Groundbreaking women in archaeology

Discover the stories of pioneering female archaeologists from across Europe

Tessa Verney Wheeler
by
Kate Fernie (CARARE)

From the early days of archaeology, women have made significant contributions, yet their work is less well known. Today, around half of all archaeologists are women. They supervise excavations, survey and research sites of all periods, work in conservation and heritage management. In museums, women care for archives and collections, advise on how climate change impacts on historic sites, work with the public, and transfer their knowledge and skills to the next generation.

In this blog, we introduce six pioneering women archaeologists and their stories.

Jane Dieulafoy (1851 - 1916) was a French explorer, archaeologist and a writer who excavated the site of Susa with her husband, Marcel-Auguste Dieulafoy, in the 1880s. Today. their finds from Susa form part of the Iranian collection at the Louvre.

Jane Dieulafoy

Jane had a traditional up-bringing but a far from conventional life. After marrying, she went with her husband to the front during the Franco-Prussian war, putting on a soldier's uniform to fight.

Later, when they began their journey through Persia to Susa, Jane continued to dress in men’s clothes and cut her hair short. As most archaeologists today wear trousers in the field, it is surprising to note that Jane required special permission for this as it was illegal for women in France at the time.

Throughout her journeys and on site, Jane kept detailed diaries and photographs of the remains. During the excavations, she supervised large all-male teams of local workers, while recording and mapping their finds.

Anna Apostolaki (1881 – 1958) was born in Crete, and qualified as a teacher from the University of Athens. She broke boundaries by becoming the first woman to be a member of the Archaeological Society of Athens, as well as one of the first female graduates from the University of Athens.

Drawing depicting Anna Apostolaki

Anna went on to become the first curator of the National Museum of Decorative Arts in 1926, caring for its collections and becoming internationally known for her research on ancient textiles, weaving traditions and folk art. She worked at the museum through the inter-war period publishing a catalogue on Coptic textiles. Anna was a founding member of the Lyceum Club of Greek Women and gave her first lecture to members on the Palace of Minos at Knossos in 1911. She was speaking in public at a time when much of the scientific world was dominated by men.

Tessa Verney Wheeler (1893 – 1936) was an accomplished archaeologist who excavated a number of important sites in Britain with her husband, Mortimer Wheeler. The Wheelers were considered to be a team in their lifetime: together, they ran excavations, developing excavation methods and publishing their work.

Tessa Verney Wheeler

Their last joint excavation of the Iron Age hill fort at Maiden Castle was funded by public donations, largely as a result of Tessa's efforts. The Wheelers were pioneers in filming their excavations and in bringing them to public attention. Tessa spoke frequently at historical societies and encouraged people to visit excavation sites.

But it was perhaps as a teacher of the next generation that Tessa made her most important contribution. Numerous female archaeologists including Kathleen Kenyon, Beatrice de Cardi, Veronica Seton-Williams, Ione Gedye and Molly Cotton all learned excavation techniques from Tessa Wheeler. Shortly before her death she was instrumental in the creation of the Institute of Archaeology in London.

Explore a gallery: female archaeologists

Marija Gimbutas (1921 – 1994) was born in Vilnius, Lithuania, and emigrated with her family to the United States in 1949. She took up a post at Harvard University and later became professor of Archaeology at University of California, Los Angeles from 1963 until 1989.

Photograph of Marija Gimbutas at the back of Newgrange, Co. Meath, Ireland

Marija was internationally known for her research into Baltic Neolithic and Bronze societies and for her ‘Kurgan hypothesis’, which explored the migration of peoples in an Indo-European region. Her other research focused on female figurines. She gained fame for three English language books on the theme of the civilization of the goddesses of ‘old Europe’.

While some of her ideas have been challenged, her interpretation of Neolithic and Bronze age Europe as having complex social organisation, religious practices and a material culture filled with meaning continue to inspire and provoke new research.

Archaeology today

This blog wouldn't be complete without highlighting some of the women working in archaeology today.

Shahina Farid is a British archaeologist who is best known for her work as Field Director of excavations at the Neolithic site at Çatalhöyük.

Shahina Farid during excavations

Shahina worked at Çatalhöyük for 20 years until 2012. Her work on the Çatalhöyük stratigraphic sequence is a cornerstone of archaeological and scientific studies, reflected in her publication record of over 40 articles and reports. Currently, she works for Historic England as a scientific dating coordinator.

Ann Degraeve is Head of the Archaeological Department of the Heritage Direction, Ministry of the Brussels Capital Region, Belgium and Secretary to the Board of the European Archaeological Council.

Ann Degraeve

Ann writes 'my work consists of the archaeological excavation management for the Brussels Capital Region (archaeological legislation, public procurement, guidelines for archaeological excavations in the Brussels Capital Region), archaeological collections and data management (database development), conservation and digitisation of the archaeological archives of the Brussels Capital Region and digital archaeological heritage developments.'

These stories give a snap shot of the many different roles and contributions that women have made to archaeology across Europe and beyond from its beginnings and continue to make today.

Explore more women's history on Europeana

References

Jane Dieulafoy: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jane_Dieulafoy

Anna Apostolaki: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anna_Apostolaki

Vivian Florou, 2016, ‘Anna Apostolaki: A Forgotten Pioneer of Women’s Emancipation in Greece’ online: https://nataliavogeikoff.com/2016/01/01/anna-apostolaki-a-forgotten-pioneer-of-womens-emancipation-in-greece/

Tessa Wheeler: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tessa_Wheeler

Marija Gimbutas: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marija_Gimbutas

Shahina Farid: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shahina_Farid

Interview with Shahina Farid, British Institute at Ankara News: https://biaa.ac.uk/news/item/name/interview-with-shahina-farid-insights-into-turkish-archaeology

Ann Degraeve, 'How to manage a 6000m excavation in the historic city centre of Brussels: https://www.chnt.at/how-to-manage-a-6000mexcavation-brussels/

This blog, titled 'Pioneering women in archaeology', was initially published on March 8, 2021 at https://www.carare.eu/en/news/pioneering-women-in-archaeology/