A group of tributes said it all. Outshining her card from the Queen and a congratulatory letter from British Museum director Neil MacGregor were two spectacular artefacts: an apparently solid gold ship presented by the Ministry of Culture, Youth & Community Development, and a gold and silver khanjar (a dagger “worn on a belt by men”) from HH Sheikh Saud bin Saqr al-Qasimi, ruler of Ras al-Khaimah, United Arab Emirates.
Beatrice de Cardi celebrated her 100th birthday yesterday at the Society of Antiquaries in London, at a party held jointly by the society and the Council for British Archaeology, the two organisations for which Beatrice worked. Born a few weeks before the first world war, she was at the heart of a string of key changes that shaped archaeology in Britain in the 20th century. Yet her research and fieldwork were all conducted outside the UK. “It’s really necessary for archaeologists not to be insular”, she told me ten years ago.
She dug with Mortimer Wheeler at Maiden Castle in the 1930s. But after the second world war, when she returned from working with the foreign office in China, she found Wheeler had given her former job at the London Museum to another bright young thing. So she went out to Delhi as an assistant UK trade commissioner, later moving to Pakistan. There she began a pattern that continued for her working career: she used her leave to investigate archaeology, in this case Indus civilisation sites – the day after she retired she was on a plane to Qatar.
In 1944 she was invited to be the Council for British Archaeology’s first secretary. Settling down in London, once she was able to take sufficient leave in the 1950s, she returned to fieldwork in Baluchistan. “There was too much tribal unrest to continue working there,” she told me. “So, I decided to hop across the border and work in south-eastern Iran, at Bampur… only to be pounced on by the Iranian secret police. I thought, I’ll look at the nearest point to Iran, and chose Ras al-Khaimah.”
The ruler of Ras al-Khaimah was keen on her work, and invited her to put up a research proposal, the outcome of which ultimately underpinned the archaeological stories at the Emirates’ national museum.
In 2008 the Independent called her “the world’s oldest practising archaeologist”, and as far as I can see she’s still in practice. Among the many awards and honours she has received, her OBE was presented 40 years ago. Yesterday she was given a gold medal by the Society of Antiquaries. Perhaps there’s something in those genes inherited from her Corsican father, Count de Cardi. Happy birthday, Beatrice.