A Grande Dame of Archaeological Textiles
Two weeks before the opening of the TRC exhibition about hand looms and textiles, in May 2014, the TRC was given an unique and historical collection of spinning and weaving equipment that was originally gathered and used by the British textile historian, Grace Mary Crowfoot, between 1909 and 1937. The collection was kindly given to the TRC by John Crowfoot, a grandson of Grace. The objects in question come from Egypt, Palestine, Sudan, as well as various European countries. These are places where Molly Crowfoot travelled to and lived in with her husband and children.
In order to celebrate both this donation and the importance of Molly Crowfoot as a Grande Dame of archaeological textiles it was decided to make a special section in the exhibition.
Grace Mary Hood was born in 1877, the oldest of six children, and grew up south of Lincoln (England). She was known as ‘Molly’ to her family and friends. She came from a county family that encouraged the children to be all-rounders, to ride as well as to read They were all musical as well. Her grandfather collected Egyptian antiquities, which put Molly at a young age in contact with archaeologists such as the famous British Egyptologist, William Flinders Petrie.
Molly went to finishing school in Paris and wanted to attend Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, but her mother discouraged it, as she was a ‘lady’ and had no need for further education: Molly would spend her entire life learning new skills and sharing her passion for learning with others. While wintering in San Remo in 1906, for example, Molly took part in botanical expeditions in the Ligurian Alps and later helped to excavate a prehistoric interment in a cave at Tana Bertrand (1908-1909), where over 300 beads were found that she later published.
She became interested in Christian Socialism and women’s rights (becoming a professional midwife) as well as spinning and weaving. In 1909 she married John Winter Crowfoot, the Assistant Director of Education in the Sudan, and the next few years were spent in Cairo and Khartoum. It was in Egypt that Molly learned photography and published a work on desert flowers. During this period their three elder daughters were born: Dorothy (Hodgkin) a scientist who in 1964 won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry; Joan (Payne) who became an Egyptologist and curator at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford; and Elisabeth who, after World War Two and an acting career, became another Grande Dame of archaeological textiles, at first helping her mother. At the start of the First World War (1914-1918) the family were on leave in England and it was decided that John should return to Egypt, while Molly stayed at home with the children. In 1915 Molly (without the children) returned to her husband in Cairo and in 1916 they moved to Sudan. There, isolated from expatriate society, Molly visited the Sudanese women of Omdurman, learning how to weave but also shocked to learn about Female Genital Mutilation. She became an early campaigner against it, setting up the Sudan School of Midwifery to combat the practice.
In 1918 John, Molly and their new baby, Diana (in adult life a geographer), returned to England and were re-united with their other daughters. John went back to Sudan, and soon Molly followed. Now she began to publish, putting her practical knowledge of spinning and weaving to good effect. They enabled her, for instance, to understand and explain how a Pharonic loom worked – and how little it had changed from those used by her Sudanese friends and acquaintances.
Deeply affected by the death of all her four younger brothers, during and after the First World War, Molly became a passionate supporter of the League of Nations Union. In the 1920s she took her eldest daughter Dorothy with her to Geneva to attend sessions of the new League.
John Crowfoot retired as Director of Education in the Sudan in 1926 and was immediately asked to become the Director of the British School of Archaeology in Jerusalem. In Palestine he was in charge of several excavations, most notably at Samaria-Sebaste. While the older girls visited, Molly was constantly at his side, organizing the smooth running of the excavations, working in the field (on basketry and other crafts besides textiles), as well as seeing the excavation reports through to publication. She maintained her interests in the local fauna, producing an early work of ethno-botany in From Cedar to Hyssop (1938). She published several additional papers, including impressions on the bases of pottery from the Chalcolithic period at Jericho.
In 1937 the family returned permanently to England and Molly continued to work on a variety of publications, about textiles from finds around the world as well as the nearby Sutton Hoo Ship burial. During World War II (1939-1945) she published a joint paper on a decorative garment from the tomb of Tutankhamun. As part of this work she rewove various of the applied bands from the garment in order to see how they were made: an actual example of one of these bands woven by Molly is on display in the TRC exhibition. After the war, her textile work continued, notably after the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the 1950s: she published a paper on the Qumran wrappers. A number of these textiles are on display in the TRC exhibition.
Molly Crowfoot died from leukemia in 1957 and is buried in Geldeston churchyard, Norfolk, with her husband Johnny under a large and shady Cedar of Lebanon.
The director of the TRC, Gillian Vogelsang-Eastwood, was a student of both Joan and Elisabeth Crowfoot, two daughters of Grace Crowfoot, while working on her Ph.D on archaeological textiles at Manchester University (under Dr. John Peter Wild, another grand figure in archaeological textiles). The Crowfoot collection is currently being studied and prepared for publication by Shelley Anderson, Jasmijn Nobelen, a first year archaeology student, and other team members of the TRC. And so the flame for studying archaeological textiles is being passed down to the next generation, here in Leiden.