First Lady of Arabian heritage

The doyenne of Emirates archaeology, Beatrice de Cardi, has died at the age of 102.

Beatrice de Cardi is presented with a replica golden dhow by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Presidential Affairs. Courtesy Christian Velde
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The doyenne of Emirates archaeology has died at the age of 102. Beatrice de Cardi’s remarkable career, her vibrant personality and an association with the UAE that endured for nearly half a century are recalled by her colleague and friend, Peter Hellyer.

Beatrice de Cardi first came to the Emirates in 1968, before the formation of the federation, and undertook surveys in Ras Al Khaimah and along the whole of the east coast.

It was the beginning of an association with the UAE that endured for nearly 50 years, during which she became the unchallenged doyenne of Emirates archaeology.

Born in London to Count Edwin de Cardi, an aristocrat of Corsican origin, and his wife, an American heiress, de Cardi was educated at a leading English private school, St Paul’s Girls’ School, and at University College London.

While at UCL she attended lectures by Sir Mortimer Wheeler, one of Britain’s leading archaeologists, and obtained her first experience in the field with Wheeler and his wife at the Iron Age site of Maiden Castle, the largest hill fort in Britain. After graduating, she joined Wheeler as his secretary at the London Museum, and later became his assistant.

During the Second World War, de Cardi was seconded to the Foreign Office and worked for the Allied Supplies Executive of the War Cabinet in China, based in Chungking.

She visited India frequently and became fascinated by the history of the subcontinent. After the war, she became Britain’s assistant trade commissioner in Delhi, moving after partition to Karachi and Lahore.

Archaeology remained her first love and Wheeler, then director general of archaeology in India, helped her to obtain support to follow up reports of a previously unknown type of pottery being found near Quetta, in Baluchistan. Working in 1948 with an official from the Pakistani Archaeological Department, de Cardi found nearly 50 sites, including some from the Bronze Age that provided evidence of trading links with the West.

Returning to Britain in 1949, she became assistant secretary of the Council for British Archaeology, later rising to become secretary, a post she held until 1973.

In 1966, she visited the Iranian part of Baluchistan, finding evidence that the civilisation she had earlier detected to the east stretched towards the Gulf. From then on, for nearly half a century, she turned her attention to the southern Gulf.

The reports of her surveys in Ras Al Khaimah were the first published record of the ancient heritage of these areas. Among sites she first recorded were those of the major Islamic port city of Julfar in Ras Al Khaimah, and the Iron Age hill fort of Husn Madhab in Fujairah. A brief venture to Qatar in 1973, at the invitation of the emir, also laid the foundations of Qatari archaeology.

De Cardi’s subsequent work, however, focused largely on the UAE, and she developed a particular interest in Ras Al Khaimah, where she struck up a close, if somewhat unlikely, friendship with its Ruler, Sheikh Saqr bin Mohammed Al Qasimi.

In 1989, she was the first recipient of the Al Qasimi Order, given to her by Sheikh Saqr for her contribution to the heritage of Ras Al Khaimah.

De Cardi was by this time widely recognised as one of the leading experts on the archaeology of the southern Gulf. In 1992, when Dr Geoffrey King, of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, and I established what became Adias, the Abu Dhabi Islands Archaeological Survey, she was an obvious choice to be a key member of our team.

Among the dozens of sites discovered in that first year was the group on Sir Bani Yas, the only known Christian monastery in the southern Arabian Gulf. De Cardi continued to work with Adias for several years, on Sir Bani Yas and on other island surveys.

Dr Joseph Elders, now chief archaeologist of the Church of England, who was director of excavations on Sir Bani Yas, recalls: “Together with Beatrice and other colleagues, we surveyed many of the islands by dhow, anchoring just offshore. Beatrice, then in her early eighties, happily waded to shore in her ‘Baluchi bathing suit’, a garment she had first adopted in Pakistan decades before. She was amazing; great fun too.”

Among her publications was an important study of pottery found at a site at Abu Dhabi International Airport, which proved that the area had been occupied for several thousand years.

Her first love, though, remained Ras Al Khaimah, and she continued to visit almost annually until 2011, when she was 96. As her days of fieldwork came to an end, she devoted her skills to registering pottery and other finds into the emirate’s archaeological database.

Christian Velde, resident archaeologist at Ras Al Khaimah’s Department of Antiquities, observes: “Without her help, the large number of finds from the early excavations and surveys would still be unregistered or would have to be registered by persons without her immense knowledge.”

In 2009, while attending a conference on UAE archaeology organised by the Ministry of Culture, de Cardi was presented with a replica golden dhow by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Presidential Affairs, in recognition of her contribution to the heritage of the UAE. On her final visit, in 2011, Sheikh Saud bin Saqr, Ruler of Ras Al Khaimah, presented her with a gold and silver khanjar.

Queen Elizabeth made de Cardi OBE in 1973, and other awards included the Burton Memorial Medal of the Royal Asiatic Society in 1993 and the Gold Medal of the Society of Antiquaries of London in 2014.

She continued to keep in touch with local archaeology news until shortly before her death.

Prof Peter Magee, of Bryn Mawr College in the United States, remembers that de Cardi was still visiting his excavations at Muweilah and Tell Abraq when she was in her mid-nineties.

“She always offered interesting ideas and interpretations. On these visits, and at other times, I never heard her speak ill of any other scholar. She would disagree with interpretations and ideas, but she never engaged in any ad hominem remarks. That, in combination with her enormous enthusiasm and energy, provided a great lesson for younger scholars.”

Dr Mark Beech, head of Coastal Heritage and Palaeontology for the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority, first met de Cardi on Sir Bani Yas more than 20 years ago, when they were both members of Dr Elder’s Adias team.

“The whole team benefited from her wisdom and extensive experience of archaeological research in the UAE, Qatar and elsewhere,” he recalls.

Later, as Dr Beech worked on his doctorate in Ras Al Khaimah, his visits often coincided with those of de Cardi.

“I have fond memories of spending our day off on Fridays driving around the mountains with Beatrice looking for prehistoric tombs,” he says. “She was a remarkable woman, archaeologist and friend.”

De Cardi inspired her colleagues not just for her depth of knowledge and experience, but with her words of gentle encouragement.

She impressed them, too, because of the way in which she insisted on maintaining her personal standards while working in the field. Among younger archaeologists who were, at best, somewhat unkempt, she was impeccably turned out at the beginning of the working day, having carefully put rollers in her hair every night and only appearing after she had completed her make-up.

A little smile, or a slightly raised eyebrow, generally sufficed to make us all feel a little embarrassed.

A remarkable archaeologist and a real lady of a now-vanishing style, she will be much missed.

De Cardi never married. A first fiance was killed during the Second World War, and a second, a fellow archaeologist, died as a result of a riding accident in 1973.

Beatrice de Cardi, OBE, FBA, FSA, born June 5, 1914, died July 5, 2016.

Peter Hellyer, author and editor of several books on UAE archaeology, was executive director of the Abu Dhabi Islands Archaeological Survey from 1992 to 2006.