semantic Object’ (Murray, 1963: 95). In her account of an occasion when a suffragette inveigled herself into a special lecture by Lord Haldane, chained herself to a chair and entirely disrupted the lecture, she writes (and this might be read as a confession):

It never transpired how that invitation card with the suffragette’s own name on it ever reached her. It only shows that young males, even though brilliantly clever, should not pit their wits against an organisation run by women. (Murray, 1963: 170)

My favourite quotation from the book refers to one moonlit night in Egypt in 1902 when she ventured out with two other women (Mrs Petrie and Miss Eckenstein) to investigate a possible incident at the Osireion, where they were excavating; she describes how ‘we three women joined hands and danced with a great variety of fancy steps all the way from the camp to the dig’ (much to the horror of the very Victorian Mr Stannus, who had insisted on accompanying them) (Murray, 1963: 116). This image of the exuberance of the three women, briefly set free by circumstances from the constraints of proper behaviour for women of the time, I find irresistible.


Since her retirement in the 1930s, when she was clearly held in high regard within the profession, as witnessed by the honours bestowed on her by UCL, and particularly since her death in 1963, her reputation has gradually declined. She appears in many histories of archaeology as a mere footnote to Petrie, although recent attempts to redress this neglect include her inclusion in two books on women archaeologists of the past (Champion, 1998; Drower, 2004), while a full-length biography is currently in press (Sheppard, forthcoming). The general neglect of her role in the history of archaeology may in part be due to the simple passage of time and in part to unease about her views on the witch cult, described above, but probably owes more to the systematic exclusion of women’s contributions from the male-oriented construction of the history of our discipline, discussed by various feminist archaeologists (e.g. Diaz-Andreu and Sorensen, 1998; Root, 2004).

Within the College too, her imprint has, not surprisingly, faded. During the desegregation of the senior common rooms in 1969, the former women’s common room was named in her honour, but the Margaret Murray Room ceased to be in 1989, on its conversion for use as the office for the then Director of Finance and Planning (Harte and North, 2004: 144). Her name does, however, survive in the Margaret Murray prize, founded in 1935 and still awarded annually for ‘distinguished work in the Egyptology section of the Institute of Archaeology’. Of the two known portraits of her in UCL, one – a rather ugly bronze bust – exists in two copies, one in the Petrie Museum, the other lurking in a secluded corner of the IoA library, while a much more attractive small water colour by Winifred Brunton (Fig. 3), which once hung in the Petrie Museum, now languishes in the Art Collection stores.

Fig. 3
Fig. 3

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).

In my opinion it is time now to rectify these omissions, both of understanding and recognition. Margaret Murray was a major scholar whom we should be proud to acknowledge as an integral and important part of the history of our discipline. She certainly deserves a fuller re-assessment than she has yet received. As an immediate gesture, the Women’s Forum of the IoA has proposed that the Brunton portrait be retrieved from the stores to hang in a suitably prominent place in the Institute of Archaeology – a most appropriate way to celebrate the 150th anniversary of a remarkable early archaeologist.


  1. The first female professor was Kathleen Lonsdale, later Dame Kathleen Lonsdale, the distinguished crystallographer (Harte and North, 2004: 179, 230).
  2. This situation might have begun to change, with new scholarship on the history of eugenics and Petrie’s role in the movement (Challis, 2013).
  3. Marie Stopes studied Botany at UCL, gaining a 1st-class degree in 1902. She was subsequently a lecturer at UCL from 1911 to 1918, when she resigned to concentrate on her writing and work on family planning (Harte and North, 2004: 150).


1  Carr, L C. (2012).  Tessa Verney Wheeler. Women and Archaeology before World War II. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

2  Challis, D. (2013).  The Archaeology of Race. The Eugenic Ideas of Francis Galton and Flinders Petrie. London and New York: Bloomsbury Academic.

3  Champion, S. (1998). Women in British Archaeology In:  Diaz-Andreu, M, Sorensen, M L M L (eds.),   Excavating Women: History of Women in European Archaeology. London: Routledge, pp. 175–197.

4  Diaz-Andreu, M; Sorensen, M L. (1998). Excavating Women: towards an Engendered History of Archaeology In:  Diaz-Andreu, M, Sorensen, M L M L (eds.),   Excavating Women: History of Women in European Archaeology. London: Routledge, pp. 1–28.

5  Drower, M S. (2004). Margaret Alice Murray (1863–1963) In:  Cohen, G M, Joukowsky, M S M S (eds.),   Breaking Ground. Pioneering Women Archaeologists. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, pp. 109–141.

6  Harte, N; North, J. (2004).  The World of UCL 1828–2004. London: UCL.

7  Janssen, R M. (1992). The First Hundred Years In:  Egyptology at University College London 1892–1992. London: Petrie Museum.

8  Murray, M A. (1904).  The Oseiron at Abydos. London: Publications of the Egyptian Research Account.

9  Murray, M A. (1905).  Elementary Egyptian Grammar. London: Quaritch.

10  Murray, M A. (1905–37).  Saqqara Mastabas Part I–II. London: Publications of the Egyptian Research Account.

11  Murray, M A. (1910).  The Tomb of Two Brothers. Manchester: Sherratt & Hughes.

12  Murray, M A. (1911).  Elementary Coptic (Sahidic) Grammar. London: Quaritch.

13  Murray, M A. (1913).  Ancient Egyptian Legends. London: J. Murray.

14  Murray, M A. (1921).  The Witch-Cult in Western Europe: A Study in Anthropology. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

15  Murray, M A. (1923–29).  Excavations in Malta. London: Quaritch. 3

16  Murray, M A. (1930).  Egyptian Sculpture. London: Duckworth.

17  Murray, M A. (1930).  The God of the Witches. London: Sampson Low, Marston & Co..

18  Murray, M A. (1931).  Egyptian Temples. London: Sampson Low, Marston & Co..

19  Murray, M A. (1932–38).  Cambridge Excavations in Minorca. London: Quaritch. 3

20  Murray, M A. (1934).  Corpus of the Bronze Age of Malta. London: Quaritch.

21  Murray, M A. (1939).  Petra, the Rock City of Edom. London: Blackie.

22  Murray, M A; Ellis, J C. (1940).  A Street in Petra. London: Quaritch.

23  Murray, M A. (1949).  The Splendour that was Egypt. London: Sidgwick & Jackson.

24  Murray, M A. (1949).  Egyptian Religious Poetry. London: J. Murray.

25  Murray, M A. (1954).  The Divine King in England: A Study in Anthropology. London: Faber & Faber.

26  Murray, M A. (1963).  The Genesis of Religion. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

27  Murray, M A. (1963).  My First Hundred Years. London: William Kimber.

28  Picton, J. (2013).  The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, UCL.  Archaeology International 16 : XX-XX.

29  Root, M C. (2004). Introduction. Women of the Field, Defining the Gendered Experience In:  Cohen, G M, Joukowsky, M S M S (eds.),   Breaking Ground. Pioneering Women Archaeologists. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, pp. 1–33.

30  Sheppard, K L. (2012).  Between spectacle and science: Margaret Murray and the Tomb of the Two Brothers.  Science in Context 25 (4) : 525–549.

31  Sheppard, K L. ().  A Woman’s Work in Archaeology: The Life and Legacy of Margaret Alice Murray.  Forthcoming.