Molly Cotton remembered

The Dr. M. Aylwin Cotton Foundation funded fellowship awards, publications grants, and other donations for the study of archaeology, architecture, history, languages and art of cultures in the Mediterranean area for a period of 36 years, from 1972-2008. It’s just one of the lasting contributions to archaeology made by Molly Cotton.

During the 1960s and 70s she played a major role in the British School at Rome’s archaeology activities, training aspiring students. She began by directing excavations of the Roman Republican villas at Posto and San Rocco near Francolise in Campania, and later, she excavated throughout Southern Italy (Gravina, Cozzo Presepe, Monte Irsi, Otranto) as well as closer to Rome along the Via Gabina.

But she wasn’t always an archaeologist.

Born Mary Aylwin Marshall (1902-1984), she trained as a doctor at the London School of Medicine for Women and St. Mary’s Hospital. In 1928 she married Dr Thomas Cotton, a cardiologist, and retired from medical practice, although she remained an honorary medical advisor to the National Children’s Adoption Society until 1936.

Shortly after, Molly went on a trip to Greece and was converted to archaeology.

In 1936 she was one of the first to take a postgraduate diploma at the newly founded Institute of Archaeology, London. She became close friends with Tessa and Mortimer Wheeler, and was assistant director of the pioneering excavations at Maiden Castle conducted between 1934 and 1938. 

During the war years Molly served in the Far Eastern Department of the Ministry of Economic Warfare and on the Foreign Office staff, and in 1946 was awarded an OBE for her outstanding contribution.

In 1948 she resumed her archaeological work, excavating with Sir Mortimer Wheeler at Hod Hill, Verulamium, Colchester and Clausentum. During these years her research focused on the pre-Roman Iron Age of Britain and in particular the classification of hill forts of that period.

It was only after her husband passed away in 1965 that Molly moved to Rome and became closely connected with the British School at Rome, running the activities of the Archaeology department, the ‘Camerone’. She has left behind an important legacy in archaeology both through her foundation and her publications.

In memory of Molly’s outstanding contribution to the British School at Rome and Italian archaeology, each year the BSR hosts a Molly Cotton Lecture, inviting distinguished archaeologists to present on recent research and excavations. This year, the BSR is proud to host a lecture by Cécile Evers, Natacha Massar and Cesare Letta on “The Forum at Alba Fucens: Recent Belgian Excavations and the Fasti Albenses”.

By Stephen Kay (BSR Molly Cotton Fellow)

Images courtesy of the BSR Archive.