Olga Tufnell, 1905-1985


Olga Tufnell was educated at schools in Belgium and London, and for a time by a governess in the country. In 1922, on her return from a finishing school in Italy, she was asked if she would help Flinders Petrie at University College, London, with the summer exhibition of the season’s finds. Then she was given the post of Assistant Secretary to the British School of Archaeology in Egypt, which entailed writing letters for Lady Petrie soliciting donations for the work of the School, and reminding members that their subscriptions were overdue. Occasionally during this period she had a chance to help with the drawing and mending of pottery, and when in the winter of 1927 Professor Petrie, impressed by her ability, invited her to join his next expedition, she jumped at the opportunity. After two happy months in Egypt, at Qau where they copied reliefs in the tombs of the local nomarchs, she went on with some of the party to join the main expedition of the season at Tell Far’a on the Wadi Ghuzzeh (Wadi Besor), under the direction of J.L. Starkey (Petrie himself did not dig that year).

 PEF-P-TUF-2: Olga Tufnell (centre) flanked by Noreen Norman and Mary Luce, on the Aberdeen & Commonwealth Line, November 1931. Photographer unknown.


Thus began her life-long commitment to the archaeology of Palestine. She soon learnt enough Arabic to supervise her small team of Bedouin workmen in the cemetery area. When Petrie came out for the second season he was impressed by her competence at recording and encouraged her to publish under her own name. When in 1931 they moved to Tell el-‘Ajjul, she again found herself digging tombs, and was lucky enough to find one of the most sensational: a Hyksos burial with an equid (perhaps a horse).

In 1932 Starkey and several of Petrie’s other young assistants decided to leave ‘the Prof’ and begin their own excavations at Tell ed-Duweir. Tufnell joined Starkey and the others. In six seasons of work they revealed one of the most important towns of the Judaean kingdom, and recovered one of the most exciting groups of ancient texts, the ‘Lachish Letters’, written to the commander of the garrison at Lachish shortly before it fell to the Babylonians in either 589 or 586 B.C. In addition, the excavation provided a wealth of well-stratified pottery, which forms a key part of the ceramic corpus of Palestine.

 PEF-P-TUF-45: “Tell ed Duweir from the NW” 1932-33. Photo by Olga Tufnell.
 PEF-P-TUF-74: “R.R.B. Aloft” Ralph Richmond Brown taking overhead photographs of the archaeology at Tell ed Duweir, 1932-38. Photo by Olga Tufnell.

Throughout her life, Tufnell was deeply interested in aspects of everyday life and craftsmanship in the cultures of the people with whom she came into contact. She documented the craftsmanship of Cypriot potters, and the jewellery of women in Aden, in the Yemen. In Palestine, she took a real interest in the lives of the families and communities who formed the workforce of the dig teams, and got to know many of them well. In Palestine as well as running a first aid clinic at Tell ed Duweir, she became a knowledge on Palestinian domestic arts and crafts, and local dress. Her status as a western woman enabled her to become friendly with women, men, and children from the nearby village of Qubeibeh, where most of the workforce for the excavations at Duweir lived. She was fascinated by decorative design, both in the ancient and in the modern world. Later, in the early 1960s together with Violet Barber, she was involved in establishing the Palestine Folk Museum in Jerusalem.

 PEF-TUF-36: “Abdullah Ahseyn & Family” One of the families working on the excavations at Lachish, 1930-34. Photo by Olga Tufnell.

In January 1938, Starkey was murdered while on his way to Jerusalem to attend the opening of the Palestine Archaeological Museum (now known as the Rockefeller Museum). Tufnell, with G.L. Harding and C. Inge, decided to finish the season. Tufnell spent the next twenty years bringing the results of the excavations to publication.

 PEF-TUF-70: “Rashid’s House in Qubeibeh”, 1930-34. Photo by Olga Tufnell.

Following the completion of the Lachish publication, Tufnell continued to work in Levantine archaeology, and further afield in Aden and Iraq. Her last major work in collaboration with American Egyptologist William Ward, was a landmark, two volume monograph, on the stylistic/chronological analysis of Egyptian scarabs from dated contexts, reflecting her enduring interest in decorative motifs. To this day it remains a key reference text.