Adventure Calls: The Life of a Woman Adventurer

February 29, 2016

Ur Project February 2016

“Perhaps the presence of a lone woman with four men in camp makes a more interesting figure for some of them than the outline of ziggurats”

(G. Gordon letter to L. Woolley concerning Katharine Menke Keeling, July 8th 1926).

Life on a dig is always exciting, and particularly when it is the life of a woman on a dig in the 1920s. Many women travelers went to the East to escape the restrictive roles that European society had assigned to them. Women like Gertrude Bell (1868-1926), who helped to write the Iraqi antiquities law of 1924, Jane Dieulafoy (1851-1916), who excavated at Susa in Iran, or Isabelle Eberhardt (1877-1904) who traveled throughout North Africa, turned to the East and a life of adventure. Katharine Menke Keeling Woolley (1888-1945) was no different. Raised in Germany and educated at Oxford, she became a nurse during WWI where she met and married her first husband, Colonel Bertram Keeling. He worked as a surveyor in Egypt and they moved to Cairo. Not long after their marriage, he committed suicide on the Giza Plateau, in a supposed fit of temporary insanity (Henrietta McCall Lecture 2012). Multiple theories have been put forth as to the reason for this insanity; one being that Katharine had Complete Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome, and would not be able to have children (Henrietta McCall Lecture 2012).

Katharine and Leonard excavating at Ur.

In 1920, Katharine resumed her work as a nurse and traveled to Baghdad in 1923. While there, she visited Ur and impressed the crew with her illustration skills. “The only definite job for which Mrs. Keeling [Katharine] volunteered last season was the drawings for the catalogue and for reproduction. This isn’t in itself a big enough thing to justify the employment of a special paid assistant, but Mallowan, who writes the catalogue couldn’t draw at all” (L. Woolley to G. Gordon August 8th 1926). Leonard Woolley then asked Katharine to return the next season, where her duties would be to help with cataloging and drawing the artifacts, as well as undertaking the housekeeping, and “taking charge of visitors and acting as a guide” (August 8th 1926). The presence of an unmarried woman on site unnerved some donors, and it was suggested to Leonard Woolley that he should give consideration “with a view to removing that risk [the risk of becoming the subject of inconsiderate remarks]” (G. Gordon to L. Woolley July 8th 1926) and not ask Katharine to join the coming season. In 1927, Katharine and Leonard were married, with him stating: “Now for my own news: This can be summed up by saying that on Monday last I was married to Mrs. Keeling! You who know her [and] will appreciate how fortunate I am and how much to be congratulated on the successful outcome of a very long endeavor” (L. Woolley to L. Legrain April 16th 1927).

Selection of drawings, U.6158, U.6417, U.6478, U.6410, U.6657. From Season 4, Probably Katharine’s work.

But what were Katharine’s feelings about life in the Middle East and work on the dig?  We may never know exactly as she had all her personal documents burned upon her death. However, she did leave behind one novel, Adventure Calls, published in 1929. The story is set in Iraq in 1920, after it had become a British Mandate. It revolves around the Gillespie family consisting of an older brother, Alasdair, who is a commander in the British Forces stationed at Mosul, and a pair of twins, Sandy, the brother who is in the British Forces and undertakes a mission to discover an Arab plot against the British, and Colin, the sister, who travels to Iraq to take her brother’s place in Kelekiyah while he is gathering information about the revolt. The center of the revolt shifts from Tel Afar in the north to Kelekiyah, bringing the twins together. With the help of Colin, they are able to stop the revolt, and her hidden identity is revealed. Katharine’s descriptions of Iraq, the Marsh Arabs, the tribal system, and life in Iraq are all based on her personal experience. The underlying sexism that appears in the male characters in this book are also probably based on her real life experience. At the beginning of the book, Stanhope when meeting Colin as a girl, is described as having an “exaggerated horror” of the woman traveler (p.37).  He says “I don’t think it’s [Iraq] a country for women” (p.43), shortly followed by “Do you think you really would come and stay if I promise to make my house more presentable” (p.45)? After Colin, as Sandy, helps stop the revolt, Stanhope reveals his feelings to her, and asks for her hand in marriage.  This male-dominated world comes through in other aspects of the book as well.

Katharine helping Leonard record measurements of drain pipes at Ur.

Colin’s older brother states, “Being a girl won’t stop your doing anything that matters. You can’t go to school, with Sandy, and you can’t become a soldier or a sailor…but there is nothing in the world to stop your being as useful in the East as any Gillespie has ever been” (p.7). When Colin and Sandy are children, they ask Alasdair why Colin will not grow up to be a boy, and Alasdair responds, “How would we three men manage all by ourselves? We need you to keep us in order, it will be home for us wherever you are” (p.8).  This is much like a quote in one of Leonard Woolley’s letters where he states, “Lastly I do think that the presence of a lady [Katharine] has a good moral effect on the younger fellows in the camp & keeps them up to standard” (L. Woolley to G. Gordon August 8th 1926). Even though European women had more freedom in the East, in the company of other European men they assumed the more traditional roles.

Katharine and Woolley 1929
Leonard and Katharine, 1929.

“Mrs. Keeling was at first very much hurt to think that her name could be so talked about: perhaps that is still the price which women may have to pay for cooperation in scientific work. Of course it’s all wrong” (L. Woolley to G. Gordon August 8th 1926). Leonard seemed ever grateful for the help that Katharine provided on the excavation, and once they were married, she became his right hand person, assisting him in excavation, recording, and publication.  Agatha Christie says in her autobiography, “Katharine Woolley, who was to become one of my great friends in the years to come, was an extraordinary character. People have been divided always between disliking her with a fierce and vengeful hatred, and being entranced by her possibly because she switched from one mood to another so easily that you never knew where you were with her. People would declare that she was impossible, that they would have no more to do with her, that it was insupportable the way she treated you; and then, suddenly, once again they would be fascinated. Of one thing I am quite positive, and that is if one had to choose one woman to be a companion on a desert island, or some place where you would have no one else to entertain you, she would hold your interest as practically no one else could. The things she wanted to talk about were never banal. She stimulated your mind into thinking along some pathway that had not before suggested itself to you. She was capable of rudeness in fact she had an insolent rudeness, when she wanted to, that was unbelievable but if she wished to charm you she would succeed every time.” It is said that the murder victim in Agatha Christie’s novel, Murder in Mesopotamia, is based on Katharine.

Sadly Adventure Calls is no longer being published and is hard to find, but if you are interested in more about Katharine and her time at Ur, check out urcrowdsource.org where you can read letters written by expedition members concerning life on the dig, or check out ur-online.org where you can learn more about the excavation itself, and all members of the expedition.