In 1922 Tufnell worked as a secretary in London for W. M. Flinders Petrie. In 1927 she joined Petrie's team in Egypt and then his expedition in southern Palestine, first at Tell el-Far῾ah (South) and then at Tell el-῾Ajjul. Not having studied archaeology formally, she gained experience, knowledge, and training at those excavations, working with Petrie and his assistants, principally James L. Starkey. [See Far῾ah, Tell el- (South); ῾Ajjul, Tell el-; and the biographies of Petrie and Starkey.]
In 1932, following a rift with Petrie's wife, who had an active role in the management of the Tell el-῾Ajjul expedition, Starkey decided to open his own large-scale excavations at Tel Lachish (Tell ed-Duweir). A number of Petrie's assistants, primarily G. Lankester Harding and Tufnell, went with him. The excavation at Lachish lasted for six seasons, coming to an abrupt end when Starkey was murdered by Arab bandits in January 1938. [See Lachish; and the biography of Harding.]
Tufnell returned to England, where she dedicated herself to the monumental task of publishing the results of the Lachish excavations, a project that took about twenty years (with an interval during World War II). Lachish II, on the Canaanite fosse temple, appeared in 1940; Lachish III, which reported on the Iron Age remains, appeared in 1953; and Lachish IV, the Bronze Age finds, appeared in 1958. Tufnell also wrote a number of papers on other subjects. In 1984, shortly before her death, she published a detailed book on the scarabs of the early second millennium BCE.
Tufnell's main contribution to the Lachish excavations was the registration, classification, and study of the finds. Her publication of the Lachish pottery and her typological divisions are excellent and most useful in modern terms. She made penetrating observations, especially remarkable because she lacked formal training in ceramics. Her most important observations regarding Lachish, were not accepted at the time by the scholarly world but have since been proved correct by subsequent excavations at the site. Her assessment that the last Canaanite city (level VI) was not destroyed until after the reign of Pharaoh Rameses III (twelfth century BCE) and that level III was destroyed in 701 BCE by Sennacherib, king of Assyria, has been confirmed.
In addition to her devotion to archaeology, Tufnell is remembered as a modest and kind person. During her stay at various excavations, she served both as archaeologist and nurse, providing medical help from an expedition's dispensary to local Arab villagers.
- Henry, R. “Olga Tufnell: A Biography.” In Palestine in the Bronze and Iron Ages: Papers in Honour of Olga Tufnell, edited by Jonathan N. Tubb, pp. 1–9. London, 1985.
- Tufnell, Olga. “Reminiscences of a ‘Petrie Pup.’” Palestine Exploration Quarterly 114 (1982): 81–86.
- Tufnell, Olga. “‘Reminiscences of Excavations at Lachish’: An Address Delivered by Olga Tufnell at Lachish on July 6, 1983.” Tel Aviv 12 (1985): 3–8.