Olga Tufnell’s ‘Perfect Journey’

When 22-year-old Olga Tufnell set off on her first ‘perfect journey’ in 1927 – to join Flinders Petrie’s expedition in Egypt – she had little training in archaeology beyond several years assisting the Petries with their annual exhibition. Over the years that followed, she became an experienced and respected archaeologist, working on a variety of sites around the Middle East, spending several seasons on Petrie’s excavations in Qau el-Kebir, Tell Fara, and Tell el-‘Ajjul, before joining James Starkey’s expedition at Tell ed-Duweir (Lachish) for six seasons. Often less widely recognised than other female archaeologists of the interwar years, Olga nonetheless made a significant contribution to archaeology in the Middle East in this period, and throughout the rest of her life.

In this new book, Olga’s experiences on these excavations from 1927 to 1938, and on her many travels and adventures in between, are detailed through the hundreds of letters she sent home to friends and family. The result is a fascinating insight into the experiences of a female British archaeologist working in the Middle East in a time of great social change, as well as important archaeological work. Socially, Olga occupied a unique position that allowed her to cross boundaries and enter spheres that were inaccessible to either her male counterparts or to the local women. Her numerous connections also offered her a position of privilege, with many encounters beginning with what she describes as ‘the inevitable formula: “Are you any relation of ——— Tufnell?”’, to which the answer was always, yes!

Although some of the views she expresses do reflect the typical prejudices of the time, she also demonstrates a natural openness and ability to befriend everyone, from border guards to local communities at the camp clinics she ran, to the governor of Cyprus.

The majority of her letters do not discuss politics directly, but regardless, they offer a glimpse of the atmosphere in Palestine under the British Mandate. The situation is particularly evident in her attempts to reassure her mother during the last two seasons at Tell ed-Duweir (1936-1938), which culminated in the death of Starkey at the hands of a group of rebels, an event which deeply affected Olga and, combined with the outbreak of the Second World War, led to the end of work at the site.

Despite this sad ending, Olga’s optimistic pragmatism is one of the overriding features of her letters. Whether she is in hospital after being thrown from a camel, waking up aboard a ship to find the sea has come into her cabin, or dealing with interpersonal conflicts on an excavation, she narrates these events with a great sense of humour, which must have brought as much joy to the letters’ original recipients as they will to readers of this volume.

Review by Amy Brunskill.

Olga Tufnell’s ‘Perfect Journey’, John D M Green and Ros Henry (eds), UCL Press, £30, ISBN 978-1787359062.