America’s First Woman Egyptologist – Caroline Ransom Williams

Jun 14, 2021

Written by Dominique Navarro, artist at the Epigraphic Survey of the Oriental Institute, University of Chicago

Dr. Caroline Ransom Williams from the Epigraphic Survey Staff Photo, season of 1926-1927. (Courtesy of the Oriental Institute Museum Archives at the University of Chicago)

Beginning in 1924, when James Henry Breasted (1865-1935) was founding the Epigraphic Survey at the Oriental Institute of University of Chicago, he hired a selection of highly skilled individuals to travel to Luxor, Egypt: Dr. Harold H. Nelson was chosen as the field director along with talented epigraphers, photographers, and artists. Breasted was especially eager for a dear friend and trusted colleague to join the team: Dr. Ransom Williams.  

Chicago House staff photo from the season of 1926-1927, Caroline Ransom Williams seated at the far left. Top row, left to right: R.J. Barr; V. Canziani; P. Byles; J.A. Wilson; M. Wilson; A. Bollacher; Second Row Seated: C. Ransom Williams; U. Holscher; H.H. Nelson; J.H. Breasted; C.S. Fisher; A.H. Gardiner; W.F. Edgerton; Front Row Seated: H.B. Clark; E.L. DeLoach; A. de Buck. (Courtesy of the Oriental Institute Museum Archives at the University of Chicago)

In “The Oriental Institute” Breasted describes the exciting epigraphic work in Luxor and the hiring of new staff in 1926. He writes, “The Institute was now able to appoint three doctors of the Department of Oriental Languages and Literatures - Dr. Caroline Ransom Williams, Dr. William F. Edgerton, and Dr. John A. Wilson - as additional epigraphers” along with field director Nelson. Breasted credits the success of the expedition to this team, “all former students of mine” who “contributed very substantially. Without the loyal aid of this group the successful inauguration of the great series of Medinet Habu folios would have been impossible.” 

Dr. Caroline Louise Ransom Williams (1872-1952) was the first professionally trained woman Egyptologist in America. Mentored by Breasted who was only seven years her senior, their relationship would evolve from teacher and pupil, to the greatest of colleagues with a friendship that would last for 37 years until his death. Their entire fellowship is remarkably captured through professional, reverential, and intimate letters spanning almost four decades, wonderfully transcribed by Kathleen L. Sheppard in a publication entitled: My dear Miss Ransom: Letters between Caroline Ransom Williams and James Henry Breasted, 1898-1935.

Photograph of Ransom Williams working on a ladder in the southwest corner of Medinet Habu, from the season of 1926-1927. (From the Epigraphic Survey Photographic Archives, courtesy of the Epigraphic Survey)

Ransom Williams was a remarkable woman, especially in an era when men dominated every field including that of Egyptology. It wasn’t just the expectation to marry and mother a household that kept women from pursuing careers, but the sheer lack of access to an education that would allow one to pursue the dream of becoming an academic, let alone an Egyptologist. And if a woman did attain a career, it would likely not be in the field. 

Sheppard writes, “In the history of archaeology, it was the men who went out into the heroic, exciting, exotic field to dig in the dirt and make fascinating discoveries while women usually stayed back in the institutions… Women worked in archaeology and they were important to maintaining the stability of the discipline as well as using innovative methods and theories to make important strides in understanding the ancient world.” She adds that Ransom Williams’ “story is therefore central to studying the development of the discipline of Egyptology and archaeology in the United States.”

Sadly, there are few books or documents pertaining to Ransom Williams’ life and epigraphic work outside of her own surviving publications. This article, therefore, gives a brief recounting of her life, yet to be told in greater detail. To understand her story, it’s important to go back to her earliest days, for Ransom Williams had the fortune of an inspiring and trailblazing woman-mentor to guide her toward her own ambitious path.   

Caroline Ransom portrait (front and back) Mount Holyoke, 1896. (Mount Holyoke College Archives and Special Collections) 

Miss Ransom the Protégé: An Education in Art and Archaeology

As a young woman, Caroline Ransom attended Lake Erie Seminary College near her hometown of Toledo, Ohio. Drawn to the arts, by 1894 she earned a diploma from the Photographer’s Association of America, first prize from the Photographer’s Association of Ohio, and other art awards for skills she would utilize in her career for the rest of her life.

Ransom’s list of awards, 1894. (Mount Holyoke College Archives and Special Collections) 

In 1896, Ransom graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the Classical Department of Mount Holyoke in Massachusetts, a liberal arts women’s college where she was also a student of her Aunt Louise Fitz-Randolph (1851-1932), an art history professor and head of the department.

Fitz-Randolph had a close relationship with her older sister Ella Agnes Randolph Ransom (1848-1933) and Ella’s daughter Caroline Ransom, who would become Fitz-Randolph’s protégé. Fitz-Randolph was a fascinating and accomplished woman with a “dazzling presence,” and one can understand her influence on Ransom’s own remarkable disposition.

Louise Fitz-Randolph, 1896. (Mount Holyoke College Archives and Special Collections) 

Fitz-Randolph was described by a former student as “a person of rare intelligence, graciousness and charm.” She had studied art history and archaeology at the Harvard Annex, Boston University, and in Berlin, Zurich, and Paris. In 1889, she became a member of the Archaeological Institute of America, traveling to archeological sites in the Near East and Europe, and received an honorary Master’s degree in Archaeology in 1905 from Mount Holyoke College. A “dedicated teacher of women” Fitz-Randolph’s courses included “ancient sculpture, painting, and architecture, from Egyptian and Assyrian to Greek and Roman” up to the Renaissance. For her teaching, she utilized thousands of photographs and extraordinary imported plaster casts which she acquired herself and “grouped… into periods following a clear chronology of art from ancient times.” (R. L. Herbert) 

Louise Fitz-Randolph Gallery of Casts, circa 1918. (Mount Holyoke College Archives and Special Collections) 

Louise Fitz-Randolph in her classroom, circa 1895. (Mount Holyoke College Archives and Special Collections) 

Fitz-Randolph traveled frequently and extensively abroad throughout her life and took her protégé niece on grand tours of Europe. An extensive venture through Egypt captivated young Ransom and changed the course of her own life, inspiring her to pursue further education in the field of Egyptology.

In her first letter to Breasted in 1898 appealing for his advice and mentorship, Ransom writes, “My interest in Egyptian Art began with a general course in Art History, taken in the Spring of 1890. I then went abroad for two years and besides study of the collections of Egyptian antiquities in the British Museum, the Louvre, the Museums of Berlin and Turin, I had the great privilege and pleasure of journeying to the First Cataract in Egypt and of spending several weeks in Cairo… Last winter, I made a very exhaustive study of all works upon Egypt within my reach, in preparation for four lectures upon Egyptian Art, which I gave before large afternoon and evening classes… I also spoke in August ’97 in the Museum in Chautauqua, N.Y. upon ‘The Egyptian Doctrine of the Future Life as Influencing the Architecture of the Tombs.’ I succeeded in making the subject of Egyptian Art attractive to others, but, for myself, I need a more intimate acquaintance with other aspects of the ancient Egyptian civilization and above all a knowledge of the hieroglyphic language.” 

Caroline Ransom, class of 1896. (Mount Holyoke College Archives and Special Collections)

By 1898 Ransom had been accepted for a fellowship at the new University of Chicago. She was trained in Egyptology by Breasted, who­—just a few years earlier in 1894—had become America’s first Egyptologist and began teaching at the University. Ransom was the first woman in the first Egyptology program of its kind in America.

Ransom received a Master of Arts in classical archaeology and Egyptology in Chicago and Breasted encouraged her to follow in his path and next attend the University of Berlin, Germany. From 1900 to 1903, she trained under some of the leading Egyptologist in the world including Dr. Adolf Erman, Breasted’s own beloved teacher. She “was given an Assistantship in the Egyptian Department of the Berlin Museum, which indicates Erman’s respect for her abilities.” (B. Lesko)

Private notes by Carolyn Ransom Williams in her own hand, recalling her friendship with Professor Adolph Erman. (From the Epigraphic Survey Photographic Archives, courtesy of the Epigraphic Survey)

Returning to Chicago, Ransom received her Ph.D. in History of Art and Egyptology in 1905 under Breasted’s supervision, with her thesis Studies in Ancient Furniture published by the University of Chicago Press, paid for by her father, and dedicated to Aunt Fitz-Randolph.

With the limited number of trained Egyptologists in America, Ransom was now in a lucrative position and would eventually be sought after for her unique skills and knowledge by institutions, museums, and schools throughout the country.

Dr. Ransom, as published in the 1908 Bryn Mawr College yearbook, and on their online exhibition: Breaking Ground, Breaking Tradition; Bryn Mawr and the First Generation of Women Archeologists. (Courtesy Bryn Mawr College Libraries, Special Collections)

Dr. Ransom: From Teacher to Assistant Curator

Dr. Ransom accepted a position in 1905 as Assistant Professor in the Department of History of Art and Archaeology at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania where she would eventually become chair of the department. She added new courses to the college curriculum including Egyptian art and archaeology, and acquired teaching materials for the department such as a large collection of albumen photographs of Egyptian sites and antiquities. Ransom received an honorary doctorate from Mount Holyoke College (1912) and much later, an honorary degree from the University of Toledo (1937).

Ransom continued to travel and maintained her connections with international scholars, becoming the first female member of the Deutsches Archäologisches Institut (German Archeological Institute) in 1909, and participating with the Deutsche Orient-Gesellschaft (German Oriental Society).

In 1910, Ransom received a remarkable opportunity: the Metropolitan Museum of Art was hiring staff for its new Egyptian department. The museum was seeking specialists that would “rank permanently as the best in America” as decreed by J.P. Morgan, the famous banker, financier, art collector, and one of the museum’s greatest benefactors as well as its president. Egyptologist Albert Lythgoe became the first curator for the Department of Egyptian Art of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Ransom was hired as the assistant curator: organizing exhibits, publishing articles and handbooks, and utilizing her critical ability to translate inscriptions to catalogue the museum’s growing and vital collection. In 1911, she co-authored the Handbook of the Egyptian Collection of the Museum.

Postcard of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1910. (Photos in the Public Domain thanks to the Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Ransom may be best remembered for her work on the Tomb of Perneb. Perneb was likely a court official, and his limestone mastaba—built with an open-air courtyard, offering chapel, serdab statue room, and underground burial chamber—was erected during the 5th Dynasty around 2,300 BC, near Saqqara just north of the Step Pyramid of Djoser. Discovered in 1907 by J.E. Quibell, it was purchased from the Egyptian government and gifted to the Metropolitan Museum of Art by American philanthropist Edward S. Harkness. Starting in 1913, Lythgoe supervised the move of the tomb in 601 crates from Egypt to the US by camels, trains, and ships. “The shipments reached the Museum in August (1913), and then for the period of a year the blocks were carried through a process of treatment for the preservation both of the stone and of the color on the painted reliefs.” (Tomb of Perneb) Ransom supervised its reconstruction in the Metropolitan Museum of Art for three years. 

The grand opening was in February 1916 and Ransom wrote Breasted on February 7, “The opening of Perneb’s tomb took place with great éclat and the interest of the public has not yet subsided… People were formed in line two abreast all the way back to the Fifth avenue entrance to get into the chambers.” 

Tomb of Perneb mastaba installation at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2003. (Photos in the Public Domain courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Tomb of Perneb, false door in main chamber, northwest corner of the mastaba installation at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (Photos in the Public Domain courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art

For the museum’s grand opening of the tomb, Ransom co-authored a publication with Lythgoe, The Tomb of Perneb, which included two chapters: “History of the Tomb and Principal Features of its Construction, as Ascertained in the Work of Removing it from Sakkara for Re-erection in the Museum” by Lythgoe; and “A Study of its Decorative and Inscriptional Features” by Ransom. 10,000 copies were printed in 1916 available to the general public (and now in the public domain on Internet With remarkable photographs, maps, diagrams, and drawings of the tomb, it was an important achievement for Ransom.

Ransom writes in The Tomb of Perneb, “The unusual amount of color remaining today on the walls of the main chamber affords a rare opportunity to study the technic of the ancient Egyptian decorator… every square inch of their surface was gone over with a magnifying glass [before installation and before procedures to preserve their color] in the endeavor to distinguish the different levels of the paint and determine as far as possible what the decorators did first, what next, and so on through their entire procedure… these painted reliefs reveal vividly conceived scenes, a facile technic, and a sophisticated color scheme.”

Much later in 1932, Ransom published The Decoration of the Tomb of Per-Neb: The Technique and Color Conventions for the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She wrote, “hitherto attention has been focused on the content of the inscriptions and scenes found in tomb interiors, with very little attempt to understand and define the artists’ procedure… the placing of the first preliminary sketch to guide the sculptor, the carving of the stone, and the painting of the sculptured walls.” Ransom studied and determined not only the techniques of the ancient artists, but she also performed microscopic analysis of the pigments to determine their historic source and development, methods of application, and discussed the stylized purpose of each color choice from the standpoint of the artists. She writes, “what the ancient Egyptian artist was capable of seeing and carrying as color memories and what he could express in pigments are two very different things, the latter being far more limited.”

review in the American Journal of Archaeology praised her 1932 publication, writing, “Very welcome… is this admirable book by Dr. [Ransom] Williams, in which for the first time the technical problems of the ‘decoration’ of Old Kingdom mastaba-tombs are seriously attacked, with very valuable results, most lucidly and judiciously set forth… the author has drawn on her examination of most other known mastabas to illustrate and round off her investigation, in what is almost a general treatise on two aspects of tomb decoration in the Old Kingdom: the technical process involved in the decoration… and the often obscure motives dictating the choice of colors.”

Ransom’s years of work at the Metropolitan Museum was a pinnacle time in her career. But World War I (1914-1918), followed by an influenza pandemic, brought the whole world to a terrifying brink. The Spanish flu - first observed in the US and censored in the news, but widely reported in Spain giving it its name - lasted from 1918 to 1920. Combined with the war, the death tolls and devastation impacted every person’s life in one way or another. During this catastrophic time, the Metropolitan Museum of Art halted all operations overseas and made staff cutbacks: Ransom left the museum and New York in late 1916. 

Dr. Ransom Williams: Marriage, Mother, and An Unstoppable Career

At age 44, Caroline became Dr. Ransom Williams, marrying Ulysses Grant Williams (1865-1942). Of their successful marriage, she wrote, “My husband is unselfishly interested in my plans and encourages me to take any opportunity for congenial work that comes my way.” They did not have children, but Ransom Williams’s was able to care for her elderly mother Ella.

Working from home in Toledo with frequent commuting by train, Ransom Williams continued to work for the Metropolitan Museum of Art and accepted new projects: she catalogued the Egyptian collections for the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Detroit Museum of Art, and the Drexel Collection at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. She became honorary curator of the Egyptian collection at the Toledo Museum of Art

Breasted often helped Ransom Williams attain professional opportunities, including the job of cataloguing the Abbott Collection of Egyptian Antiquities for the New York Historical Society. He wrote her in December 1916, “As tactfully as I could, I have indicated the necessity for a modern publication of the collection… There is a chance for a large and beautiful monograph on these things. In view of your last reference to the matter, I mentioned your name.”

Elected a lifetime member of the New York Historical Society, Ransom Williams became curator of their Abbott Collection of Egyptian Antiquities from 1917 to 1924. She published a 250-page catalogue “Gold and Silver Jewelry and Related Objects.” Of this work, Egyptologist Barbara Lesko writes that Ransom Williams’ “research explored the origin and use of metals in Egypt and she utilized the microscope effectively to study the methods of ancient craftsman and to discern forgeries among the pieces under scrutiny.” Breasted called the catalogue “splendidly done,” “fundamental to future researches,” and “a source of great gratification” and wrote a review of it for The American Journal of Semitic Languages and Literatures.

Overwhelmed with so many assignments and unlimited work, Ransom Williams returned the favors Breasted had done her and brought his attention to an unusual papyrus in the Abbott Collection that she knew required immediate study and publication: The Edwin Smith Surgical Papyrus. She wrote Breasted, “I am authorized… to ask you whether you would care to prepare the publication and would have time for it. The papyrus is probably the most valuable one owned by the Society and I am ready to waive my interest in it, in the hope that it may be published sooner and better than I could do it.” (November 22, 1920) Breasted published “The Edwin Smith Surgical PapyrusVolume 1 and Volume 2” (1930), and gave Ransom Williams due credit for bringing it to his attention.

Ransom Williams continued to keep her work and participation widespread: she was the first woman president of the American Oriental Society Middle West Branch and held membership in the Archaeological Institute of America. She became the first lecturer in Egyptian Art and Archeology at the University of Michigan (1927-1928). By 1930, she was receiving $500 a month for her assignments from the Metropolitan Museum and Toledo Museum (equivalent to about $8,000 a month in 2021).

While she turned down “Breasted’s requests for her to teach in Chicago citing domestic responsibilities” (Sheppard), he would eventually persuade her to take one job she couldn’t resist, out in the field at last, in Egypt.

Medinet Habu Temple facing North, 1920s. (Courtesy of the Oriental Institute Museum Archives at the University of Chicago)

Epigrapher Ransom Williams: Chicago House

In a letter written from the Winter Palace Hotel in Luxor on February 8, 1924, Breasted wrote Ransom Williams, “I have laid out also another project [the Epigraphic Survey] for the rescue of the temple inscriptions of Thebes, - an inclusive work, including all the temples on both sides of the river… We should be so pleased to have you come out.”

By 1926, Ransom Williams began arrangements to join the Epigraphic Survey in Luxor, to be accompanied by her mother. They booked passage on the new Italian steamer SS Roma to sail on October 19th from New York and arrive in Luxor “promptly” on December 1st.

All summer Ransom Williams equipped herself for the winter season. She wrote Breasted describing her research preparation for the work at Medinet Habu Temple, with an “uninterrupted program of every morning and most afternoons spent on Harris papyrus–with the help of Sethe’s Verbum—and… Medinet Habu Dictionary slips, which Professor Erman was good enough to send me… I have thought better to rely for such archaeological work as you may require of me on my general training and accumulated experience and to put in my preliminary study where I most need it on the language. I am intrigued by the idea that the Medinet Habu texts are so individual, representing Ramses III’s language, or that of his court, and have started systematic notes on graphic and orthographic peculiarities (referring here of course to photographs and photographic reproductions) as well as grammatical forms, also my own glossary. I hope this way of studying will make me more alert as to what may be contained in injured passages.” (August 29,1926) Breasted wrote Ransom, “Your energy and aggressiveness stir my admiration.” 

Chicago House staff photo from the season of 1926-1927 in Luxor featuring Ransom Williams (standing second row, second from the left) and her mother seated below her (third row) next to Nelson’s wife Libbie, Nelson, Breasted, and Breasted’s wife Frances. (Courtesy of the Oriental Institute Museum Archives at the University of Chicago)

Breasted was certainly eager for his trusted friend and esteemed colleague to join the Survey during a critical time when they needed to establish the methodology that the Epigraphic Survey would adhere to. Egyptologist Charles F. Nims (who worked for decades at the Epigraphic Survey, first as a photographer and later as director) wrote that Breasted “emphasized the necessity of making copies as accurate as humanly possible.” But in those first years of the expedition’s work starting in 1924, Breasted and his initial staff—epigrapher Nelson, artist Alfred Bollacher, and photographer John Hartman—struggled to establish the methodology of creating photographs and epigraphic drawings for publication. 

Nims’ writes, “Experience soon showed the shortcomings of the methods as conceived. The quarto format first envisaged for publication proved to be inadequate; the drawings were on too small a scale; the photographic equipment was hardly suitable for the task; and collation by one Egyptologist alone was unable to assure the needed accuracy. These deficiencies were corrected, and standards of epigraphy were developed largely by Caroline Ransom Williams, assisted by William F. Edgerton and John A. Wilson. The process of producing drawings, standardized by 1926, is essentially that still followed.” (And the fundamental methods are still followed today in 2021.)

However, according to Ann Macy Roth in an essay published in the Oriental Institute Museum Publication Picturing the Past: Imaging and Imagining the Ancient Middle East, the origins of the Chicago House Method “is somewhat contested… both Nims (1973) and Wilson (1972) agree that the original method proposed was scrapped after two years and replaced in 1926 by the collation of drawings made on photographic enlargements, Wilson credits this improvement to Nelson and Breasted, while Nims credited it ‘largely’ to Ransom Williams… Nims did not arrive at Chicago House until 1936, so his version was clearly hearsay; on the other hand, Breasted in his introduction to the first Medinet Habu volume thanks Ransom Williams for her ‘very valuable work’ (Epigraphic Survey 1930), which may allude to her refinement of the epigraphic method.”

In archived notes and letters, Ransom Williams’ specific work in the field is rarely discussed in great detail. Field director Nelson reported from Luxor in a letter on December 1926, “Dear Professor Breasted: Mrs [Ransom] Williams is here and hard at work on the reliefs and inscriptions. She is certainly an example to us of enthusiasm and application and will be of the greatest value to the work. I am delighted to have her here and expect to learn a great deal from her.” Nelson adds in another letter, “Mrs. [Ransom] Williams has found a number of corrections that [artist] Bollacher must make in some of his drawings… She is going to have difficulty in finishing her collation of the reliefs in the time she has and until she does finish we dare not publish...”

Later in January 1927, Nelson writes very simply to Breasted, “It was a very good thing that you secured the services of Mrs. [Ransom] Williams. She is a host in herself and a very excellent example of the utmost devotion to her work.” Nelson also mentions that he will return to the US in June and stop in Toledo to go over the Survey’s plates with Ransom Williams and discuss “several matters with her.” No doubt, her insights and counsel on the Survey’s methods were essential and deeply valued. (Nelson correspondence courtesy of the Oriental Institute Museum Archives at the University of Chicago.)

Published in 1957 in “Medinet Habu—Volume V; Plates 250-362; The Temple Proper, Part I” Field Director George R. Hughes writes in the Preface that this image, Plate 317, was the artist Virgilio Canziani’s first drawing for the Epigraphic Survey in 1927. It was first “compared with the wall by James Henry Breasted and Caroline Ransom Williams” and given complete collation later in 1928 by Nelson and Wilson. (Courtesy of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago)

Correspondence between Ransom Williams and Breasted also doesn’t provide detailed insights about her work for the Survey, likely reserved for in-person meetings. However, in one letter—years later when the first volume of Medinet Habu had at last been published in which Ransom Williams’ is credited as one of the epigraphers—she writes Breasted, “when I was in the counsels, it was still uncertain how many photographic details could be included, and I was agreeably surprised to find so many [in the final publication]. The quality of the plates is superb, and I admire too the binding chosen for the Institute’s publications. These fine volumes in press work and quality of plates and paper bear comparison with the best issued by any other institution.” She humbly adds, “I am most proud of my own modest connection with this first volume…”

Photo by Ransom Williams. The 1926 staff lived in the first building Breasted had built for the survey, now known as Old Chicago House, on the west bank at the foothills of the Theban mountains near Medinet Habu Temple looking east toward the Colossi of Memnon, the site today of the Marsam Hotel. (From the Epigraphic Survey Photographic Archives, courtesy of the Epigraphic Survey)

Aside from Ransom William’s invaluable work as epigrapher in the field in Luxor, she also left the archives of the Epigraphic Survey and the Oriental Institute a collection of photos she’d taken, with her notes on the back, during the 1926-1927 season. With few photos of herself, the images capture spontaneous moments of her colleagues at work and at tea, celebrating the holidays or preparing to go into the field, and the construction of a new library. 

As Ransom Williams was always taking photos of others with her camera, this is a rare group photo that includes her on the far left, 1926. (From the Epigraphic Survey Photographic Archives, courtesy of the Epigraphic Survey)

Ransom Williams’ writing on the back of the group photo. (From the Epigraphic Survey Photographic Archives, courtesy of the Epigraphic Survey)

An avid photographer with a personal 5x7 camera which she mentions bringing on her travels to Egypt in 1909, as well as a “larger camera” and “kodaks,” Ransom Williams had learned the value of photography in documentation and teaching and must have amassed an impressive collection throughout her life.

Photo of Ransom Williams’ mother Ella Randolph during the season of 1926-1927, onsite at Medinet Habu. (From the Epigraphic Survey Photographic Archives, courtesy of the Epigraphic Survey)

Aunt Fitz-Randolph (then age 76) visited Ransom Williams in Luxor, and in a 1927 letter to Mount Holyoke College’s Alumnae Quarterly, she describes her niece’s work for the Survey, making careful records “of the inscriptions and pictorial reliefs still remaining on the walls of the funerary temple of Ramses III at Medinet Habu.” (R.L. Herbert) On this same trip through Egypt, Fitz-Randolph would have the privilege of seeing some of the newly discovered objects on display at the Cairo Museum from Tutankhamun’s tomb, and seeing the tomb itself during her visit to the Valley of the Kings. It would be her last trip to Egypt before her death at age 81. (R.L. Herbert) 

Photo by Ransom Williams of her beloved Aunt Fitz-Randolph ascending the hill from the Mena House during the season of 1926-1927. (From the Epigraphic Survey Photographic Archives, courtesy of the Epigraphic Survey)

Although Ransom Williams would have preferred to “work some part of each year in Egypt” were it possible, and Breasted wanted her to come back, she would not return to Egypt until 1935 after her mother’s death, working on the Oriental Institute’s Coffin Texts project at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, and also on behalf of the Metropolitan Museum’s Egyptian Expedition. 

Sadly, it was while Ransom Williams was in Egypt in 1935 that she would learn of Breasted’s untimely death. In a letter of condolences to his family she wrote, “I never had a truer, kinder, more helpful friend than your father had always been to me.”

Her husband Grant died in 1942, and Ransom Williams followed a decade later, passing away at age 79 on February 1, 1952. Some years before her death, she donated her personal library of over 700 books to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and her personal collection of Egyptian antiquities to Mount Holyoke College. She had also arranged for her lifetime quarterly annuity provided by her beloved Aunt Fitz-Randolph to fund the Louise Fitz-Randolph Fellowship in Art at Mount Holyoke, still awarded to distinguished art history and archaeology students today.

It is the hope of this article to shed light on Caroline Ransom Williams, her remarkable life and achievements: a pioneer in Egyptology, a role model for women, and an important contributor to the Epigraphic Survey’s history and current methodology. Rather than say she must not be forgotten, it seems more promising to encourage that she must be remembered.

(Special thanks to W. Raymond Johnson, Krisztián Vértes, J. Brett McClain, Jen Kimpton and Ariel Singer. For images thanks to Christina Di Cerbo, Elinor Smith, and Emmanuelle Arnaudiès; Anne Flannery, Head of Museum Archives, Oriental Institute; Deborah Richards, College Archivist at Mount Holyoke College Archives & Special Collections; and Marianne Hansen, Curator for Rare Books and Manuscripts at Bryn Mawr College Library.)

Additional reading

My dear Miss Ransom: Letters between Caroline Ransom Williams and James Henry Breasted, 1898-1935 edited by Kathleen L. Sheppard, Archaeopress Publishing Ltd, 2018

Caroline Louise Ransom Williams, 1872-1952, by Barbara S. Lesko on behalf of Brown University’s Breaking Ground: Women in Old World Archeology

The Tomb of Perneb by Albert M. Lythgoe and Caroline Ransom Williams, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1916

The Decoration of the Tomb of Per-Neb: The Technique and Color Conventions by Caroline Ransom Williams, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1932, reprinted by Coachwhip Publication, 2012

History of Art at Mount Holyoke College online pdf download, Part 3 dedicated to Louise Fitz-Randolph, by Robert L. Herbert, 2018

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