Kathleen Kenyon and the Jewry Wall

This year is the 80th anniversary of the final year of Kathleen Kenyon’s seminal excavations at Jewry Wall. For International Women’s Day, we take a moment to reflect on the significance of her work in Leicester…

Kathleen Kenyon (1906-78) was a gifted archaeologist and pioneer of excavation methodology who made an important contribution to our understanding of Roman Leicester when she excavated the Jewry Wall site in the 1930s. Her excavations were the first large-scale investigation of the Roman town, and the first to apply modern techniques of excavation and recording, paving the way for eighty years of archaeological discoveries in the city.

Kathleen Kenyon excavating at the Jewry Wall, Leicester.

Always happiest when digging up the past, Kathleen also strongly believed in training students and making archaeology accessible to a wider audience. Despite her faults, she did not suffer fools easily and sometimes becoming undone by her own overconfidence and unwillingness to delegate; her meticulous excavations in the 1950s at Tell es-Sultan (the Old Testament city of Jericho) made her world-famous and one of the greatest field archaeologists of her generation.

Whilst a student she was the first female president of the Oxford University Archaeological Society (1928-29) and was later closely associated with the founding and operation of the University of London Institute of Archaeology (1935-62), was Director of the British School of Archaeology in Jerusalem (1951-66) and Principal of St Hugh’s College, Oxford (1962-73). In 1973 she was made a Dame of the British Empire in recognition of her contribution to archaeology. Kathleen Kenyon died in 1978; today she is widely recognised as one of the greatest archaeologists of the 20th century.

In 1936, aged 30, Kathleen was appointed director of excavations at the Jewry Wall in Leicester. She had only been an archaeologist for six years but already had an impressive resume in African, British and Middle Eastern archaeology – including work with Gertrude Caton-Thompson on the Great Zimbabwe in southern Africa, the Roman city of Verulamium (St Albans) in England with Mortimer and Tessa Wheeler, and the biblical site of Samaria in Palestine with John and Molly Crowfoot.

The antiquity of the chunk of masonry known as the Jewry Wall, one of the largest surviving pieces of Roman architecture in Britain, had long been known about but no one knew what its purpose was. Theories included part of the Roman town wall and gate, a temple of the god Janus, part of the town’s forum or a Roman bath house.

By 1936 the city council had purchased the factory next to the wall and planned on demolishing the existing buildings to build a public bath. Plans were drawn up to excavate the site first, initially funded by local societies, including the Literary and Philosophical Society and the Archaeological Society, and later (after a public enquiry) by the city council itself. This made it one of the first ‘rescue’ digs in the country, 60 years before guidance on archaeology and construction began to be issued by the government.

During her first season of excavation at the Jewry Wall, in the summer of 1936, Kathleen established that it was the western side of a large basilica, and quickly concluded that it was part of the Roman town’s forum (civic centre). Ultimately, the significance of the discovery meant that in 1937 the city council scrapped its plans for a public bath on the site (voted 33 to 21) in favour of preserving the remains as a public monument.

Workmen begin to clear modern soil layers next to the Jewry Wall in 1936.

Altogether, Kathleen led four seasons of excavation at Leicester (1936-39). Each May the upper layers of modern soil and rubble were removed by workmen under the supervision of an experienced foreman, with Kathleen visiting regularly to check on progress. By mid-June, excavation would begin on the Roman layers and Kathleen would move to Leicester to directly supervise the 40-50 laborers and volunteers, both locals and students from the Institute of Archaeology working on the site. Work would carry on through the summer to the end of August or September before concluding for the year.

As excavation moved away from the wall itself, a series of rooms flanking the ‘entrance’ between the basilica and the open space of the forum’s market square were uncovered. A large public bath building was also found in the middle of the forum, occupying the whole of the open space. Kathleen spent the rest of the excavation wrestling with this unusual arrangement, but never truly came to a satisfactory explanation for the odd arrangement of the buildings and the big discrepancies in floor levels between the different rooms.

Rooms flanking the ‘entrance’ between the basilica and the forum are excavated in 1937. Kathleen Kenyon (centre) inspects progress. The Jewry Wall is to the right.

Initially, she theorised that the market square had, for some reason, ceased to be employed as such, owing perhaps to changes in commerce in the late Roman period. However, her phasing of the construction of different parts of the site eventually showed that the basilica and bath building were of broadly contemporary mid-2nd century date, leading her to conclude that the ranges of shops that traditionally should have surrounded the market square were never fully realised, probably because of ground subsidence making parts of the site unusable, and that the original forum was repurposed as a public bath, with the basilica becoming the palaestra (gymnasium), and that the forum itself had moved elsewhere in the town.

Even after the bath house was found to be contemporary with the basilica, Kathleen continued to believe that the site was originally built as the forum and appears to have never considered the possibility that it was purposefully built as a bath house. Today we know this not to be true. Archaeologists found the real 2nd century forum beneath what is now Jubilee Square, east of the Jewry Wall site, in the 1960s and it is now accepted that the Jewry Wall was always part of the town’s public bath.

This, however, does not diminish Kathleen’s contribution to Leicester’s story. Far from it in fact. Whilst she was quick to make up her mind and slow to change it, given the evidence available at the time her interpretation was not unreasonable, and her report was a pioneering attempt to date the main phases of the site using pottery. Beneath the Roman remains, she also found the first conclusive proof that the Roman town occupied the site of a late Iron Age settlement, an important contribution to the study of the relationship between pre-Roman and Roman settlements in Britain, a hot topic at the time.

Kathleen Kenyon (centre) and the excavation team in front of the Jewry Wall in 1939.

The Jewry Wall excavation was Kathleen’s first major independent fieldwork project and gave her a chance to perfect her nascent methodology for stratigraphic excavation, first learnt under the tutelage of the Wheelers at Verulamium and then applied to her own work at Samaria despite the indifference of her peers who, in her opinion, had a poor understanding of the importance of stratigraphy in understanding a site’s chronological development.

Her method was perfectly suited to digging a complex urban site, such as the Jewry Wall, where thousands of years of history overlapped and intruded through each other. She would continue to refine the Wheeler Method of excavation throughout her career, so today it is known as the Wheeler-Kenyon Method, earning her the sobriquet ‘Mistress of Stratigraphy’.

When she finally published the Jewry Wall excavations in 1948 (the delay in publication owing to the Second World War) even her critics, who felt she had jumped to her conclusions too quickly, praised her final report for its careful and thorough cataloguing and publication of the material from the excavation, particularly the pottery.

Because of this, and because of her meticulous excavation and recording techniques, archaeologists today are still able to re-evaluate her findings, as new discoveries come to light, and gain new insights into the ever-developing story of Leicester.

Jewry Wall, Leicester: 1938 and 2018. A mini-excavation by ULAS reveals two Roman walls and a patch of tessellated pavement on the edge of Kathleen Kenyon’s excavation.

Further reading

DAVIS, M.C. 2016, Dame Kathleen Kenyon: Digging Up the Holy Land. London & New York: Routledge.

KENYON, K. 1948, Excavations at the Jewry Wall Site, Leicester. Oxford: Report of the Research Committee of the Society of Antiquaries 15.

MCKINNEY, M. 2003, Kathleen Kenyon: Larger Than Life at https://www.vision.org/kathleen-kenyon-larger-life-486 [accessed 17/02/2019]

THUSHINGHAM, A.D. 1985, ‘Kathleen Mary Kenyon: 1907-1978’ in Proceedings of the British Academy 71, 555-82

Kenyon excavation photographs courtesy of Leicestershire, Leicester and Rutland Record Office. Re-colourisation using colourize-it.com.

This article was written by Mathew Morris MA ACIfA, Project Officer at ULAS.

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