“When I was a girl, I took part in the excavation of a cave dwelling on the lowest slopes of Mount Carmel in Palestine”, so Jacquetta Hawkes began her book Man on Earth (1954).
She was referring to excavations directed by Dorothy Garrod at a group of caves at Wadi el-Mughara. Over seven seasons from 1929 to 1934 these sites yielded human remains and other evidence of 600,000 years of unbroken occupation. Jacquetta (then Hopkins) assisted on the dig during the 1932 season; she had been awarded a travelling scholarship to work on this site following her achievement of first-class honours in the Tripos at Cambridge (Garrod was then a research fellow at Newnham, Jacquetta’s college; she was later to become the first female professor at Cambridge).
The Mount Carmel excavations had a lasting effect on Jacquetta. In all her writing about this key part of her life, there is a sense of heightened emotion, an intensity. This comes partly comes from the novelty of her first major dig, in a part of the world new to her, and partly because she was in love with and deciding whether to marry fellow archaeologist Christopher Hawkes. Two particular incidents stand out.
A skeleton of a Neanderthal woman was found*, named Tabun 1 from the cave in which she was discovered. Jacquetta felt a strange kinship with this ancestral figure whose fragile skull she held. Despite their very different minds and experiences, both were part of the same stream of consciousness, “two atoms” in the millennial growth of the human brain.
Later, walking in the moonlight, Jacquetta found “an intense exaltation took possession of me. It was as though the white goddess of the moon had thrown some bewitching power with her rays … the whole night was dancing … it seemed that my thoughts and feelings had been given a quite extraordinary clarity and truth”. She climbed up a rock, looked across to the Mediterranean, and saw a procession of camels, feeling a unity with everything, past and present.
Ten years later, amidst the upheaval of the Second World War, Jacquetta drew on these experiences to create poems. In To a Primitive Skeleton uncovered on Mount Carmel, she wrote of the kinship she felt with the dead “Woman, whose ancient cloak of flesh I wear”. A longer poem, Man in Time, is often considered to be her finest. It tells the story of the dig and of the mystic experience that moonlit night. Man in Time appeared in Jacquetta’s only published book of poems: Symbols and Speculations (1949).
But Jacquetta had not finished reflecting on Carmel. As we have seen, she wrote about the experience again, this time in prose, in the introduction to Man on Earth, a kind of sequel to her masterpiece A Land (Object 5). The work built on the ideas she formed at Carmel. As the blurb of the book said, she “challenges the orthodox theory of evolution with her view of the whole of human history as a development of consciousness”, moving through the development of the Backbone, Blood, Culture, Brain, Civilisation, and Intellect.
One of the most exciting aspects of working with literary archives is seeing writers’ ideas develop, how they return again and again to themes that haunt or inspire them. The Mount Carmel dig runs through Jacquetta Hawkes’s Archive: her photograph album, the drafts of poems, the published poems, and the later prose.
*by Yusra, whose story is told on the Trowelblazers site (postscript 10 June 2013).