Hard work and happy days in Africa. / JEAN BROWN SASSOON

From Africa to Andalucía, doing what she loves best

Anthropologist and archaeologist Jean Brown Sassoon may be retired, but her passion for her subjects is as alive as it always has been

DEBBIE BARTLETT

Jimena de la Frontera is a pretty 'white village' in Cadiz province, a 30-minute drive from the coast. In recent years it has become increasingly popular and the foreign population is growing rapidly.

A handful of British residents, however, have been living in Jimena for so long that they are not considered 'foreign' any more and have become much-loved members of the local community. Jean Sassoon is one of them, having first discovered Jimena back in the 1970s when her sister, who lives not far away, bought a house in the village.

"Ring me anytime as long as it is after 11am, as at the age of 95 I am not an early riser!" Jean had said in her email when I contacted her about an interview. However, when I knocked on her door at the time we arranged, the slim, lively and glamorous redhead who answered it certainly showed no signs of giving in to the process of ageing.

Jean Brown Sassoon is a retired archaeologist and anthropologist who spent most of her working life abroad, particularly in Africa, which is still particularly close to her heart. In fact, it seems inaccurate to describe her as 'retired', because her passion for her subjects is as alive today as it always has been.

I asked her how she spends her time these days. "I'm writing a book about traditional medicines in North Kenya," she promptly replied, and went on to talk about a fascinating tribal society, where sorcery is believed to be the cause of illness and herbalists are the equivalent of GPs. "They believe modern medicine doesn't cure illness. They have their own methods," she explained.

The fact that she is writing a book should have come as no surprise: this is her fifth, the result of having spent 25 years carrying out anthropological research into the Pokot people of Kenya. She has written one book about traditional metalworking in the country and three specifically about the Eastern Pastoral Pokots: their livestock and veterinary medicine, their traditional hunting, raiding and warfare, and about their beliefs and practices.

Jean studied archaeology at Edinburgh university and at the UCL Institute of Archaeology in London. She then went to work at the British Museum and was the first woman to be employed in its Antiquities Department, as an assistant in the ethnography section.

She and her husband, a veterinary virologist, were later due to move to Nigeria as he had been appointed to a post there, but a last-minute change of plan meant the couple were sent to Kenya instead. Jean went to work at the Coryndon Museum (now the National Museum of Kenya), assisted in excavations at Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania, Rusinga Island in Lake Victoria and Olorgesailie and directed the excavation of several burial mounds in the Rift Valley.

Later, she ran the Material Culture Project of the Institute of African Studies of the University of Nairobi and became the Honorary Ethnographer of the National Museum of Kenya. It was a very busy time, during which she built up and catalogued collections, led anthropological expeditions and studied traditional manufacturing techniques and use of various Kenya crafts, as well as carrying out her ongoing study of the Pokot people.

She also drew up ethnographic collections for several important museums in the UK and USA, and was appointed as the UN's socio-anthropological consultant for development projects in Kenya and southern Sudan.

Nowadays, her love of history remains as strong as ever and she has extensive knowledge of the Roman period, especially in the area of southern Spain in which she lives. She is particularly frustrated that there are 97 archaeological sites in this area but only six are listed. She is also concerned at the prospect of solar panel parks being built over archaeological remains and has attended protests against the proposed plans.

Many people who have had eight hip and knee operations would lead a quiet life, no matter what their age, but not Jean, who still adores walking in the mountains and looking for ancient relics. When relaxing at home, though, with her five rescue cats, does she like to read I asked? "Well, a bit", she replied. "Biographies, mainly. But not of film stars or anything like that..."