“Ladies of the Field”

ladies of the field3

Ladies of the Field: Early Women Archaeologists and their Search for Adventure by Amanda Adams.

I’ve been reading this intermittently between other books I got from the library a few weeks ago. It’s an in-depth biographical look at 7 of the first women to venture out into the field when Archaeology was in its infancy. Some were adventuresses more than scientists and others were true archaeologists. Most are middle to upper-class white women, with one possibly mixed-race (Zelia Nutall’s mother was Mexican). All contributed in some significant way to the development of archaeology, and all did so at a time when women were not encouraged to use their minds or exert themselves physically. Some of them are more well-known than others (Agatha Christie and Gertrude Bell). Some were proto-feminists eager to help their sisters up in the world and others were as misogynistic as any man. But all were brilliant, strong women whose place in history should not slide into obscurity as they are doing.

One of the most exciting moments while reading this book was reading about Amelia Edwards, an early Egyptologist. I had one of those moments where I am convinced that I had discovered the historical inspiration for one of my all-time favorite fictional characters. That is a special moment, resulting in some ecstatic history-nerdery. It helps that Edwards was so very amazing herself. She essentially shepherded the study of Egyptology from the pursuit of dilettantes and adventurers and into its infancy of real scientific study. She was the mentor and friend of one of the most famous early Egyptologists, William Flinders Petrie. Petrie is one of the first great men in his field, who focused on the importance of every artifact no matter how tiny and mundane, instead of only being interested in plundering great treasures. But Petrie himself was brought into prominence by Amelia Edwards. Yet in all my years of studying Egypt and the history of Egyptology I had never run across her name. Possibly this is because she was more well-known in England than the US, but I feel reasonably assured that’s not the whole story. Archaeology is not so much a ‘boy’s club’ as it was during the glory-days of the women profiled in Ladies of the Field, but there still exists plenty of bias and overlooking of women’s contributions to the field.

The seven women profiled are Amelia Edwards (1831-1892), Jane Dieulafoy (1851-1916), Zelia Nuttall (1857-1933), Gertrude Bell (1868-1926), Harriet Boyd Hawes (1871-1945), Agatha Christie (1890-1976),  and Dorothy Garrod (1892-1968). They ranged from Egyptologists to pre-historians in their professional interests, but many of them focused on excavation in the Middle East and Mediterranean, the exception being Nutall who focused on Mexico. But the most interesting statistic to me, pointed out in the epilogue, was these women’s ages. Almost all of them began their careers in archaeology in middle-age. Some of them gave their greatest contributions to their fields while in their 50s or 60s. Personally, I found this inspiring. Of late, I’ve been feeling a bit like I’ve given up my opportunity for a good career in the interest of being a mother and have missed my window for field-work at the ripe old age of 28. These great women, the foremothers of my chosen career, rejected  that message of “too old” and went on to satisfying careers started late in life. Ladies of the Field reminded me it’s never too late to achieve your dreams until you’re dead AND buried.

I would also note, at least two of the women profiled were both successful novelists AND archaeologists. Hopefully the reason I found this fact compelling is obvious to any readers of this blog!


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