Rachel Risk didn’t expect to make a life-changing discovery in Box 47 of the Kathleen Kenyon Archaeology Collection, but that’s the kind of thing that can happen when you’re doing original research on a topic you love.
When Rachel entered Baylor University her freshman year, she thought she wanted to pursue a career in Biblical archaeology. She decided to major as a University Scholar, a build-your-own-path program for high-achieving students that would allow her to bring in elements of religion, Biblical languages, anthropology and more. And it was while sitting in her Hebrew I course – taught by Dr. Fulton – that the focus of her academic career (and possibly her life) was changed thanks to a random question.
“I knew Rachel had an interest in Biblical archaeology and I thought I knew of a project that might be intriguing to her,” Deirdre told me when she and Rachel sat down to talk about their work together. “I had been introduced to the Kenyon collection by Jennifer Borderud, who knew of it from her work in rare books with Moody before she went to the Armstrong Browning Library. And I thought Rachel would enjoy taking a look at it.”
“It” turned out to be an archival collection of papers and files generated by Dame Kathleen Kenyon, one of the 20th century’s most important archaeologists. Best known for her excavations of the important Biblical cities of Samaria, Jericho, and Jerusalem, Kenyon’s contributions to the field were extremely influential, in particular her refinement of an approach to excavating sensitive sites in a grid-focused, methodical way that gives archaeologists a good view of the changes in the soil strata over time. (The method, known today as the Wheeler-Kenyon method, is partly named in her honor). Kenyon’s papers were purchased by Baylor University in 1984 and processed as the Kathleen Kenyon Archaeology Collection.
The papers had seen some use when Miriam Davis wrote her biography of Dame Kenyon – Dame Kathleen Kenyon: Digging Up the Holy Land – which was released in 2008. Davis had focused her research on Kenyon’s work in Jericho and Jerusalem, leaving the bulk of the collection in the broadly cataloged state in which she found it. But when Jennifer Borderud mentioned the collection to Deirdre, neither could have known that it was Kenyon’s interactions with a well-known epigrapher that would come to be of interest to Rachel Risk.
“I am only concerned with the archeological aspect.”
While Kenyon was working at Jericho and before her famous work in Jerusalem, she was involved in the story of what are arguably the most important ancient texts found in the Holy Land: the Dead Sea Scrolls. Discovered by Bedouin shepherds in 1946 in the Qumran Caves, these fragments of texts have been a source of great interest to scholars in any number of disciplines including linguistics, religion and archaeology. The scrolls have also generated a fair share of controversy in that their texts are often prone to widely divergent interpretations and they were found in a region whose geopolitical stability is often as perilous as the shifting desert sands.
But it was the involvement of a man named John Allegro – a scholar of Hebrew dialects – that drew the attention of Dame Kenyon. Allegro had made a name for himself by translating and releasing a book about the so-called Copper Scroll, a work whose contents Allegro believed would lead to the discovery of an actual treasure trove. Allegro wrote a book about his interpretation of the Copper Scroll’s contents and promptly set about trying to find the “buried treasure” he felt it described, and that is when Kenyon put her foot down.
In a letter dated January 6th, 1960, Kenyon gives Allegro a piece of her mind regarding his approach of hastily excavating sites that had been undisturbed for centuries. “What you are doing is exactly comparable as regards the destruction of evidence as if I were to cut up a manuscript with a pair of scissors without any prior record of its contents,” Kenyon writes scathingly. “Whether or not you find anything, you are destroying evidence with your rabbit burrows. It will be more especially disastrous if you do find anything, as only proper stratigraphical [sic] excavation could establish how and when it was deposited.”
It was this letter – and this paragraph in particular – that drew Rachel’s interest as she worked her way through Box 47 of the Kenyon materials. She knew about Allegro and his interest in the Copper Scroll – which he believed would point readers to the Second Temple Treasure – and about the general difficulties surrounding the Dead Sea Scrolls, but this was the first she had seen of Dame Kenyon’s involvement in the matter. She soon found that there were several copies of this letter condemning Allegro’s actions in Kenyon’s archives, including a typewritten transcript.
Under Deirdre’s guidance, Rachel had been working with the Kenyon archives, which included creating enhanced finding aids for the collection so other researchers could have a better sense of what was housed in its 76 boxes (38 linear feet). The work was being conducted using funds from an internal Undergraduate Research and Scholarly Achievement (URSA) grant secured by Dr. Fulton, which paid Rachel for her time working in the archives. The more Rachel worked with the materials, the more she began to realize that Dame Kenyon’s involvement in the controversies surrounding the Dead Sea Scrolls had been largely forgotten by subsequent generations of archaeologists, and she decided she wanted to pursue available avenues to spotlight the situation.
She formulated and submitted a poster presentation to the American Schools of Oriental Research conference in Boston, and was accepted. She attended the conference using URSA funds and presented “Kathleen Kenyon and John Allegro: Revealing the Contents of the Dead Sea Scrolls” alongside Deirdre; she is presently working on a presentation, also with Deirdre, for the inaugural Baylor Libraries event “Sharing Her Story: Spotlighting Women’s Collections at Baylor.”
Rachel’s experiences in the Kenyon archives have begun to shift her belief about her post-graduation career path. Initially interested in a career as a Biblical archaeologist doing field work, now she’s considering a job in the researching side of the profession as an archivist, museum professional (she’s a Museum Studies minor), or scholar. “I’m shifting my ideas about my career away from acquiring artifacts toward being the scholar back home who researches the stories behind the objects and writes about that process,” Rachel said.
For Deirdre, guiding an undergraduate in the process of doing original research from archival materials was a new one and it required a good deal of trust in Rachel. But taking that risk – combined with Deirdre’s background in Kenyon’s methodology, archaeological methods and the politics of the Middle East – has produced a new view of Dame Kenyon’s participation in a fascinating moment in archaeology’s modern era.
For their part, the Baylor Libraries hope to leverage Rachel’s work in the Kenyon archives into an opportunity to do further work with expanding finding aids and more original research projects, said Andrea Turner, the Special Collections Manager for Central Libraries. Andrea worked with Rachel and Deirdre to provide access to the materials and guided them in the process of working up finding aids for an archival collection. The end result will be a more fully realized picture of what’s in the collection, Andrea reported, and that will likely make the next researcher’s investigation into Dame Kenyon’s fascinating life all the easier.
As the archaeological and cultural heritage communities continue to work out what it means to be ethical catalogers of the world’s antiquities, it’s comforting to know that thoughtful people like Deirdre and Rachel are pursuing academic careers aimed at expanding knowledge while respecting the originating cultures who created the items we see in our collections of antiquities and artifacts. And as new discoveries are made – and new careers are charted – our libraries will be there to provide access to the techniques, resources and expertise necessary to fuel them.
An Interesting Footnote
John Allegro, the man whose interpretation of the Copper Scroll led Dame Kenyon to liken his archaeological methods to digging “rabbit burrows,” would go on to infamy for a book he wrote titled The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross, in which he posited the theory that the stories that form the basis of Christianity were the result of an Essene cult that experienced hallucinations after ingesting psychotropic mushrooms; he also believed that a historical Jesus never existed, and he was instead a new version of the “Teacher of Righteousness” mentioned in the Dead Sea Scrolls. This was, to put it mildly, a controversial theory and resulted in Allegro being discredited by almost all of his peers.