Making history: The world's oldest archaeologist

Part-Indiana Jones, part-Miss Marple, Beatrice De Cardi's thirst for adventure remains undimmed – at the age of 93

Beatrice De Cardi is in little doubt about what has driven her these past nine decades. Travelling to some of the world's most inhospitable places, coping with boiling heat, ruthless bandits and wild animals with a disarming, old world insouciance, it is, she says, her insatiable curiosity that has kept her going.

"It is exactly the same as if I am walking around a very bendy road," she explained as she prepared for the Society of Antiquaries' Women in Heritage Day at Burlington House in London where she will meet the Culture minister Margaret Hodge. "If I see another curve in the hillside I have to go around it to see exactly what is there."

At 93, Miss De Cardi can lay claim to being the world's oldest practising archaeologist. An expert on the pre-Islamic history of the Lower Arabian Gulf states and the civilisations of her beloved Baluchistan, she is part-Indiana Jones, part-Miss Marple. Her life is an extraordinary testament to a woman whose intense motivation has never left her. One who steadfastly refused to compromise in what was – and many argue still is – an avowedly man's world.

"I have never had any difficulties," she said. "I am not a woman or a man when I am working in the Gulf or anywhere else. I am a professional and they have always accepted that."

For Miss De Cardi, archaeology allowed her to visit places and meet peoples unheard of among the girls of her social class.

Her family lived in an "enormous home" overlooking Ealing Common but ill health interrupted her education at St Paul's Girl's School. Following a year-long convalescence, she took a place at University College London in the 1930s where she was able to indulge her "innate interest" in archaeology. This led her to her first dig and the ignition of a passion that remains undimmed.

A first job as a secretary at the London Museum was interrupted by the war and she found herself "lent" to the Foreign Office for a dangerous mission to Chungking to assist the British diplomatic effort in one of its fiercest theatres, the main requirement for which was "unflappability". Upon the cessation of hostilities she found her old job in London had gone but the urge to travel remained. A transfer to the Board of Trade in Delhi followed, but after partition she moved to Karachi, lured by the ancient Indus sites there.

Having obtained maps, a jeep and a driver as well as a small team led by an illiterate Punjabi tribesman called Sadar Din, who remains her greatest teacher in the field, she set out to prove that Baluchistan was an "archaeologist's paradise". It took only a couple of weeks to make her point.

But by 1957 she was forced to return to a desk job in Britain to assist in the effort of dealing with the archaeological legacy of the Luftwaffe. From then on visits to the region had to be self-funded, taken in saved-up annual leave and, because of work commitments in the UK, conducted in the cauldron of the region's summer.

She describes a pioneering time, fraught with peril. "We camped out sharing a water channel with a pack of wild dogs who raced past our tent to drink twice daily," she said. "At night the howls of wolves in the adjacent hills served as a reminder that Baluchistan was a wild and dangerous place. The impression gained substance when we moved back to Surab and were not allowed to camp at Siah-damb on account of a djinn [spirit] greatly feared by our workmen. I suspected a more material power and accepted a revolver lent by the local official."

In 1960 the region was closed to foreigners and Miss De Cardi was forced to approach from the Iranian side at Bampur. Finds here led her to the lower Gulf, now part of the United Arab Emirates. In the northernmost state Ras al-Khaimah, she discovered lost tombs now obliterated by new motorways funded by the petrodollar billions. Eventually she was forced to quit the country because of encroaching hostilities. But not before she had come to the attention of the emirate's ruler and later that of the government of Qatar, who asked her to lead an expedition charting the country "from Stone Age to Oil Age", something she was required to do in just 10 weeks.

Miss De Cardi, who never married, continues to travel to the region each year to catalogue new finds at the national museums she was instrumental in founding.

She concedes that hers was a different era, though she insists young archaeologists still have opportunities for adventure. "I just happened to be rather a pioneer in outlook and go to some rather wild spots where I could conduct primary research which arrested my attention. Today too many people are over-concerned with dotting all the 'I's and crossing every 'T'."

PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

HR Manager - Kent - £45,000

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: HR Manager / Training Manager (L&D /...

HR Manager - Edgware, London - £45,000

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Manager - Edgware, Lon...

HR Manager - London - £40,000 + bonus

£32000 - £40000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: HR Manager (Generalist) -Old...

Talent Manager / HR Manager - central London - £50,000

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Talent / Learning & Development Mana...

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week