The Short Egyptological Career
of Margaret Benson


View of the Benson and Gourlay excavations from "The Temple of Mut in Asher"

What is most important about the description of the 1896 season is the demonstration of attention that was being paid to building techniques, to additive construction and to possible rebuilding. Here the untrained excavator was beginning to understand some of the problems of clearing a temple structure in Egypt. In the eastern, stone, wing of the wall/pylon two interior chambers were observed and the smaller of the two was cleared but the larger was left because the ground and debris was hard and, after an initial trial, seemed unrewarding. Mariette's plan of the second chamber probably seemed accurate after a superficial examination so a complete clearing seemed unnecessary. In any case, there were "more pressing things to be done." This was perhaps the real reason for not clearing what Mariette mapped as a corridor but what has later proved to be two rooms and the beginning of a stairway.

When the work had progressed through the doorway into the second court they came on the colossal head of a lion in dark stone, described as black granite, measuring almost four feet high.

Other fragments were found and the original height of the seated statue was estimated between fourteen and sixteen feet high. The following year de Morgan, the Director General of the Department of Antiquities, ordered the head sent to the museum in Cairo. The finding of the large lion head is mentioned in a letter from Margaret to her mother dated February 9, 1896, 22. but the exact day was not, so we only know that it was found between January 30 and February 9.

In the same letter she also mentions the discovery of a statue of Ramesses II on the day before the letter was written. 23.

Statue identified by the excavators
as Ramesses II, now thought to represent Amunhotep II

Her published letters often give exact or close dates of discoveries whereas her later publication in the Temple of Mut in Asher was an attempt at a narrative of the work in some order of progression through the temple and dates are often lacking.

About the same time that the giant lion head was found some effort was made to raise a large cornerstone block but a crowbar was bent and a rope was broken. This incident was not mentioned in the publication and is only described in a letter. The end result of the activity is not explained at that point and the location of the corner not given but it can probably be identified with the southeast cornerstone of the Mut Temple mentioned later in a description of the search for foundation deposits.

Somewhere near the central axis of the second court, but just inside the gateway, they came on the upper half of a royal statue with nemes headdress and the remains of a false beard. There had been inscriptions on the shoulder and back pillar but these had been methodically erased. The lower half was found a little later and it was possible to reconstruct an over life-sized, nearly complete, seated statue of a king. The excavators published it as "possibly" Tutankhamun, an identification not accepted today, and it is still to be seen, sitting to the east of the gateway, facing into the second court.24 A large statue of Sakhmet was also found, not as large as the colossal head, but larger than the other figures still in the precinct and in most Egyptian collections. It was also reconstructed and left in place, on the west side of the doorway where it is one of the most recognizable landmarks in the temple.

In the clearance of the second court a feature described as a thin wall built out from the north wall was found in the northeast corner. It was later interpreted by the nineteenth century excavators as part of the arrangement for a raised cloister and it was not until recent excavation that it was identified as the lower part of the wall of a small chapel, built against the north wall of the court. The process of determining any sequence of the levels in the second court was complicated by the fact that it had been worked over by earlier treasure hunters and archaeologists. In some cases statues were found below the original floor level, leading to the assumption that some pieces had fallen, broken the pavement, and sunk into the floor of their own weight. It is more probable that the stone floors had been dug out and undermined in the search for antiquities. The statues might also have pushed over deliberately in acts of random vandalism.

An attempt was made to put the area in order for future visitors as the excavation progressed. This included the reconstruction of some of the statues as found and the moving of others in a general attempt to neaten the appearance of the temple. Other finds made in the second court included inscribed blocks too large to move or reused in parts of walls still standing. These were left in place and are still visible when the grass has been recently cut. The statue identified as Ramesses II, mentioned in Margaret's letter of February 9, was found on the southwest side of the court, near the center. It was a seated figure in pink granite, rather large in size, but when it was completely uncovered it was found to be broken through the middle with the lower half in an advanced state of disintegration. It could not be restored or reconstructed with the methods of the time. The upper part was in relatively good condition except for the left shoulder and arm and it was eventually awarded to the excavators.

Mention was also made of several small finds from the second court including a head of a god in black stone and part of the vulture headdress from a statue of a goddess or a queen. The recent ongoing excavations carried out by the Brooklyn Museum have revealed a female head with traces of a vulture headdress as well as a number of fragments of legs and feet which suggest that the head of the god found by Margaret Benson was from a pair statue representing Amun and Mut. Another important discovery she made on the south side of the court was a series of sandstone relief blocks representing the arrival at Thebes of Nitocris, daughter of Psamtik I, as God's Wife of Amun.25

At some time during the season Margaret was made aware of the possibility that foundation deposits might still be in place. These dedicatory deposits were put down at the time of the founding of a structure or at a time of a major rebuilding, and they are often found under the cornerstones, the thresholds or under major walls, usually in the center. They contain a number of small objects including containers for food offerings, model tools and model bricks or plaques inscribed with the name of the ruler. The importance of finding such a deposit in the temple of Mut was obvious to Margaret because it would prove to everyone's satisfaction who had built the temple, or at least who had made additions to it.

They first looked for foundation deposits in the middle of the gateway between the first and second courts. Nothing was found even though they continued down to what was assumed to be virgin soil. At the same time another part of the crew was clearing the innermost rooms in the south part of the temple. Under the central of the three chambers they discovered a subterranean crypt with an entrance so small that it had to be excavated by "a small boy with a trowel". This chamber has been re-cleared in recent years and proved to be a small rectangular room with traces of an erased one-line text around the four walls. In antiquity the access seems to have been hidden by a paving stone which had to be lifted each time the room was entered.

The search for foundation deposits continued in the southeast corner of the temple (probably the place where the crowbar was bent and the rope broken). Again no deposit was found but in digging around the cornerstone, below the original ground level, they began to find statues and fragments of statues. As the earth continued to yield more and more pieces of sculpture, Legrain arrived from the Amun Temple, where he was supervising the excavation, and announced his intention to take everything away to the storehouse. In The Temple of Mut in Asher Margaret wrote that Legrain "yielded to our representations so far as to allow us to take the statues back for the present to the hotel...",26 but in a letter to her mother she said, "I very nearly wept, and called Fred, who was slightly rude. M. Legrain became more polite and finally said if we chose to take the whole responsibility of their safety, we could take them back (to the hotel)...".27 Anyone can imagine how hard it must have been to find objects of great interest only to have them immediately locked up in a distant store house with no chance of enjoying them, even for a few days. Aside from the pleasure of the find, it was important to have the objects at hand for study, comparison and the copying of inscriptions.

On the day of the discovery (February 14, 1896) Fred wrote to his mother:

Maggie is so much better; doesn't get tired and was so lively the other night at dinner with the Whites and Lady Galloway, that you wouldn't know your own daughter. I think the winter has just crystallized all the cure set up before.28

Apparently the work of excavation agreed with Margaret. Certainly the climate of Luxor in February must have been good for her and the occupation of supervising the discovery of exciting objects was not proving too taxing. E. F. Benson's letters home remind us that it was for her health that Margaret was in Egypt. Like Lucie Duff Gordon, who also went to Luxor for medical reasons, Margaret could not abide an enforced idleness. Her choice of excavation as a pastime had a good effect on her and a reasonably good result for Egyptology.

When no more statues came out at the southeast corner work was continued down through four feet of foundation sand but still no deposit was found. The hole was filled up to make that area of the temple a little less dangerous. Nearby, in the middle of the rear of the Mut Temple, are the remains of a small attached structure, designated a "contra-temple", for want of a better name. Composed of two small rooms and cult chamber, it does not communicate directly to the larger temple but must be entered from the lake side. The clearance of the interior was only partly completed. It was not until the recent excavations that a complete plan was possible and all of the preserved elements of the decoration were visible.

As Margaret Benson turned her attention to excavation around the outside of the contra-temple more Sakhmet statues were found as well as a" squatting sandstone figure"29 -- a block statue -- and the base of a second one which had been built into the wall and required a crowbar to remove.

The intention had been to excavate for about one month but on the Thursday of the week when the month would have been up , Osman Amar, one of the boys, found what he described as "a stone with a man's foot sticking out beneath" on the southern sloping bank of the temple. After some digging two statues were revealed. These later proved to be among the most important discoveries of the excavation. One was an over five foot high kneeling figure of Senenmut, the well-know official of the time of Hatshepsut, with a lengthy inscription mentioning his building accomplishments, significantly including work in the Mut Temple.30


The second statue was of a man named Bakenkhonsu, a High Priest of Amun in the reign of Ramesses III.31 Arrangements were immediately made to move the statue of Senenmut off to Cairo but a carriage track had to be made around the temple so that it could be moved to a boat on the Nile.

The fragment of the statue Margaret called Ramesses II and two other pieces were given to the excavators. Everything else from that season was retained by the Department of Antiquities. The image of the king was a constant reminder to the family of the days when Maggie, as she was familiarly know by her family, excavated at Karnak in Egypt, and it is often mentioned in the memoirs of E. F. Benson. The work that was to have ended at the close of February continued well into the next month because it was not until the 20th of March that Margaret was in transit to Cairo on a boat appropriately named "Ramesses III." She wrote to her mother in route about the activity on the river which largely consisted of massive troop movements. She said that one could not but be thankful that "they are going against these fanatic tribes, who raid villages, under the control of a drunken Calipha..".32 Margaret was in Egypt at an exciting time. General Gordon had been killed at Khartoum in January, 1885, and the Anglo-Egyptian forces had been on the defensive in the south for over a decade. In March of 1896 the decision was reached to move on the "Calipha", the successor to the Mahdi, and begin the reconquest of the Sudan.

During that year Margaret's friendship with Janet Gourlay continued to grow and she was concerned that her mother like her new-found friend as much as she did. Her letters home, as she traveled from Egypt through Europe, are filled with "Nettie" Gourlay. After Margaret's return to her father's official residence at Lambeth Palace her letters to Janet Gourlay were constant and intense, but comments by various of Margaret's acquaintances indicate that her friendships were always intense.33

1896 may have seen the beginning of the companionship between Margaret and her new friend, but it was also the year of a great personal tragedy for her and her family. On the return from an official tour of the congregations in Ireland, her father stopped to visit with Mr. Gladstone at Hawarden. He died there on October 11 while he and Gladstone were attending a church service. The loss of such a forceful father must have been enormous to his daughter. The lasting effect of his death on Margaret has never been spelled out but it may have been one of the contributory factors to her later mental state. A family decision was made that four Bensons would return to Egypt for the next season, partly because of Margaret's continued bad health and partly because her brother Hugh was also not well, so for the excavation season of 1897 Margaret was accompanied by her mother and two brothers, Fred and Hugh. Fred continued to help with the supervision of the work as well as make the measurements for the plan to be published, but Hugh evidenced little interest in the excavation. Fred left a word picture of the Benson family in Egypt:

Hugh would join the archaeologists of his family, with the spoils of a day's shooting, two quail and a jackal, and at sunset the enriched procession returned to Luxor, for there was a scribe (a recently discovered statue) on a trolly with the spoils of the chase sacrificially disposed at his feet, and Mohammed told my mother the strange story of the golden dahabeah that cruised at midnight when the moon was full on the horse-shoe lake. Laden it was with pearl and amber, and heaped with jewels and all the richness of it was the property of anyone who could set foot on its deck without a word of exclamation. But so rich, sumptuous, and glittering were its treasures that none could board it without an ejaculation of delight that its store was his. Then, on his astonished cry, the golden dahabeah would sink, and he would find himself immersed in the horse-shoe lake.... When Mohammed told that tale to those of his own sex, the dahabeah was peopled with unveiled houris of seductive loveliness of no great moral integrity, but that was not polite for female ears.34

Hugh, recovering from his illness, spent his time at leisure but his stay in Egypt did give him time to form a closer association with his sister.

Margaret Benson and Mary Benson, Her Mother

In the formal account of the excavation the season of 1897 was said to have started under more favorable circumstances than before. There was a larger party for the supervision of the work and more money for the employment of the workmen. The three goals that year were the continued clearance of the temple, the search for foundation deposits, and the expectation of more statues. An additional project was to make an accurate plan of the temple, correcting the errors of Mariette and other earlier efforts in so far as was possible. With all of these intentions there was always the underlying wish to learn more of the temple's history and to leave the site in good condition, without "unseemly rubbish heaps." The successes of the previous season dictated the decision to reopen the area around the southeast corner of the temple where the cache of statues had been found. The general clearance was to be carried on at the same time because it required less immediate supervision. As to the search for foundation deposits, trial pits were made at the southeast corner and "in one of the gateways," the specific gate not identified, but the results were again negative.

Workmen were hired on January 9 and the digging started the following day, before the supervisors arrived. An urgent message was sent, asking Margaret and her company to come and bring the new rope and crowbar. The men had started in the southeast corner of the temple where the search for foundation deposits had been carried on and by the time the English party had arrived two statues had already been uncovered. One of them was an inscribed, but headless, block statue of the Fourth Prophet of Amun, Mentuemhat of Dynasty 25-26,35 and the second was the upper portion of a second statue, presumably of the same man.

It was a life-sized representation unusual in that the pate was bald but the head was fringed with hair, rare in Egyptian art but certainly one of the great masterpieces of sculpture regardless of its period.36 The preserved part of the inscription did not give the owner's name but included titles that made the identification virtually certain. To quote the excavation report: Such a find would in itself have been a not meager reward for the season's excavation, yet though it was by far the best find of the year, perhaps the best yield of the temple, there was much to follow".37

And this had come out of the ground on the first day of the newly resumed work. The bust presumed to be, and the headless statue identified as, Mentuemhat were the subjects of an article published jointly by Newberry and Janet Gourlay.38 As far as we know this was the only publication about the work in the Temple of Mut she was involved in other than the excavation report.

The excavations near the southeast corner were extended to the west along the south face of the rear wall. Again the yield was astonishing. In the first day's work in this trenching process fourteen pieces of statues were uncovered, including one remarkable Saite Period head. After finishing what was later designated "Trench A" in the record, a similar trench was opened to the west of the contra-temple (Trench B). From the two areas came a pieces of fifteen inscribed statues, a sphinx, three heads and parts of an alabaster statue. Added to the eleven statues from the same area the previous year, this became an impressive haul. With this success, a third trench (Trench C) was cut on the east side for about forty feet, starting from the southeast corner.39 The results were not so impressive although there were still fragments of sculpture found. An incidental discovery in this area was a clay pot containing forty-nine coins of the time of Nero.

While the trenching was going on clearance continued along the rear of the Mut temple as it faces the lake, and in the contra temple. Rooms and chambers continued to be cleared and some small sculpture was found including a marble foot from a classical statue. In the last few days of the season an attempt was made to put the temple in order by leveling the mounds of earth and filling holes. More Sakhmet statues were repaired and "restored to their former dignity of appearance and position."

From a reading of The Temple of Mut in Asher, published in 1899, it would be impossible to know that the 1897 season nearly ended in tragedy. While on the excavation, Margaret was taken with a chill which developed into a case of pleurisy. Her condition was so serious that she was expected to die, but the fluid around her lungs was tapped and drained and she survived. This was done under conditions that are best only imagined, by an able doctor at the Luxor Hotel. Her brother Fred said that it was through a feat of faith and will that she managed to continue living. Although she was to return to Egypt one more time, it was not to excavate. 1897 was to be her last season of work in the precinct of the goddess.

The illness at Luxor was followed later by a heart attack. Her health, never good, became progressively worse. In 1900 she returned to Egypt as a visitor and in a letter to her mother during this trip she mentioned that Newberry had asked her to join him in the production of an exhaustive history of Egypt. It was her feeling that she would have to spend time visiting museums in Europe for this project and she was pleased to say that Newberry seemed to think her prose style would make it a better book. If she was able to do anything toward this collaboration, it is not known. Shortly after the trip to Egypt she began to complain in her letters about problems with her lungs and by 1906 there are references to a condition of nervous depression. By 1907 she suffered a mental breakdown and from that time to her death in 1916 she was rarely free from mental suffering, derangement and hallucination. It is difficult to know the sequence and progress of her illness from the writings of her brothers but sometime after 1907 she was entrusted to an order of the Sisters of Mercy for care. From them she was transferred to the Priory, Roehampton, a private institution for the mentally ill. Her older brother, A. C. Benson, pointedly wrote that he was able to see her in 1910, the implication being that her condition had been so grave that even close members of the family were not able to visit her. Around 1913 she was moved to the care of a doctor and his wife at Wimbledon where she was able to lead a more-or-less normal life. A. C. Benson wrote: "At last a physical malady of the heart developed and once or twice her mind was cleared of all delusion; but her strength slowly declined."40 The night she died in May, 1916, her nurse heard her repeat the lines of a hymn:

As pants the hart for cooling streams
when heated in the chase
So longs my soul, O God, for Thee
And Thy refreshing grace.41

Margaret Benson, daughter of the Archbishop of Canterbury, sister of three authors famous in their own time, talented artist and author in her own right, excavator of the Temple of the Goddess Mut at Karnak and the first woman to conduct her own excavation in Egypt, died peacefully in her sleep.


After the work of Benson and Gourlay in the Temple of Mut, excavations and studies have been carried out by French archaeologists under the direction of Maurice Pillet and Henri Chevrier. Since 1976 the Precinct has been the focus of the new series of excavations by the Brooklyn Museum under the direction of Richard A. Fazzini, with the assistance of the Detroit Institute of Arts. The scope of the present excavation is much more extensive than the work carried out by Benson and Gourlay but their work remains an important chapter in the understanding of the site. What they accomplished can well stand comparison with that of their "professional" contemporaries. Gerhard Haeny said: "Today people tend to minimize the excavation report of the two ladies, however, this is unjust because there is hardly a report by any Egyptologist of that time that will yield so many well-observed details about the location where statues were found, about reused blocks, the condition of walls and similar facts. However, these details are strewn through a very personal description of the process of excavation and a successful attempt to order these finds into a picture of Egyptian history which is superseded today." 42. It is true that the interpretation of Egyptian history may be dated and outmoded, but the basic work of the excavation and the manner in which it was reported was as sound as anything done at the time. The personalities involved in the excavation of the Temple of Mut in the 1890s are as fascinating in their own right as they are little known.

William H. Peck
The Detroit Institute of Arts

At the rear of the Contra-Temple during the Benson and Gourlay excavations