Behind the traditional story of archaeology, with its pith-helmeted Victorian gentlemen, are the equally important yet neglected stories of its female pioneers. Brenna Hassett shows how their lives are vital to the future of the discipline.
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.