BMCR 2019.03.34

Winifred Lamb: Aegean Prehistorian and Museum Curator

, Winifred Lamb: Aegean Prehistorian and Museum Curator. Oxford: Archaeopress, 2018. vi, 276. ISBN 9781784918798. £30.00 (pb).

Publisher’s Preview

David Gill’s long-awaited biography of pioneer British archaeologist Winifred Lamb (1894-1963) is finally out. It is the product of thorough and tireless research in the archives of the Fitzwilliam Museum, the British School of Athens (BSA), and the Lamb family archive; Gill also draws on reminiscences of people who had known Lamb personally. Gill’s interest in Lamb dates from the time he was responsible for the Greek and Roman collections at the Fitzwilliam and developed an interest in the curatorial history of the collection. As Gill mentions in the acknowledgements, many of the book’s themes have already appeared in other publications.

The volume is divided into eleven chapters, and an introduction where Gill spells out why Lamb deserved a biography: first, because she had a long and distinguished academic career both as a museum curator and as a field archaeologist; second, because she was involved with British archaeological initiatives through her association with the BSA and the British Institute of Archaeology at Ankara; third, because her life and career intersected with those of many important men and women in the field of Classics and archaeology; and last, but not least, because she broke ground both by directing excavations in Greece and Turkey at a time when this privilege was reserved only for men and by holding an influential curatorial position in a British museum.

Chapter One, the result of thorough genealogical research, focuses on the origins of Lamb’s family which offered an affluent environment with political connections and was supportive of women’s education. She was also raised as a Roman Catholic and, although there are very few manifestations of religious expression in her diaries, it explains her decision to finance the construction of a Catholic church late in her life. In 1913, just before the outbreak of WW I, Lamb was admitted to Newnham College at Cambridge, the school that both Lamb’s mother, and Jane Harrison, had attended.

Chapter Two explores Lamb’s years at Cambridge, the people who influenced her academic thought, and the friendships she made. Because of war, these were carefree years; for Lamb they were marred by family casualties. In addition to offering relief to the wounded, Lamb did not hesitate to voice concerns about conscription, defending the conscientious objectors on several occasions. For her political beliefs, she was excluded from the classes of William Ridgeway, who considered her stance unpatriotic. Gill traces her future interest in iconographic studies back to the classes she took with Arthur Bernard Cook. The person, however, who must have influenced Lamb more than any other in developing an interest in Greek figured pottery was John Beazley, with whom she worked closely in what was known as Room 40 of Naval Intelligence (1917-1918).

In Chapter Three, Gill explores Lamb’s service at Naval Intelligence where, in addition to Beazley, she met several other archaeologists, among them Richard Dawkins, John Myres, and Alan Wace; it was also at this time that she became friends with Sydney Cockerell, Director of the Fitzwilliam Museum. Cockerell would invite Lamb to become the Honorary Keeper of the museum in 1920.

Chapter Four is devoted to Lamb’s year in Athens as a student at the BSA in 1920-1921, her travels throughout Greece, and her participation in the excavations at Mycenae, directed by Wace. There, excavating side by side with Carl W. Blegen and Axel Boethius, she learned archaeological methodology. Until then it was rare for women to participate in fieldwork. Gill hints that she may have been allowed to do so because her family contributed financially to the dig. Even so, the fact is that she inspired confidence in Wace. In this chapter Gill also briefly introduces the reader to the intellectual war that had broken out around this time between “islanders,” such as Arthur Evans, and “mainlanders,” such as Wace and Blegen, over the supremacy of mainland Greece in the Late Bronze Age. Lamb’s positive experience at Mycenae led to a lifelong interest in Aegean prehistory.

In the fifth chapter, Gill focuses on the history of the formation of the Classical collections at the Fitzwilliam Museum and Cockerell’s role in creating the position of the Honorary Keeper. Lamb, as soon as she was invited to fill that position, took it upon herself to create a prehistoric gallery and to display the collection of Cypriot antiquities. Gill explains at length the interest at Cambridge in prehistory, first through the influence of William Ridgeway, whose pupils included Alan Wace, and second through the fieldwork of the BSA on Crete, Melos, Thessaly, and Macedonia during the first two decades of the 20 th century. With the opening of the Mycenae excavations in 1920 there was one more reason for Lamb to concentrate on the prehistoric gallery, which she embellished with many new cases. For support she enlisted many subscribers, which suggests that her ability to attract donors was one of the reasons she was offered the Honorary Keepership. Gill discusses several of Lamb’s new acquisitions in the 1920s and 1930s, including the Fitzwilliam Goddess (1926), which she later came to regret.

In Chapter Six we find Lamb digging for two more seasons at Mycenae, co-signing excavation reports with Wace, and giving lectures about Mycenaean architecture when in England. However, the termination of Wace’s directorship at the BSA in 1923 would bring an end to the Mycenae excavation. Gill attributes the end of Wace’s term to his antagonism with Evans, although in a recent article Yannis Galanakis argues, based on his study of the Wace archive, that this is a false premise.1 Wace’s departure coincided with a change of focus at the BSA. For the next two decades or so the School would direct its energy and resources to the excavation of Archaic and Classical sites, particularly Sparta. After one season at Sparta (1924), Lamb, a committed prehistorian by now, joined Walter Abel Heurtley’s dig at Vardaroftsa (Axiohori) near Kilkis (1925). To Gill, her experience in Macedonia prepared Lamb for her later work on Lesvos and at Kusura, as she was looking for links between Macedonia, the northern Aegean, and western Anatolia. After a brief search of potential dig sites in Epirus and Aitolia (1928), Lamb decided to start her own excavation on the island of Lesvos.

In Chapter Seven Gill returns to the Fitzwilliam Museum with a detailed account of the development of its Classical collections based on Lamb’s scholarly interests, as well as her goal to fill the gaps in the collections. For example, her work on Classical sites such as Sparta (1924) and later Chios (1934) coincided with her interest in building the bronze collections of the museum. Following Beazley’s publication of the Greek vases at the Ashmolean, Lamb published the pottery from the collections of the Fitzwilliam in two highly praised fascicules of the Corpus Vasorum Antiquorum (1930, 1936). Gill’s review of her scholarship in the 1920s and 1930s shows the extent of Lamb’s knowledge and expertise.

Chapter Eight focuses on Lamb’s excavations on the island of Lesvos. Having acquired field experience at Mycenae, Sparta, and Macedonia, and having become independently wealthy after her father’s death (1925), Lamb felt ready to direct her own excavation. Seeking connections between Greece and Anatolia, Lamb chose the island of Lesvos in the northern Aegean. From 1929 until 1932 she and Richard W. Hutchinson dug the site of Thermi, where she discovered an Early Bronze Age settlement contemporary to that of Troy I. In addition to the importance of her finds, Lamb acquired a reputation for being a meticulous excavator by paying attention to the stratigraphy, as well as collecting and analyzing organic and inorganic remains. Her final publication in 1936 was praised by several reviewers including Gordon V. Childe, Alan Wace, and George Mylonas. While digging at Thermi, Lamb also sank trenches at Antissa (1931-1933) to explore the post-Mycenaean and Early Iron Age occupation of the island. Lamb personally funded both excavations since she could not get the formal support of the BSA which was then funding Humphrey Payne’s excavations at Perachora and Heurtley’s new project on Homeric Ithaca.

Between 1932 and 1935 Lamb made exploratory trips in Turkey in search of a new site. The subject of Chapter Nine is Lamb’s excavations at the site of Kusura, near Afyon Karahisar, which was situated at one of the three major routes connecting the Aegean with Anatolia. Looking for parallels with Thermi and Troy I, Lamb dug there for two seasons (1936-1937), discovering a town and a cemetery spanning three periods from the Early to the Late Bronze Age. Again the importance of Lamb’s excavations in understanding the links between the Aegean and western Anatolia was duly recognized by her peers.

WW II put an end to her fieldwork in Anatolia. The last two chapters relate Lamb’s life during WW II and after. As she had done in WW I, she made her knowledge and expertise available to her country. From 1942 until 1946 Lamb worked in the Near Eastern department of the BBC, preparing intelligence reports on Axis propaganda in Turkey. Unfortunately, she was injured by a German rocket during the last days of the war. Although she eventually recovered, the incident had lasting effects, which caused her not to undertake new fieldwork. In the following years she would direct her energy towards the establishment of the British Institute of Archaeology in Ankara and continued writing about the connections between Aegean and Anatolia, all while also taking care of the collections at the Fitzwilliam. Nevertheless, after WWII she tried to resign from the Keepership three times; her resignation was finally accepted in 1957, after 39 years of service. Gill concludes Lamb’s biography by reviewing her role as a benefactor of the Fitzwilliam, and her legacy as a curator, scholar, and a pioneering woman archaeologist.

Gill has produced a solid biography about one of the most important women in the history of British archaeology in Greece and Turkey during the first half of the 20 th century. Lamb’s curatorial work at the Fitzwilliam can only be compared with that of Gisela Richter at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, while her fieldwork is on par with that of Hetty Goldman with whom she shared many similarities. They both came from privileged backgrounds and used their personal wealth to finance their own excavations at a time when neither the BSA nor the American School of Classical Studies at Athens would appoint women as directors of field projects. Gill is also good at following Lamb’s intellectual development and the respect she acquired from her academic colleagues, not only because of the work she did in the field and at the Fitzwilliam, but also because of her publications and public presentations. The lack of a seamless narrative, however, makes it difficult to read Lamb’s biography from cover to cover. The fact that some of the book’s chapters have appeared before creates a degree of repetition and disrupts the flow. The book would also have benefitted from a careful editing (e.g., use of adverb “formerly,” instead of “formally,” pp. 115 and 215). Another serious flaw in this biography is the lack of photos. As a reader I had a hard time visualizing Lamb and her work, although she was an accomplished photographer and there are excellent photos of her excavations in the BSA Archives. Finally, the reader is left to wonder about Lamb’s personal life and what else she did besides being an “Aegean prehistorian and museum curator.” Archaeologists do not live in a vacuum: friendships, lovers, and family relationships shape people’s lives and careers.

Despite some minor flaws, the result is a well-researched book which is destined to become a reference work for anyone studying the development of Classical studies at one of England’s premier universities or the history of British archaeology in the eastern Mediterranean.


1. Galanakis, Y. 2015. “ ‘Islanders vs. Mainlanders,’ ‘The Mycenae Wars,’ and other short stories: an archival visit to an old debate,” in Carl W. Blegen: personal & archaeological narratives, N. Vogeikoff-Brogan, J. L. Davis, V. Florou (eds.), Atlanta, pp. 99-120.