Five Female Archaeologists that we should be talking about

Chatting to a group of friends over a drink after a long day spent at the Berkeley excavations, the conversation turned, as it so often does when talking to final year students, to the future and what the heck we would find ourselves doing in the years to come. For many it was obvious, my medic friend would most probably be working in a hospital, the engineer of the group had already scored herself a training contract and the politics grad next to me was already excited for her masters degree. Then it was my turn. “What about you, Sarah? What are you going to do with ‘Archaeology’?” I ignored the scornful undertones, unfortunately used to my degree being undervalued by my unknowing peers, and accustomed to their unawareness of how awesome archaeology can be. “I dunno”, I replied. “I might carry on digging for a bit.” Cue raised eyebrows and incredulous looks. “What like the first FEMALE Indiana Jones?” Oh wow.

This post, far from being a rant about the potential undervaluing of arts subjects including archaeology, is actually a celebration of a couple “FEMALE Indiana Joneses” that have already KICKED ASS in their exploration of the past through material remains.

Margaret Murray. (1863-1963)

Margaret Murray (Source: Wiki)
Maybe an obvious place to start, but I just think she is the coolest. Murray is famous for being the first Female Archaeology Lecturer in the UK, placed at UCL in 1899 (apparently she was paid £40 a year). She was awarded an honorary doctorate from UCL in 1931 and made an honorary fellow in 1932, before becoming the Chair of Egyptology in 1933 – impressive for an archaeologist, let alone a female one at this time!

A feminist, she was a member of the Women’s Social and Political Union (led by Emmeline Pankhurst) and took part in the first procession of protest to the Houses of Parliament in 1907. She partook in excavations in Malta, Menorca, Palestine and Egypt – and during the excavation at Abydos, Egypt (1902-1903) she overcame initial trouble asserting herself as a 4’10” woman and quickly established herself as a force to be reckoned with. In 1908 she spent over an hour and a half unwrapping a mummy to an audience of over 500 in the first public mummy unwrapping. She also spent a lot of time cataloguing collections in museums in Edinburgh, Dublin, Oxford and Malta to name just a few. Murray’s work has paved the way for archaeologists – male and female alike – and she is definitely worth chatting about.

Agatha Christie (1890 – 1976) 

Agatha Christie (Source: British Museum)

I know. I know. A bit of a wild card. But Agatha Christie is actually a big deal not just for her writing skills, but also her archaeological experience. Who knew?!

Christie accompanied her archaeologist husband, Max Mallowan, on digs throughout the Middle East throughout the 1930s, aiding him at first as a junior assistant by cleaning and repairing objects, sorting pottery fragments and cataloguing finds. She expresses her enthusiasm for archaeology in her autobiography, explaining that her time spent on excavations at Nineven (the capital of the Late Assyrian Empire) were “endlessly interesting” because “Although it was so old – it was new!”.

Over time her involvement in the archaeology became more intense and demanding – including work as a photographic technician, taking and developing photographs, as well as restoring pottery and supervising workmen. Most days she would begin work at 6am to avoid the worst of the desert heat. She joined excavations at Chagar Bazar in North Eastern Syria, where the Mother Goddess figures (dating to 5500-4500BC) were found, the enormous site of Tell Brak and also at Nimrud, the prominent Assyrian city in Northern Iraq. Christie’s contributions were also invaluable.  The Numrud ivories, for example, are widely recognized as one of the finest collections of carved ivories that have ever been found, and because of Christie’s ingenuity in conserving and cleaning them (using cosmetic face cream and a knitting needle) they are still in good condition now.
Nimrud Ivories (Source: UCL)
Her archaeological experiences can be seen to have influenced her writing! In ‘Murder in Mesopotamia’ for example, the culprit turns out to be an archaeologist and the tale draws on Christie’s experiences in Ur and Chagar Bazar. ‘Murder on the Orient Express’, too, clearly includes details from Christie’s journeys through the Middle East.

Theresa Singleton 

Dr. Theresa Singleton (Source: Society of Black Archaeologists)

In 1980 Singleton became one of the first African American women to receive a Ph.D. With a focus on historical archaeology and African American history and culture, she has worked to fill in the blanks and reveal the missing details about elements of everyday life in slavery in plantations in America and the Caribbean.

For her lifetime of scholarly contribution to Archaeology, the Society of Historical Archaeology awarded Dr Singleton with the J.C. Harrington Award in 2014, making her the first African American recipient. Her ground-breaking research continues to inform us about conditions of slavery, providing archaeological evidence about food, clothing, housing and religion and is addressing areas that have for too long been overlooked.

Georgina Herrmann. 

Georgina Herrmann (Source: Rolex Awards)
This lady is a pretty big deal. After getting her doctoral degree from Oxford University and then going on to lecture at UCL (funnily enough specializing in the Nimrud ivories mentioned above!), Herrmann found herself directing an excavation at Merv (a Silk Road city in the Kara Kum desert, Turkmenistan). This was great because it revealed the significance of this site as the oldest and best preserved Silk Road city, with archaeological sites encompassing 4,000 years and over 60 existing monuments. Herrmann’s work was intense: They had only an eight week time frame in which it was possible to excavate because of the environmental conditions in Merv. These environmental conditions were also problematic in the survival of the site with the earthern monuments being undercut by rising ground water and damaged further by falling rain or snow.

In 1996, Herrmann was announced as the Rolex Award Laureate of Cultural Heritage. The funding and publicity provided by this led to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) designating Merv as a World Heritage Site (recognizing its value to humanity’s common heritage), and so led to the Ancient Merv Project focusing on its conservation and management. This forged a path for the Silk Roads Thematic Study Project, aiming to help identify and conserve other potential Silk Road sites! Amazing right?!

Sarah Collins

Sarah Collins (Source: The Age, photo by Roger Cummins)
Now this lady is as kick-ass as Lara Croft, but in real life. She’s a curator at the British Museum, responsible for Early Mesopotamian collections (from prehistory to c.1500BC) including a touring exhibition ‘The Wonder of Ancient Mesopotamia’. She’s excavated in Iraq, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. But the reason I’m making such a fuss about this lady, is because of her work protecting archaeology in Iraq after the war broke out in 2003.

In the April, the National Museum, Library and Archives in Baghdad were looted and damaged, with thousands of pieces taken (and still unaccounted for) and many destroyed or vandalized. Just two months later Sarah was seconded to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad and spent three months working with the Ministry of Culture, liaising between the US state department and officials in the Iraq museum to ensure that Iraqi cultural heritage was protected and preserved. She then worked with the British Museum to organize urgent training for Babylon Museum staff and archaeologists, focusing on site assessment, management and the care and conservation of collections. For her services to Museums, Collins was awarded an OBE in 2007. Too cool.

Final Comment

This list is a short one but I am eager to see which other female archaeologists you readers would like to recognise. If you’re keen to learn more, our friends over at Trowel Blazers (run by some other impressive and kick-ass archaeologists and paleontologists – including the ex-president of the University of Bristol’s Archaeology and Anthropology society!) have a whole blog dedicated to the recognition of women archaeologists, palaeontologists and geologists who have been on the scene for ages and doing awesome work.

Note: Our Engagement Coordinator would like to thank Sarah Humphrys for all her enjoyable blog posts over the last few weeks. Sadly, this is her last post for the Berkeley project as she sets off on her own adventures post graduation, follow her story here: