The most inspirational female archaeologists from history

A female archaeologist excavating an ancient burial site
Gertrude Caton Thompson's meticulous methods of excavation were decades ahead of their time | Image: Shutterstock

The field of modern archaeology and historic discovery has been notoriously male-dominated. Despite the substantial contributions to archaeological practices and historical learning by women, often their finds were minimised or discredited due to their gender. Sexism was rife, and often female-led discoveries were attributed to their male colleagues instead.

Despite this monumental gender gap, however, female archaeologists persisted. Along with their substantial contributions to their fields, here are four groundbreaking female archaeologists who paved the way for future generations.

Mary Brodrick (1858–1933)

When Mary Brodrick approached tutors at the Sorbonne in Paris about learning under their tutelage, they were less than impressed. Citing "But we do not take little girls here", and "I have never taught a woman in my life, and I never will", her potential tutors appealed to the Sorbonne council. It was eventually found that there were no rules against women studying archaeology, and Mary Brodick was allowed to attend the prestigious institution as its first female student.

Mary was warned by her tutors that she wouldn’t enjoy her time in learning, and indeed she found herself alienated and bullied by her peers. Unperturbed, however, Mary laughed off their pranks and jokes, eventually befriending her fellow classmates.

Later in her career, Mary found herself working under her former Sorbonne mentor, Gaston Maspero, as one of the first female excavators in Egypt.

Maud Cunnington (1869–1951)

When Maud and her husband Ben dedicated their passions to archaeology it was still an activity that was undertaken by enthusiasts and amateurs, a fact that would work in Maud’s favour early on. Many professions required a degree, a considerable barrier for women. At the time they were allowed to attend university, but would not be awarded full degrees because of their gender.

Despite bypassing this hurdle, Maud was no stranger to sexism and gender bias. She was unable to vote or legally own any land because she was a married woman. She even advised other women seeking to enter the archaeological community to stay away as it was “far too difficult”.

Historic societies had expressed rules that banned women from joining and would actively refute and discredit the discoveries made by women. Despite this, Maud’s peers were impressed with her contributions to the community. Discovering and excavating multiple sites of historic importance, Maud became the first female president of Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Society. To preserve the integrity of her two most famous excavations, Woodhenge and The Sanctuary, Maud and her husband purchased the sites and gifted them to the nation.

Gertrude Caton Thompson (1888–1985)

Gertrude’s interest in archaeology came during a trip to Egypt as a young woman. Thanks to an inheritance she received, she was able to financially support herself whilst dedicating her time to archaeology. Working on sites in Egypt, Zimbabwe, Malta, and South Arabia, she was best known for her meticulous methods of excavation and exploration that were decades ahead of her male peers.

Marking out her site with 10 x 30-foot intervals, Gertrude would excavate small layers at a time in each trench and record how and where each artefact was discovered in tremendous detail. This method ensured the most accurate recording of each site. Gertrude was also the first archaeologist to utilise aerial surveys of the land to locate archaeological sites of interest, both techniques that are still used today.

Dorothea Bate (1878–1951)

Despite an unorthodox education that Dorothea described as being “briefly interrupted by school”, Dorothea was one of the first women to be employed as a scientist by the Natural History Museum in London. Hired to sort and catalogue fossils and zoological discoveries, it wasn’t long until Dorothea was making scientific advancements in the archaeological field herself.

Shortly after publishing her first scientific article, Dorothea started travelling the world in search of fossils. With a particular interest in understanding the evolutionary events that led to giant and dwarf species, she discovered countless new species, fossils, and provided a basis for future scientists to identify their own paleontological discoveries.

Written by:

Jo Rowan