Margaret Murray (1863-1963) was a seasoned archaeologist, a well-loved teacher, a women’s rights advocate, and a controversial folklorist. Though her career is often overshadowed by the men in her field, she made a huge impact that shouldn’t be overlooked.
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Today’s explorer was a seasoned archaeologist, a well-loved teacher, a women’s rights advocate, and a controversial folklorist. Though her career is often overshadowed by the men in her field, she made a huge impact that shouldn’t be overlooked. We’re talking about Margaret Murray.
Margaret Alice Murray was born on July 13, 1863 in Calcutta, India. She was homeschooled by her mother before training as a nurse and working briefly as a social worker in Hertfordshire, a county in southern England.
In 1894, Margaret packed up, moved to London and became one of the first students at University College London’s new Egyptology department, studying under William Flinders Petrie.
Within five years, she was appointed to junior lectureship, which made her the first female archaeology lecturer in the UK. Margaret taught classes on Egyptian history, religion, and customs. She helped shape the curriculum of the courses, insisting that they include fieldwork with Petrie in Egypt, as well as information about anatomy, anthropology, mineralogy, and more. The comprehensive syllabus remained almost completely intact for years to come. Margaret herself rose through the ranks of the University, from lecturer, to senior lecturer and fellow, to assistant professor in 1924.
Margaret effectively ran the department while Petrie was excavating in Egypt. Nevertheless, she didn’t earn much of a wage. To make ends meet, she also taught evening classes and extension lectures at Oxford. Many of Margaret’s students went on to become prominent Egyptologists. She was such a good teacher that in 1931, her students pooled money together to buy the robes she needed for her honorary doctorate.
And Margaret was much more than a run-of-the-mill lecturer.
She did a lot of field work throughout her career. She was sometimes on site for years at a time. She excavated in Egypt multiple times, as well as in Malta, Minorca, and more.
She was also an outspoken advocate for the hottest issue in England at the time -- women’s suffrage. She participated in the first protest march to the House of Parliament in 1907, and she was a member of Emmeline Pankhurst’s Women’s Social and Political Union.
Though as far as we know she didn’t participate in illegal activities or wind up in jail herself, Margaret’s journals indicate that she supported the cause and the suffragists’ tactics. Margaret knew men and women were equal in ability, and thought the law should reflect that.
Though Margaret was an archaeologist for decades, she’s actually best known today for her extensive publications about witchcraft. Margaret asserted that witchcraft was an organized cult that spanned across the country. Her books have since been thoroughly discredited, along with the research methods used to write them. However, these writings went on to play a founding role in Wiccan and modern pagan religions today.
Though the research behind Margaret’s work in witchcraft wasn’t exactly sound, it’s understandable why she would want to assert and write about women’s power. At the time, male-dominated academics largely relegated women to domestic roles.
At age 72, Margaret retired from her position at UCL, but she joined Petrie again for field work in 1937 and 1938. She had a great sense of humor, even as she aged. At 96, she said, “I've been an archaeologist most of my life and now I'm a piece of archaeology myself!”
Margaret passed away November 13, 1963, in Hertfordshire. She was 100 years old.
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