The ever-curious geologist whose career was changed by a postcard

Judith Bunbury’s career has taken her from geology into archaeology, where she contributes to international teams puzzling out the narratives of ancient Egypt. She says her love of wearing bright colours makes her hard to ignore.

Judith Bunbury emerges from an Old Kingdom Tomb at Maidum, Egypt (Ian Ostericher)

Geology was, when I started my career, a world where men prevailed. I wasn’t daunted by the company of men. Having grown up with brothers, I was a bit of a tom boy. But I did find it difficult to get a word in edgeways with so much machismo on the rock.

In my 20s I started wearing bright colours. I realised that as a woman wearing sober clothes, I was easily overlooked. I was working in Turkey where there’s a big clothing industry. I bought the reject samples of lines that hadn’t sold.

Colours have an impact. When I put them on, I noticed how visible I was. I might not be taken seriously but if you’re wearing green and orange, you’re hard to ignore even if people just want you to go away. Putting colours together is a form of playing.

Judith Bunbury registers finds in her office in the Sahara

Playing is one of the keys to learning. As a teacher I’m always encouraging my students to think beyond the obvious and contribute their thoughts. If you’ve got a question — ask it. If you’ve got an interesting idea — let’s hear it.

Turkey was my first experience of living overseas. I did Natural Sciences at Durham University and become interested in volcanoes. I wrote to Professor Dan Mackenzie at Cambridge and asked if he had any PhD positions. One was in Turkey, studying around 80 small volcanoes, and I applied for it.

I had to look Turkey up in my school atlas — I wasn’t even quite sure where it was. I arrived totally naïve about the challenges of living in rural Turkey and learning a new language.

The experience of working overseas helps me with my role as senior tutor at St Edmunds College. Our current students come from 81 different countries. St Edmunds is a college for graduate and mature students so they’re 21 or over when they start their courses.

Conversations at meal times are brilliant. At lunch yesterday, the discussion was about naming protocol. Students from Romania, Croatia and elsewhere were comparing traditions in choosing names for children.

My research combines geology and archaeology. I’m a geo-archaeologist. Much of my current research focuses on Egypt where I help archaeologists to identify minerals and unravel the stories of the many quarries uncovered in excavations.

Judith Bunbury causes merriment in Egypt

I thrive on being busy. I’m a vicar’s wife and mother to two daughters. I lead the local Guides group which keeps me in touch with how teenagers think. Being female and not very tall, and keen to join in everything going, I quash any ideas they might have about Cambridge academics being scary.

My inability to resist an adventure goes back to childhood. My father was in the Navy and we moved around a lot. He liked empty spaces so we lived close to Dartmoor but even that wasn’t remote enough. We moved to the edge of Bodmin moor where my siblings and I ran wild.

The village school was 32 children and two teachers in a single room. It was in a Portakabin and when we had country dancing it rocked alarmingly. The teachers were brilliant at keeping us occupied. The older ones helped the younger ones to learn to write. When the little ones were listening to a story, the older ones would be knitting.

That early experience of teaching was formative. Whether I’m with Cambridge students or with the Guides, I love to see faces light up with the sheer joy of learning. I’m learning too — at the moment I’m teaching myself to play the piano accordion.

When we weren’t at school we were making dams. We even invented a mix of moss and mud that was perfect for sealing the gaps in our constructions. We fought a lot and threw cowpats at each other. Later I went to a girls’ boarding school which wasn’t nearly as exciting.

Childhood was great preparation for fieldwork. During my undergraduate degree I spent a couple of months on the Isle of Rum studying the heart of the ancient volcano there. There was a permanent population of 27 people. We washed in an icy stream and I played my violin for visitors staying in the island’s hotel.

Judith Bunbury relaxes after a day excavating the past

My step sideways into archaeology started with a postcard. It was pinned to the Department of Earth Sciences’ noticeboard by two archaeologists, who were looking for a geologist to help them identify emerald mines. I got in touch to explain that they needed to re-word their notice to appeal to geologists — and ended up working with them.

The ancient Egyptians named 89 different minerals. Written in hieroglyphs, mentions of minerals appear on papyrus and temple inscriptions. Matching these hieroglyphs against the minerals used for decorative and medicinal purposes is a huge puzzle.

I’ve always got several research projects on the go. A recent one looked at the medieval Arab indigo trade and the massive investments made in Mamluk irrigation schemes in Egypt. During construction in the 12th to 14th centuries, 200 oxen were used to move the earth.

Later this year I’ll be back in Egypt at the Faiyum oasis on the Nile. At Gurob, site of an ancient palace, I’m working with an international team looking at irrigation works from over 3,000 years ago. My task is to identify the channels and, from the refuse in them, determine their date. It’s really exciting to be piecing together the puzzle of what happened all those years ago, day by day.

Girls can go absolutely anywhere

I’ve never lost touch with my inner child. Growing up, I benefited from tremendous freedom, which gave me the courage to try new things and speak out for myself. Girls can go anywhere.

This profile is part of our This Cambridge Life series.

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