Authors: Ladies of the Field: Early Women Archaeologists,Their Search for Adventure
LADIES of the FIELD
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AND THEIR SEARCH FOR ADVENTURE
by Amanda Adams
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For the two great women in my life:
My mother, Kathy
And in memory of my grandmother Lorraine Shea
he first women archaeologists were
Victorian era adventurers who felt most at home when farthest from it. Canvas tents were their domains, hot Middle Eastern deserts their gardens of inquiry and labor. Thanks to them, conventional ideas about feminine nature—soft, nurturing, submissive—were up-ended. The excavation shovel churned things up, flipped things over, and loosened the stays of gender a little.
Ladies of the Field
tells the stories of seven remarkable women, each a pioneering archaeologist, each a force of nature who possessed intellect and guts. All were convention-breaking and courageous women who burst into the halls of what was then a very young science.
For centuries, archaeology had been little more than a game of treasure hunting, a kind of cowboy science in which men traveled far and wide in search of gold and other trophies to bring home. Early archaeological exploration wasn’t much different from looting; it was the khaki-clad branch of art history that emphasized digging and acquiring (nay, stealing) the art. Yet by the mid-nineteenth century, archaeology was shaking off its antiquarian robes. Women were beginning to enter the field, sending a bright signal not just that times had begun to change but that archaeology would too. The nineteenth century was a time when more and more women began rejecting common submission to the patriarchy. It was a time of increasing social turmoil: John Stuart Mill’s book
The Subjection of Women
) was causing a stir in its demand for equality between the sexes. Working-class girls were receiving more education than ever before, and even inventions like the typewriter and the telephone eventually helped to bring women out of the house and into the workforce, where their talents could be at least moderately appreciated. Some women were becoming more vocal about their rights and their wants. For most this meant pursuing the right to vote in their home country or the opportunity to simply further their education. For others, it meant climbing mountains, becoming doctors or architects, and fighting for entry into scientific fields. For early women archaeologists, it was by their work—some of it sensuous travelogue, more of it formidable scholarship—that they helped to reshape how we study the past.
The belief persists that women are not mentioned in the early annals of archaeology’s history because they weren’t there. Not true. Women were present in the archaeological field by the mid- to late
s, but they were very few and were often given diminished scholarly treatment by male colleagues. As one scholar explains, “Over the course of the last
years, a rigid power structure has been established in archeology. Although men have controlled this power structure throughout the history of the discipline, women have always made significant, if devalued, contributions to archeology.”
Those neglected contributions are emerging from the shadows today.
s, when archaeology became more firmly established and its doors were opened to women much more so than ever before, a handful of intrepid ladies chased their love of hidden history. Some worked part-time in museums; others had the financial means to contribute to digs and explorations. But an extraordinary few packed their bags, left the floral sitting rooms and pretty petticoats behind, and embarked on rigorous journeys that took them around the world in pursuit of archaeological wonders. This book is about them.
The pioneering female archaeologists were a diverse group: reckless to some, the smartest and most laudable ladies to others. The very first to “scale the heights” of a camel and touch patent leather shoe to Egyptian sand was Amelia Edwards. Eventually nicknamed the “Godmother of Egyptology,” Edwards sailed the Nile on a houseboat as early as
, sketching the pyramids and eventually making an archaeological discovery all her own.
Soon after, Jane Dieulafoy burst onto the scene with her archaeologist husband, Marcel. The two of them traveled thousands of miles on pounding horseback through what is now Iran. They set their sights on the ruins of Susa, and Dieulafoy became one of the most celebrated women in Europe, not just because of her archaeological prowess, but because she was a French lady who preferred to wear men’s clothing. She even requested and obtained an official permit from the government authorities to do so.
The strong-minded Zelia Nuttall was born in San Francisco and schooled in Europe and eventually made her permanent home in Mexico City, where she became a prominent scholar in Mexican archaeology, a cultural icon in black lace shawl, and master gardener of ancient seeds. She played host to celebrities such as D.H. Lawrence and was a firm believer in modern scientific methods. Nuttall was also famous for finding ancient papers and objects the rest of the world had presumed lost.
Gertrude Bell deserves her own book, and luckily several have been written about her. A legendary lady, she was an insatiable traveler, brilliant intellectual, photographer, diplomat, strategist, and all-around “Queen of the Desert.” In Bell’s heyday, she was
most powerful woman in the British Empire. Her life soars with supreme adventure, and no matter where she was, she always wished “to gaze upon the ruins.” The pursuit of archaeology is what structured Bell’s expansive wanderings.
In her mid-twenties Harriet Boyd decided she could learn far more about ancient Greece by living there—under its blue sky and white colonnades—than by studying its history in the pages of a library book. By
, she was crossing the wine-dark sea to begin ground-breaking excavations at the site of Gournia on the island of Crete. Before leaving Athens she had also developed a reputation as a girl bicycle rider. Newspapers chronicled her daily exploits (even if she was just doing errands); she shocked passersby by touring through Athenian streets in a long dress on a bike with a basket.
Not long after, the world’s future best-selling novelist Agatha Christie was sitting at her rickety desk in a humble London flat typing out the draft of one of her first detective stories,
Mysterious Affair at Styles.
Little did Christie know that she would soon be divorced, onboard the Orient Express alone, happier than she’d ever been, and en route to meet her second husband, Max Mallowan. Together they would spend thirty years inside the trenches of archaeological fieldwork.
Last, there is the enigmatic Dorothy Garrod, a ferociously good scholar who methodically tore down what final barriers still stood that prevented women from joining the ranks of archaeology. Garrod’s quest was to discover the very origins of who we are and where we come from. Having lost three brothers to World War
, she dedicated herself to proving her own life worthy not just of one man’s accomplishments but rather of three.
All seven women were headstrong, smart, and brave. They had a taste for adventure, a kind of adventure that no longer exists today. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, massive swaths of desert remained unmapped, communication moved no faster than a horse’s gallop (at least in those deserts where they roamed; the first transatlantic telegraph wasn’t sent until the mid-
s), and to travel at all as a woman—especially as a woman alone—elicited most people’s disapproval. Yet here were these seven women who risked everything just so they could dig in the dirt. This book sets out to discover who these extraordinary women were, what made them tick, and why they chose archaeology—a career grounded in mud, bugs, leaky tents, and toil—as their life’s consuming passion.