Katharine Woolley

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Katharine Woolley
BornJune 1888
Died8 November 1945
(aged 57)
Mayfair, London
Spouse(s)Bertram Francis Eardley Keeling (3 March 1919–20 September 1919; his death)
Leonard Woolley (m. 1927)

Katharine Woolley, née Menke (June 1888 – 8 November 1945) was a British military nurse and archaeologist who worked principally at the Mesopotamian site of Ur. She was married to archaeologist Sir Charles Leonard Woolley.

Early Life[edit]

She was born in Birmingham, England in June 1888 to German parents. Her father was Carl Menke, a Consul for Germany. She studied Modern History at Somerville College in Oxford, but did not complete her education there due to health issues.[1]


Red Cross[edit]

She served as British military nurse in the Red Cross during World War I. This position required her to hide her German heritage. Shortly after joining the Red Cross in 1915, she was sent to Egypt to work in a hospital in Alexandria. Afterward, she went to Poland where she worked in a former concentration camp which housed over 7,000 Bolshevik soldiers.[1] She served in Poland until 1919, when she returned to London.[1]

In 1919, Katharine moved back to Cairo after marrying Colonel Bertram Francis Eardley Keeling who was the Director-General of the Survey of Egypt and the President of the Cotton Research Board.[2] After her husband’s sudden death, she remained in Cairo and resumed her work as a nurse.

Excavation at Ur[edit]

In 1924, her work as a nurse brought her to Baghdad, where she stayed with the Director of the Iraq State Railways, Lieutenant Colonel J.R. Tainsch and his wife.[1] Tainsch brought her to visit the dig at Ur, where the Museum of the University of Pennsylvania in partnership with the British Museum, was conducting excavations led by famed British archeologist, Charles Leonard Woolley. Katharine volunteered as an illustrator for the objects catalogue.[3] The following season, in 1925, Woolley offered Katharine an official position as an illustrator for the excavation. She remained a volunteer until 1926, when she began receiving a salary for her work.[3]

She continued working there until 1934, by which time she was the primary assistant on site.[1] Her drawings of the site were an important contribution and her work was featured in the Illustrated London News, a magazine which publicized important archeological discoveries of the time.[4] Her drawings were used to publicize the discoveries to donors as well as the public. In addition, she assisted with the reconstruction of various objects exhumed from the site. Most notably, she helped with the restoration of Queen Puabi’s headdress.[5] Queen Puabi’s headdress was one of the most opulent findings at Ur and has proved crucial to understanding royal life in ancient Mesopotamia.[6] It now resides in the Penn Museum.

Other Work[edit]

She and her husband also excavated at Alalakh and Al-Mina.[2]

During World War II, her husband was involved with monitoring Nazi looting of museums, galleries and archives; she assisted with this work.[1]


Although published under her husband's name, she was jointly responsible with him for the publication of the Archaeological Survey of India (link) in 1939.[2]

In 1929 she published a romantic adventure novel, Adventure Calls, set in the contemporary Middle East.

Personal Life[edit]

She married Lieutenant Colonel Bertram Francis Eardley Keeling OBE, MC, RE on 3 March 1919. Six months after they married, he committed suicide on 20 September 1919. [7] The reason for his sudden suicide is unknown. Some have suggested that it was during a temporary fit of insanity due to the discovery that Katharine was suffering from Complete Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome, and would be unable to have children.[3][4]

On 11 April 1927[8] she and Leonard Woolley were married, largely in order to maintain respectability when working on site with a group of men. Officials at the University of Pennsylvania, particularly George Gordon, the University Museum Director, were concerned that it was inappropriate for a single woman to be living at the site among unmarried men.[1] Their marriage was not consummated, as an archived 1928 letter from Leonard Woolley to a legal adviser suggested.[1]

She was the inspiration for the murder victim in the novel Murder in Mesopotamia by Agatha Christie; Christie's second marriage in 1930 was to Max Mallowan, Sir Leonard Woolley's assistant at Ur.[1]

She died of multiple sclerosis on 8 November 1945 in The Dorchester, where she and her husband had been living for several years.[1]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Ur Online, a collaboration between the British Museum and the Penn Museum.
  2. ^ a b c "Obituary." Times [London, England] 12 Nov. 1945: 7. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 24 Aug. 2016.
  3. ^ a b c "Penn Museum Blog | Adventure Calls: The Life of a Woman Adventurer - Penn Museum". www.penn.museum. Retrieved 2019-04-22.
  4. ^ a b Richards, B. j (2013-01-29). "Monkey Strums the British Museum: More Deadly than the Male: the life of Katharine Woolley". Monkey Strums the British Museum. Retrieved 2019-04-22.
  5. ^ Richards, B. j (2013-01-29). "Monkey Strums the British Museum: More Deadly than the Male: the life of Katharine Woolley". Monkey Strums the British Museum. Retrieved 2019-04-22.
  6. ^ Penn Museum. "Queen Puabi's Headdress". Retrieved April 25, 2019.
  7. ^ "Katharine Woolley". Retrieved 2019-04-22.
  8. ^ Christopher Edens, ‘Woolley, Sir (Charles) Leonard (1880–1960)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004