Today’s excerpt, to celebrate International Women’s Day, is from The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology: Characters and Collections, edited by Alice Stevenson.
On 10 March 1923, the London Illustrated News ran a double-page spread with the headline ‘Men who perform the “spade work” of history: British names famous in the field of archaeology’. Many familiar faces from Egyptology were featured, including Flinders Petrie, Howard Carter, and F. L. Griffith. What this feature completely overlooked, as many histories of ‘Great Discoveries’ have, is the important contribution made by female archaeologists. Indeed, many excavations in Egypt and Sudan were dependent upon them.
Women were frequently members of fieldwork campaigns in Egypt and they shared with the whole team the discomforts of life in the field: the dirt, the discoveries and the physical labour. Petrie’s wife, Hilda, was one such ‘trowelblazer’. She set out for Egypt for her first excavation in 1896, only a few hours after marrying Flinders Petrie. For her, fieldwork represented ‘a splendid free open life … without the ordinary necessities in so many ways’.
During field seasons Hilda Petrie engaged in one of the most important activities on excavation: the recording of finds and the inking onto objects of the record of their findspot. Many objects in the Petrie Museum bear her handwriting and these form indispensable keys that allow us to associate those things with the records, plans and photographs that document the circumstances of their discovery. Throughout her career Hilda additionally undertook the surveying and planning of sites, inked drawings for publication and edited her husband’s text. Hilda was also instrumental in raising funds for expeditions. For these reasons, Petrie dedicated his final memoirs of a life in archaeology ‘to my wife, on whose toil most of my work has depended’.
Many other female pioneers in archaeology also acquired their first experiences of fieldwork on Petrie digs. This included Gertrude Caton-Thompson, who not only made ground-breaking discoveries in Egyptian prehistory, but additionally went on to demonstrate definitively the indigenous African origins of Great Zimbabwe in the face of hostile criticism from the largely male academy. Other regular field collaborators included artists such as Winifred Brunton and Annie Quibell, whose toil on site is often little recognized, but was crucial to the success of field seasons.