Ogden of Harrogate's links to Tutankhamun explored in exhibition Egyptomania

Demanding, ruthless and calculating. That’s how HVF Winstone, the biographer of Leonard Woolley, described his wife, Katharine.

Qualities needed perhaps as a female in a male-dominated field.

A pioneer, Katherine was one of the most important female archaeologists of the 20th century.

She was described by people who knew her as ‘manipulative’ and a ‘mysterious minx.’ Her first husband committed suicide on the steps of the Luxor Pyramids, rumoured because Katharine was unable to have children. She was a source of inspiration to Agatha Christie, who based one of the characters on Katharine in Murder of Mesopotamia.

The Woolleys worked at the archaeological dig at Ur (now Iraq), where Agatha met her second husband, Max Mallowan, a prominent British archaeologist. Also at the dig was the archaeologist, writer and army officer, TE Lawrence, of Lawrence of Arabia fame.

Harrogate has an enthralling and direct link to this time.

James R Ogden, who founded his jewellery business ‘Ogden of Harrogate’ in 1893, was also a keen adventurer fascinated by Egyptology. His business gave him the means to travel widely.

He became a collaborator and fundraiser for leading archaeologists of the day, including the Woolleys, using his knowledge of the working of gold to help interpret the material found at digs, and becoming a restorer and replica maker.

When Howard Carter discovered Tutankhamun’s tomb, he invited Ogden to the Valley of the Kings to value and weigh the gold, including Tutankhamun’s coffin. The Harrogate jeweller was one of the first people in over 3,000 years to enter the tomb.

Ogden made many replicas of the artefacts found at Tutankhamun and Ur and donated them to the British Museum. He gave lectures showcasing his slides to fascinated audiences across the UK.  The 1923 discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb captivated imaginations across the world.

In September, a new exhibition, ‘Egyptomania’, was hosted at Ogden of Harrogate, displaying some of JR Ogden’s memorabilia, which provide valuable information about the history of archaeology in the early 20th century.

Although many were pulled to the new exhibition at Ogden of Harrogate to view its famed links to Tutankhamun, those visitors who dug a little deeper shed light on some of history’s lesser-known mysteries.

JR Ogden’s great, great grandson Robert Ogden, who now manages the family business, explains: “In our attic, we have a vast collection of JR Ogden’s memorabilia, including a remarkable collection of 10,000 lantern slides of his travels to Tutankhamun’s tomb, and artefacts from his expeditions to Ur, Babylon, Palestine, Syria, and Assyria. There are also hundreds of letters that are fascinating glimpses of the key characters of that time, and their explorations. He got to know Howard Carter, Lord Carnarvon, Max Mallowan (Agatha Christie’s second husband) and worked particularly closely with Leonard and Katharine Woolley.”

Some of these artefacts and letters were on display in the special exhibition which celebrated 130 years of the Ogden family business, and 100 years since the Tutankhamun discovery.

But it’s the previously unseen letters of Katharine Woolley that are perhaps of particular interest, as on her death she asked that all her personal documents be destroyed.

Katharine’s mere appearance at the excavations in Ur caused opposition. Some donors of the dig objected to a woman working in the field. It was this objection that prompted her to marry Leonard to stop the threat of lost donations from those objecting to a single woman in the venture.

One thing is clear: she defied conventional gender roles.

It’s thought she never consummated the marriage or slept in the same bed as her husband. There was speculation that she had androgen insensitivity syndrome; the chromosomes of a man, no womb, but presented as a woman. She was often noted for her high fashion and her wonderful illustrations of archaeological findings at Ur for The Illustrated News in London.

JR Ogden raised huge sums of money for the Woolley’s archaeological digs and a close friendship was formed spanning many years.

Robert Ogden says: “We have a great deal of correspondence between both Katharine Woolley and JR Ogden, and Leonard Woolley and JR Ogden. These all build on the story of Ogden and the Woolleys, and Katharine’s hidden character that, for so many years, has been masked behind her famous husband and the cast of male characters on the digs. Much more of her persona can be gained from the correspondence.

One of the letters touches on Katharine’s novel, Adventure Calls, which was published in 1929, featuring a woman who dresses as a man in order to enjoy a life of adventure and excitement. It shows her self-deprecating character as she writes it’s a ‘silly novel’ saying she’s not ‘proud of it.’

Robert adds: “It is fascinating to read of how she appeared to some of her contemporaries, as manipulative and domineering, and then to read some of her correspondence to JR Ogden, which seems to show yet another facet to her character.  It’s deflating to read a headline of the day, describing her as ‘The Housewife of Ur,’ when it is so apparent from contemporaneous information from her husband that she apparently worked as hard as he did, and as the other paid workmen on the site. There is more to discover about this extraordinary woman.”

The exhibition provided an insight into the social and political context in which archaeology was practiced at that time. JR Ogden collected hundreds of newspaper clippings about archaeological digs, some of which was also on display.  Not only was he fundraiser for many digs, he was somewhat of a PR expert, placing stories in the press about Katharine and Leonard Woolley to help his fundraising efforts.

Robert Ogden says: “The Ogden archive will be made available to historians for further study. Who can’t be captivated by the adventures of these pioneers of archaeology and the mysteries they discovered?  Like fine jewels, there are no doubt more romantic and enchanting stories waiting to be unearthed.”

November 30, 2023 — Robert Ogden