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The Forgotten Women of Archaeology

Behind the traditional story of archaeology, with its pith-helmeted Victorian gentlemen, are the equally important yet neglected stories of its female pioneers.

Image of Hilda Petrie climbs into a tomb, possibly Dendera, Egypt, 1897-8.  Courtesy of Egypt Exploration Society
Image of Hilda Petrie climbs into a tomb, possibly Dendera, Egypt, 1897-8. Courtesy of Egypt Exploration Society

Many of us are familiar with the great archaeological discoveries; far fewer of us can name the discoverers. In the popular imagination, they are industrious, moustachioed men in pith helmets and tropical whites, riding camels between pyramids and cursed tombs. Many of these mental images stem from the monumental work in the Victorian era of men such as the pioneering Sir Flinders Petrie, who dug holes all around Egypt and the Holy Land. The era of the photograph and the railroad brought the glamour and glitz of archaeology to a wider audience than ever before, transmitted through the nascent mass media of popular newspapers and magazines. While magic-lantern slideshows of the latest discoveries sold out in the theatres of European cities, journalists scrambled to tell the stories of famous (and infamous) explorers. Writing in hushed and reverent tones, the newspapers of the day spoke of the adventures of Petrie as the Father of History: his observations of the lost monuments of ‘Crocodopolis’ in the bread-basket agricultural valley of Egypt (now Fayoum) were so popular that they ended up in the most unlikely of places, including the 1890 Girl’s Own Paper, sandwiched between a love story and some regrettable poems. Petrie would come to be called the ‘Father of Archaeology’ for his systematic approach to the mysteries he uncovered, and the art of digging up the past would slowly morph into the science that it is today; it is to his image that we hark back to when we imagine archaeology. 

Yet while men such as Petrie – or Austen Henry Layard, who excavated the ancient biblical city of Nineveh, or Sir Leonard Woolley who unearthed Mesopotamian Ur – may have made headlines, they were not the whole of the story. 

If we consider archaeology as the study of human society through material evidence, it is clear that digging up the past predates the proper academic discipline by some thousands of years. The ancient Greeks and Romans provide the earliest evidence of digging. Myths of half-human monsters such as Cyclops, centaurs and armies raised from dragons’ teeth are at best metaphor or grossly exaggerated; it is possible that many of the myths reported by Homer, Herodotus and the other great historians of the ancient world could be easily explained by finding mysterious bones in the earth and reaching for the first available conclusion. Certainly, this has been the argument for the Cyclops, whose giant size and terrifying eye might be more easily imagined by the Greek farmer who accidentally unearthed one of the region’s many fossil elephant skulls than the fact of an actual elephant. Cyclops aside, however, we do not get to hear much of the human, non-monstrous past, for nearly a thousand years.

The Empress Helena of Constantinople is, on the surface, an unlikely candidate for academic inquisition. Helena was a woman of low status (sources have her as anything from a virtuous innkeeper to a common prostitute), who became the consort of the future Roman Emperor Constantius and eventually rose to the elevated position of Imperatrix through the intervention of her son, Constantine the Great. Constantine had woven Christianity firmly into his new model of the Roman Empire, breaking with its pagan past. To cement this piety, he gave his mother a blank cheque to ensure the spiritual security of his empire and, particularly, his new capital of Constantinople. Around ad 327, well into her seventies, Augusta Helena set off on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem from her palace in Rome. Her mission was to find the artefacts of their faith and to bring them back to fortify her son’s great new imperial city. In 395 Aurelius Ambrosius, later Saint Ambrose, would relate the tale of Helena’s quest to uncover the ultimate artefact: the True Cross, on which Jesus of Nazareth had been crucified and which was, therefore, one of the most important and holy relics in the Christian faith. Helena, he told the crowd at an oration for the funeral of Theodosius: ‘Opened up the earth, scattered the dust, and found three crosses in disarray.’

The more we look, the more we see that there are many more women who have been instrumental in building up our knowledge of the past, but who have been politely edited out of the story of archaeology. 

With the arrival of the Enlightenment in Europe, a trend for all things ancient swept the continent. The newly moneyed north went on Grand Tours of the impoverished south, to see the ruins of the Classical period and take in some of the romance that clung still to the decaying stones of ancient Greece and Rome. Coupled with the first stage of what would become an immense colonial enterprise encompassing the Near East and parts of Africa, the Europeans set off to find the roots of the civilised culture they claimed. Egypt was an early favourite, with the imposing monuments of the Giza Plateau making a fairly obvious target of interest, but it was in the Eastern Mediterranean, the Levant and the Holy Land where archaeological digs really took off. It was even farther to the east, however, that one of the most remarkable women in archaeological history made her stand.

Image of Jane Dieulafoy. Copyright Bridgeman Images
Image of Jane Dieulafoy. Copyright Bridgeman Images
The woman who would give Indiana Jones a run for his money was a French explorer and archaeologist, born Jane (Jeanne) Magre in Toulouse in 1851. She married an engineer, Marcel-Auguste Dieulafoy, soon after leaving convent school at the age of 19 and, when the Franco-Prussian war began shortly after, refused to be separated from him. Instead, she took the rather unexpected step of donning the uniform of a military sharpshooter and following him into battle. The new couple spent their honeymoon fighting side by side, united, as the writer Amanda Adams has phrased it, by ‘love and two pairs of trousers’. This adventurous couple would spend their lives travelling all over North Africa and the Middle East until finally settling on the Persian empire to search out the origins of some of civilisation’s greatest advances. Dieulafoy is best known for her work at the site of Susa, a grand metropolis of the ancient world situated in western Iran and mentioned in the very earliest historical texts, from Sumerian writing to the Bible. She and her husband excavated at the site for several years during the 1880s, with Jane striking the first blow herself, stabbing at its great mound with a pick until her strength gave out. It was at Susa that the great Lion Gate, which now sits in the Louvre, was discovered and it was Dieulafoy and her husband who packed it up and tried to spirit it out of the country (although they were thwarted by the sheer amount of bribes required to get it back to France). The treasure they uncovered was a dangerous temptation to looters and the threat of violence was never far away. Returning to the excavation by water, Jane’s raft was whisked away to the Susa side of the River Karkheh by a roiling current, leaving Marcel behind on the opposite shore. Eight men suddenly burst forth from undergrowth, surrounding her. She grabbed for her two revolvers, shouting: ‘I have 14 bullets to use on you; go and fetch six of your friends!’

This alarming behaviour seems to have seen off the threat and the couple continued their work. Dieulafoy would translate her heroics into a copious literary output; her travel writing and accounts of their expeditions made her a sensation in the salons of Paris. The French government was moved to give her the singular honour of an official permission de travestissement, allowing her legally to continue to wear her men’s clothing in France. Eventually, Dieulafoy was made a Chevalier of the Légion d’honneur, a prestigious honour for a woman who had so determinedly followed her own path, in archaeology and in life. 

A story like Jane Dieulafoy’s is very striking, so striking perhaps that it seems obvious that it must be an exception to an otherwise very male history of archaeology. But, if we look just a little bit closer at the history of those early expeditions, we see that she is far from the only woman to have come up against a bit of difficulty in search of the past. We need only to return to Flinders Petrie to see where women come into the story of archaeology – and where they are cut out. To correct the old adage that behind every great man there is a great woman, behind Petrie’s great excavations of the archaeological mysteries of Egypt is not just one woman but legions. It may have been Petrie who put his name to the deeds, but the practical achievement and the funds that made it possible would never have happened were it not for the work of women.

Older than Petrie by a generation was the multitalented Amelia Edwards, who would come to be known as the godmother of archaeology. Edwards tried her hand at a variety of things before coming late in life to an interest in Ancient Egypt, ranging from singing and music composition to illustration, literature and poetry. She was no dilettante, however; her first novel was published in a penny-serial at the age of 12 and her musical talents were remembered even at the time of her death. Her work ethic was legendary and she applied the same exacting schedule to her early career as a novelist as she would to her later career in Egyptology. To pursue such a wide variety of interests Edwards must have had a degree of self-assurance from a young age and, indeed, we see a little of the spirit of Jane Dieulafoy in her. In researching her first novel, she frequented the less salubrious parts of Paris in men’s clothing, something that seems to have been a bit of a hallmark for early ‘TrowelBlazing’ women. The novels she assiduously researched – she claimed never to have described a building she had not seen, though she did allow herself to imagine interiors – were hits. She was an established writer by the time she set off in 1873 on a tour of the Nile with her lifetime companion, Ellen Braysher. 

Her journey through Egypt, commemorated in the best-selling book A Thousand Miles up the Nile, was a life-changing experience. Edwards was fascinated by the treasure trove of ancient temples and statues on offer as they sailed their houseboat slowly up the Nile. She was also horrified by the perilous state of these monuments; generations of travellers had carved their names into the very stone of the pyramids, millennia- old paint had been washed off in taking souvenir rubbings of inscriptions and there seemed to be more antiquities in the markets than in the tombs. Students and museums got off no less lightly, as she decried in the book that:

The work of destruction, meanwhile goes on apace. The Museums of Berlin, of Turin, of Florence are rich in spoils which tell their lamentable tale. When science leads the way, is it wonderful that ignorance should follow?

Keen researcher that she was, Edwards launched herself into the archaeology of Egypt, striking up a friendship with the then young, up-and-coming Flinders Petrie and throwing her considerable efforts behind the conservation of Egypt’s endangered heritage. She found a cause that her enthusiasm and popularity as a writer could make a difference to and she applied herself wholeheartedly to promoting Egyptology and her chosen champions in it. Her work led to the establishment of the Egypt Exploration Fund, an academic body that supports the archaeology of Egypt and is still active to this day. It was her funding and her dynamic appeal – at public lectures and on the printed page – that helped men like Petrie dig. Her greatest success was in the endowments that she arranged, naming Petrie as the first ever Edwards Chair of Egyptology at University College London (UCL) and ensuring that his scientific approaches would lead the way in protecting the heritage of Ancient Egypt. 

It is at UCL that we find two other pieces of our missing-women puzzle. The college was peculiar for its time, in that it was open to all faiths and all sexes. This radical approach led to a stream of singular graduates and habitués, who would leave their own mark on archaeology as a discipline. One, Hilda Urlin, was born to a relatively comfortable family in Dublin in 1871, just a few years before Amelia Edwards would make her life-changing voyage up the Nile. The young Hilda was relocated to England by her family and it was not long before her drawing skills saw her recommended to Flinders Petrie to illustrate his next book. Petrie found in Urlin a companion with whom he could finally share his love of Egyptology. It did not take long for him to convince her that a life of adventure among the Pyramids was preferable to anything in London and, as soon as they were married, the new couple set off for Egypt – even leaving behind their own wedding breakfast. So thrilled was she to see the Pyramids at Giza that nothing would do but to climb the biggest one: Khufu, the Great Pyramid. Of course, her skirts proved too great an encumbrance. Never one to back down from a goal, she simply took off her skirt and climbed the pyramid in her bloomers. Hilda proved an indomitable supporter of her husband’s work, both in the field and, perhaps more significantly, in the drawing room. Her fundraising is credited with keeping Petrie’s dream alive yet, like Amelia Edwards before her, her name was not in the papers.

 Margaret Murray (third left) unwraps a mummy at the Manchester Museum, 1908. Copyright Manchester Museum, The University of Manchester

One of Egyptology’s greatest heroines did find herself in the papers; given her remarkable (and colourful) life, it is a testament to the prejudices of the day that she did not find herself a star. Margaret Murray was born in 1863, making her a bit older than Hilda Petrie, but both met in the service of Egyptology at UCL. Murray came to UCL in 1894 and was keen to go out in the field with the illustrious Professor Petrie. Ultimately, she only went once to his excavations at Abydos, where her instructions were ignored by the male workmen – until she docked them a day’s pay for refusing to follow her. Her expertise in Egyptology was increasingly acknowledged, however, and in 1908 a paying audience packed into the auditorium of the Manchester Museum to see her perform one of the most bizarre spectacles in Edwardian popular entertainment, a live ‘mummy unwrapping’. Some 500 people watched her unwrap the mummified remains of Khnumu Nekht, buried in Abydos’ Tomb of the Two Brothers. The event was well received, although the Manchester Guardian reported the day after that the whole thing had been ‘on the whole a gruesome business’ with a few audience members having to leave early. 

Murray had the misfortune to live and work in a time when men made the discoveries and women did the less glorified tasks, such as photography, illustration, translation and cataloguing. She did a vast amount of the teaching of the basics of Egyptology at UCL, even though women were not allowed the title of ‘Professor’ until 1949, well after her retirement. Despite her decades of work, which included an immense publication record and leading excavations in Malta and Spain, she was never fully rewarded for her efforts; when UCL finally gave her an honorary doctorate in 1931, her students had to club together to buy her robes. Despite this, whether it was unwrapping a mummy or pursuing her more esoteric interests in the archaeology of paganism and witchcraft, Murray managed to pursue her love of archaeology throughout her life. She was not entirely modest in her aims: her autobiography, published at the age of 100, was entitled My First Hundred Years and she took credit for saving the Allied cause in the First World War by having used her knowledge of ancient religion to put a hex on the Kaiser. 

These women and hundreds more with stories just as fascinating are at the heart of how we understand the past, yet for years and even centuries their contributions have been lost. If it were only a historical pattern where women’s accomplishments went unrecognised, we might be more inclined to shrug, but there is a very real danger in the academic world today that women’s work is still going unrewarded. Women are still under-represented at the most senior levels of archaeology. More worrying still is the cultural perception of archaeology as a predominantly male endeavour, for which we have Indiana Jones and his ilk to thank. Ask a schoolchild today to picture an archaeologist and they are very likely to imagine digging up the past as a ‘job for boys’. 

This is why the TrowelBlazers Project exists. As an organisation, we collect these lost histories and try to knit the patchwork past together, as a story of the many different people and different contributions that shape what we know today. But we are not content with the archives. Archaeology is an active discipline and we are set on affecting not just its history but its future. We want to make sure that when people think of archaeology, it is not just those hoary old pith-helmeted gentlemen of a long- gone era that come to mind. 

Brenna Hassett is an archaeologist and founding member of TrowelBlazers. Her book Built on Bones: 15,000 years of Urban Life and Death (Bloomsbury) is published in February 2017. This article was originally published in the February 2017 issue under the title ‘The TrowelBlazing Women of Archaeology’.

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