Recreating the Past: Molly Crowfoot and Textile Archaeology

This guest blog is part of a series called Shattering Perceptions. Written by Hannah Taylor and Maggie Birnbaum, MA students at Durham University, these blogs delve into the trailblazing female academics celebrated in their upcoming exhibition, Shattering Perceptions: The Women of Archaeology. Their exhibition will be open at Palace Green Library from 14 June.

Grace Mary Crowfoot, known as Molly, was a hugely influential archaeologist in the first half of the twentieth century. Crowfoot was an exceptional and unconventional woman for her time. Her dedication and expertise led to new archaeological discoveries and the pioneering of new methods. She was greatly respected by her colleagues at home and abroad and trained a whole generation of textile archaeologists in Britain, including her daughter Elizabeth Crowfoot.

Like many female Victorian archaeologists, Crowfoot’s entry into archaeology was through her archaeologist husband, John Winter Crowfoot. In fact, Grace often assisted her husband at his excavations and the couple co-wrote several reports. The influential archaeologist Kathleen Kenyon even credited some of John’s success to Grace’s diligence and attention to detail. Grace developed skills and expertise in her own right and became one of the leading textile archaeologists of the time.

During her travels in Northern Africa and the Middle East Grace immersed herself in local textile practices. She gained an extensive knowledge about the Sudanese ground-loom traditions which aided in her study of paintings and weavings from Pharaonic tombs. Grace was a leading practitioner of experimental archaeology, where artefacts are reproduced using the technologies of the time, providing an insight into the processes of production. Crowfoot applied her practical knowledge of weaving and needlecraft to the recreation of archaeological textiles and clothing, such as the Girdle of Rameses III and the tablet weaving from St. Cuthbert’s tomb – Crowfoot’s replica braid will be feautured in the next blog in this series. Her studies were interrupted by World War II, and the finds from the Sutton Hoo ship burial – which she was supposed to visit the week war was declared – had to be hastily packed up. She never had a chance to fully examine and publish on them.

Replica Braid
Crowfoot’s replica of Anglo-Saxon textiles, relics of St Cuthbert

Grace died in 1957 from leukemia. Today, she is still remembered for her contributions to textile archaeology as well as her dedication to ancient textile traditions and the communities which carried them on. You can see the tablet weaving she created and learn more about her in the Shattering Perceptions exhibition in the Wolfson Gallery at Palace Green Library from 14 June.


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