Art Dubai, a fair in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), last year commissioned a performance featuring a monologue to “Beatrice”. The addressee was the archaeologist Beatrice de Cardi, who has died aged 102. She was, said the artists Fari Bradley and Chris Weaver, “the one woman who changed the way the world viewed UAE and other Gulf countries entirely in terms of archaeology”.
De Cardi’s fieldwork circled the Gulf, starting in Baluchistan in 1947, moving in the 60s to Iran and the Arab Emirates, and on to Oman and Qatar in the 70s. When she stopped digging – unable to climb in and out of trenches, she said – she continued cataloguing artefacts at the Ras al-Khaimah emirate’s national museum, whose foundation went back to her pioneering discoveries. Her most pleasing find was a type of pottery used in Ras al-Khaimah in 2000BC, which analysis showed to have been imported from where she began, in Baluchistan.
Although this work was impressive, and supported by grants from academic institutions, she was technically an amateur, accumulating leave to fit her travels around paid employment. She distinguished herself equally in the latter as head of the Council for British Archaeology (CBA) for 24 years, but her heart was in the Middle East. “She toiled valiantly for British archaeology,” said a friend, “while dreaming of deserts.” De Cardi would advise young, aspirant archaeologists that the career was best followed with private means. But if, she once told me, you have to choose between a comfortable living and a perennial interest in life, “personally I’d plump for the interest”.
She was born in London to Christine (nee Wurrflein), a singer and heiress from Pennsylvania, and Edwin de Cardi, a Corsican count. Beatrice was the last of an aristocratic line from Bastia, Corsica. She loved visiting relatives there and searching for ancient sites in the maquis; she requested a Corsican liberation song for her funeral.
She grew up in a large house on Ealing Common with a tennis court and servants, learning ballet at a barre installed at home while her mother bought waffles at Selfridges. As a child touring in the family’s Belsize car, she would ask to stop at archaeological sites; her father shared her interest. Illness interrupted her education at St Paul’s girls’ school, and she gave up dancing. After convalescing, she studied history and economics at University College London.
It was Mortimer Wheeler, an adventuring archaeologist whose lectures De Cardi attended while at UCL, who enthused her to choose the subject for her life’s work. Her first experience of excavation was at the great fort of Maiden Castle in Dorset, where, she observed, Wheeler “had the foresight to get the general public interested” while his wife, Tessa, taught the team. In 1936 De Cardi became his secretary at the London Museum, and they remained good friends until his death.
She joined the allied supplies executive of the war cabinet in China in 1944, travelling around India and China as personal assistant to the British representative. After the war, finding her museum post filled, she became assistant UK trade commissioner in India, lured by the prospect of studying the ancient Indus civilisation. After partition, she opted for Pakistan. Wheeler was there. Failing to convince her of the dangers of remote Baluchistan, he arranged an assistant for her, an illiterate farmer named Sadar Din. From him, she said, she learned more than from any academic source, referring to his understanding of the landscape.
Soon even De Cardi recognised Baluchistan as unsafe; it was more than a decade before she would return to her “archaeological paradise”. In 1949 she was invited to join the new CBA, running a small office in a South Kensington attic. Her mission was to combine local archaeological societies into a federal campaigning force, as postwar renewal threatened substantial damage to historic remains. Under her direction, the CBA set up research committees – including one for industrial archaeology, a world first – and published reports and guides. It grew into a key player in British archaeology, representing especially enthusiasts. De Cardi’s tact and efficiency were well known. “She wrote the best chairman’s agendas I have ever seen,” said a colleague, “all likely pitfalls carefully outlined.”
She was elected a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London in 1950, and became its vice-president and then director. She was appointed OBE, and awarded the al-Qasimi medal for archaeological services to Ras al-Khaimah, the Royal Asiatic Society’s Burton memorial medal, a fellowship and visiting professorship at UCL, and a senior fellowship at the British Academy.
The day after her retirement in 1973, she was in Qatar, commissioned by the government to uncover the country’s story “from the stone age to the oil age” in 10 weeks. On this expedition George Barrington (Barry), her interpreter and driver, died after a riding accident. “The debt I owe him is immeasurable,” she wrote of a man she said she would have married, “and my personal loss was overwhelming.” An earlier fiance had died in the second world war.
On her 100th birthday, the CBA, which has held an annual Beatrice de Cardi lecture since 1976, named its offices Beatrice de Cardi House, and the Society of Antiquaries presented her with its gold medal, one of archaeology’s highest accolades.
Photo: Beatrice de Cardi in 2004. When she was no longer able to dig, she continued cataloguing artefacts. Photograph: Professor Valeria Piancentini
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