It was no more than a silvered glass bottle, 11cm long, but should it be uncorked, a villager warned, ‘they do say there is a witch in it and if you let ’un out there’ll be a peck o’ trouble.’ Such was Margaret Murray’s bequest to the Pitt Rivers Museum.
Born in 1863 in Calcutta, capital of British India, Murray was educated at home by her mother and a vicar uncle convinced of the inferiority of women – the combination of which may explain the independent cast of mind she showed throughout her adult life.
She only enrolled in the new Egyptology department at University College London in 1894, but rapidly showed considerable ability with hieroglyphs and published her first academic treatise the following year. Murray was by now a friend of Flinders Petrie, her teacher and an eminent Egyptologist; he would make her the UK’s first female archaeology lecturer in 1899. (Another half century elapsed before UCL appointed their first female professor.)
Arriving as site nurse at Abydos in 1902, Murray was soon instructed in excavation by Petrie – and subsequently travelled to dig with him at Saqqara (where her diligent hieroglyphic transcriptions were particularly significant), Petra, and Gaza. She also excavated on her own account in Malta and Menorca.
By 1914, Murray was effectively deputising for Petrie at UCL whenever he was in the field, and she fought for better provision for women there – as well as supporting Marie Stopes’ campaign for birth control and joining the Women’s Social and Political Organisation suffragettes.
She had become the first woman to ‘unroll’ a mummy in public, too, in 1908. Undressing mummies – particularly females – had been thought a rather titillating spectacle, but Murray and her multidisciplinary team brought scientific rigour to this investigation of Khnum-Nakht, in the collection of Manchester Museum. In The Tomb of Two Brothers (1910), she took to task those who called it ‘sacrilege’ and ‘repulsive’: ‘these same people would not hesitate to wear a scarab-ring taken off a dead man’s hand… Their objections – their opinions even – are an offence to science.’
Yet, through her most popular book The Witch-Cult in Western Europe (1921), Murray became known to neo-pagans as an unlikely ‘Grandmother of Wicca’. In it, she marshalled disparate textual and archaeological evidence to argue that the victims of medieval witch trials were united by a pre-Christian religion lost to written history. By the 1960s, its self-contradictory use of sources and idiosyncratic readings were being met by academic derision. Even worse for her reputation, she was widely reported as having laid a curse on a rival.
But then she was never shy of a joke. Aged 96, she told a BBC interviewer: ‘I’ve been an archaeologist most of my life. Now I’m a piece of archaeology myself.’ Then published her autobiography My First Hundred Years shortly before dying, in 1963, aged 100.