a portrait of female archaeologist Jane Dieulafoy in men's clothing

Pioneering Female Archaeologists and Their Contributions

12 min read

Throughout history, archaeology has been enriched and advanced by the contributions of numerous pioneering women whose work has significantly expanded our understanding of ancient civilizations. These remarkable women defied the gender norms of their times—breaking barriers and setting new standards in archaeological research and excavation techniques. Their discoveries have unveiled critical insights into human history, from early urban settlements to intricate writing systems and cultural practices. In this article, we celebrate the achievements of some of the most influential female archaeologists, whose groundbreaking work continues to inspire and shape the study of our past. From Kathleen Kenyon to Marija Gimbutas, learn all about these incredible women in archaeology.

Kathleen Kenyon (1906-1978)

Icon of British archaeology, Kathleen Kenyon during archaeological fieldwork

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First on our list of women in archaeology is Kathleen Kenyon, who blew away her male colleagues by developing the Wheeler-Kenyon method of excavation. Kathleen Kenyon was born on January 5, 1906, in London, England. She was the daughter of Sir Frederic Kenyon, a renowned biblical scholar and director of the British Museum. Growing up in an intellectually stimulating environment, Kenyon developed a passion for archaeology early on.

She attended Somerville College, Oxford, where she studied history and developed an interest in ancient cultures. After graduating, she began her archaeological career working on various excavations in Great Britain and later joined Sir Mortimer Wheeler on several projects. Kenyon quickly established herself as a meticulous and innovative archaeologist, gaining recognition for her work in the field.

Key Contributions

Kathleen Kenyon is best known for her groundbreaking work at the archaeological sites of Jericho and Jerusalem. She developed the Wheeler-Kenyon method, a revolutionary approach to archaeological excavations that emphasized the importance of stratigraphy—the study of rock layers and layering.

This method involved carefully digging trenches to expose the vertical profiles of archaeological sites, allowing for more precise dating and understanding of the chronological sequence of human activity. Kenyon’s approach significantly improved the accuracy of archaeological data and set new standards for excavation techniques, influencing generations of archaeologists.

Notable Discoveries

One of Kathleen Kenyon’s most significant achievements was her excavation of the ancient city of Jericho. Her work at this site, conducted in the 1950s, uncovered one of the earliest known Neolithic settlements.

Among her notable discoveries was the Tower of Jericho, a massive stone structure dating back to around 8000 BCE. This find provided crucial evidence of early urbanization and complex societal structures in the Neolithic period.

Kenyon’s meticulous excavation and documentation at Jericho challenged previous assumptions about the timeline of human development and highlighted the sophistication of early agricultural communities. Her discoveries at Jericho remain a cornerstone in the study of ancient human civilizations.

Gertrude Bell (1868-1926)

Gertrude Bell

Gertrude Bell was born on July 14, 1868, in Washington Hall, County Durham, England, into a wealthy and influential family. Her father, Sir Hugh Bell, was a prominent industrialist and a baronet. Bell was exceptionally well-educated for a woman of her time, attending Queen’s College in London and later studying history at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, where she graduated with a first-class degree in Modern History. Her academic prowess, combined with her adventurous spirit, led her to travel extensively throughout the Middle East, where she developed a deep understanding and appreciation of its cultures, languages, and archaeology.

Key Contributions


As a British archaeologist, explorer, and diplomat, Gertrude Bell made significant contributions to the understanding of Middle Eastern history and culture. Her diplomatic efforts during and after World War I were instrumental in the formation of modern Iraq. Bell played a pivotal role in the establishment of the country’s borders and the selection of its first king, Faisal I.

In addition to her political work, she co-founded the Iraq Museum in Baghdad, aiming to preserve the rich archaeological heritage of Mesopotamia. Her efforts in archaeology and diplomacy bridged cultural gaps and helped shape Western perceptions of the Middle East.

Gertrude Bell’s extensive travels and meticulous documentation of Middle Eastern cultures were crucial in enhancing Western knowledge of the region. She traveled across deserts, mountains, and ancient ruins, often in challenging conditions, to study and record the histories and lifestyles of various tribes and communities.

Her writings, including detailed diaries, photographs, and maps, provided valuable insights into the geography, politics, and social structures of the Middle East. Bell’s work not only contributed to the academic field of archaeology but also played a vital role in the geopolitical landscape of the early 20th century. Her legacy endures in the continued study and appreciation of Middle Eastern history and archaeology.

Dorothy Garrod (1892-1968)

One of many pioneering women archaeologists is Dorothy Garrod, standing between two other explorers.

Dorothy Garrod was born on May 5, 1892, in Oxford, England, into an intellectually prominent family. Her father, Sir Archibald Garrod, was a notable physician and academic. Dorothy Garrod pursued her education at Newnham College, Cambridge, where she developed an interest in archaeology and anthropology. She furthered her studies under the guidance of the renowned French prehistorian, Abbé Henri Breuil, at the Institut de Paléontologie Humaine in Paris. Garrod’s rigorous training and passion for prehistory led her to become a pioneering figure in the field of archaeology.

Dorothy Garrod is best known for being the first woman to hold a professorship at Cambridge University, a significant milestone in a predominantly male academic world. She was appointed as the Disney Professor of Archaeology in 1939. Her groundbreaking work on prehistoric sites in the Middle East, particularly in Palestine and Lebanon, provided crucial insights into human evolution and prehistoric cultures.

One of Dorothy Garrod’s most significant achievements was her excavation at Mount Carmel in Israel during the 1920s and 1930s. This site yielded remarkable discoveries, including the remains of both Neanderthals and early modern humans, which were among the first to show evidence of the coexistence of these two groups.

Her findings at Mount Carmel provided vital evidence for the study of human evolution and the spread of early human populations. The stratigraphic and systematic approach she employed set new standards for archaeological excavations. Garrod’s meticulous work at Mount Carmel and other sites greatly enriched the understanding of prehistoric human life and the development of early civilizations.

Margaret Murray (1863-1963)

Photo of Margaret Murray reading a book. Many photos of this female archaeologist come from the Egypt Exploration Society.

Margaret Murray was born on July 13, 1863, in Calcutta, British India, to a British colonial family. She was educated in England and later studied at University College London (UCL), where she developed a profound interest in Egyptology and archaeology.

Under the mentorship of Sir Flinders Petrie, a leading Egyptologist, Murray honed her skills and embarked on a remarkable academic and field career. She became one of the first women to establish a significant presence in the field of archaeology, breaking through many gender barriers of her time.

Margaret Murray made significant contributions as both an Egyptologist and an anthropologist. She was particularly known for her extensive work on ancient Egyptian religion, which included studying and interpreting religious texts, rituals, and artifacts. Murray also became famous, and somewhat controversial, for her theories on witchcraft in Europe.

She proposed that the witchcraft trials of the early modern period were remnants of a pre-Christian, pagan religion. While her witchcraft theories have since been widely disputed, they sparked significant interest and debate, influencing the study of folklore and anthropology.

One of Margaret Murray’s most notable archaeological achievements was her work on the tomb of the Two Brothers in Deir el-Bahari, Egypt. This excavation, conducted in the early 20th century, uncovered the tomb of two high-ranking priests from the Middle Kingdom. The findings provided valuable insights into ancient Egyptian burial practices, social hierarchy, and daily life.

Murray’s meticulous documentation and analysis of the tomb and its contents contributed greatly to the understanding of Middle Kingdom Egypt. Her broader contributions to Egyptology and her innovative, if controversial, theories on European witchcraft left a lasting legacy in both archaeology and anthropology.

Harriet Boyd Hawes (1871-1945)


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Harriet Boyd Hawes was born on October 11, 1871, in Boston, Massachusetts. She grew up in a well-educated and supportive family that encouraged her academic pursuits. Boyd attended Smith College, where she graduated in 1892 with a degree in Classics. Her passion for archaeology led her to further studies in Europe, including at the American School of Classical Studies in Athens, Greece. Despite the challenges faced by women in the field during her time, Boyd’s determination and expertise earned her respect and recognition as a pioneering archaeologist.

Harriet Boyd Hawes is celebrated for her groundbreaking work as an American archaeologist, particularly in the field of Aegean prehistory. She made history by becoming the first woman to direct a major archaeological excavation in Greece. Boyd’s leadership in the field was marked by her innovative methods and her ability to inspire and manage excavation teams.

One of Harriet Boyd Hawes’ most significant achievements was her excavation at Gournia, a Minoan town on the island of Crete. Conducted between 1901 and 1904, this archaeological dig uncovered a well-preserved Minoan settlement, including residential buildings, workshops, and public structures.

The findings at Gournia provided invaluable insights into the daily life, architecture, and urban planning of the Minoan civilization. Boyd’s meticulous work at the site revealed the sophistication and complexity of Minoan society, challenging previous perceptions and contributing to a more nuanced understanding of ancient Crete. Her classical archaeology discoveries at Gournia remain a cornerstone in the study of Aegean history.

Jane Dieulafoy (1851-1916)


Jane Dieulafoy was born on June 29, 1851, in Toulouse, France. She grew up in a time when opportunities for women in academia and exploration were limited. Despite these challenges, she pursued her interests passionately. Jane married Marcel-Auguste Dieulafoy, a civil engineer and archaeologist, and the couple shared a deep interest in history and archaeology. Jane often accompanied Marcel on his expeditions, and her contributions to their joint work were substantial. Her experiences and observations during their travels fueled her passion for archaeology and exploration.

Jane Dieulafoy is best known for her significant contributions to the field of archaeology through her work in Persia (modern-day Iran). Alongside her husband, she conducted extensive excavations at the ancient city of Susa, one of the most important archaeological sites in the region. Her work in Susa was groundbreaking, and she played a crucial role in the documentation and analysis of the site.

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Jane Dieulafoy’s meticulous documentation and publications on Persian art and architecture are among her most notable achievements. Her work in Susa involved the discovery and recording of numerous significant artifacts, including the famous frieze of archers from the palace of Darius. Jane’s detailed drawings and descriptions of these findings were published in several books and articles, providing a comprehensive and accessible account of Persian art and architecture.

Her publications were highly regarded for their accuracy and depth of insight, helping to bring greater awareness and appreciation of Persian heritage to the Western world. Jane Dieulafoy’s legacy endures through her contributions to the documentation and preservation of Persian cultural history.

Tatiana Proskouriakoff (1909-1985)


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Tatiana Proskouriakoff was born on January 23, 1909, in Tomsk, Russia. Her family emigrated to the United States during the Russian Revolution, settling in Pennsylvania. Proskouriakoff displayed an early talent for drawing and a keen interest in archaeology, which led her to study architecture at Pennsylvania State College. Her artistic skills and academic background paved the way for her career in archaeology, where she became a pivotal figure in the study of Mayan civilization.

Her ability to interpret and reconstruct ancient structures and artifacts through detailed drawings helped revolutionize the field. Proskouriakoff’s work was instrumental in deciphering the complex writing system of the Maya, revealing insights into their history, culture, and dynastic records.

One of Tatiana Proskouriakoff’s most significant achievements was her work at the Mayan sites of Piedras Negras and Copán. Her meticulous study and interpretation of the hieroglyphic inscriptions at these sites led to the decoding of Mayan history and royal lineages. Proskouriakoff’s efforts provided a chronological framework for Mayan civilization, transforming our understanding of their societal structure and historical chronology. Her publications and drawings remain foundational resources in Mayan studies.

Mary Leakey (1913-1996)


Mary Leakey was born on February 6, 1913, in London, England. Raised in a family with a deep appreciation for history and exploration, she developed an early interest in archaeology. Leakey’s education was unconventional, as she was largely self-taught, but her determination and passion for the field led her to work alongside prominent archaeologists, including her husband, Louis Leakey.

Her meticulous excavation techniques and keen observational skills led to groundbreaking discoveries that reshaped our knowledge of human evolution. Leakey’s contributions extended beyond fieldwork; she also played a crucial role in mentoring and training the next generation of archaeologists.

Among Mary Leakey’s most notable discoveries are the fossilized footprints at Laetoli, Tanzania, which provided compelling evidence of bipedalism in early hominids. Additionally, her work at Olduvai Gorge, alongside her husband, led to the discovery of numerous early hominid fossils, including species such as Homo habilis. These finds have been instrumental in understanding the physical and behavioral evolution of early humans.

Hilda Petrie (1871-1957)


Hilda Petrie was born on June 8, 1871, in Dublin, Ireland. She developed an early interest in archaeology through her marriage to the eminent Egyptologist, Sir Flinders Petrie. Together, they formed a formidable partnership, with Hilda contributing significantly to their joint archaeological endeavors.

Working closely with her husband, she played a vital role in numerous excavations and was responsible for many important discoveries and publications. Her organizational skills and attention to detail were instrumental in the success of their archaeological projects.

Hilda Petrie’s notable work includes significant excavations in Egypt and the Sinai Peninsula. She was involved in the discovery and documentation of various ancient sites, including tombs, temples, and settlements. Her work provided valuable insights into the history and culture of ancient Egypt, and her publications helped disseminate these findings to the broader academic community.

Anna O. Shepard (1903-1973)


Anna O. Shepard was born on March 3, 1903, in New York City. She pursued her education in archaeology and anthropology, earning degrees from the University of Colorado and Harvard University. Shepard’s interest in ceramics led her to specialize in the study of ancient pottery, making significant contributions to the field.

Her innovative methods of ceramic analysis, including petrographic and chemical techniques, became standard practices in archaeology. Shepard’s research provided deeper insights into the production, distribution, and cultural significance of pottery in ancient societies.

Shepard’s notable work includes her research on ceramics in Mesoamerica and the American Southwest. Her detailed analyses of pottery from various archaeological sites helped establish chronological frameworks and trade networks. Shepard’s publications, such as “Ceramics for the Archaeologist,” remain essential references for archaeologists studying ancient pottery.

Zelia Nuttall (1857-1933)


Zelia Nuttall was born on September 6, 1857, in San Francisco, California. She developed a strong interest in archaeology and anthropology from an early age, influenced by her well-traveled and intellectually engaged family. Nuttall pursued her studies at institutions in Europe and the United States, becoming a leading figure in the study of pre-Columbian cultures.

Her extensive research and publications on Aztec and Mixtec civilizations significantly advanced the understanding of these ancient cultures. Nuttall’s work was instrumental in the preservation and interpretation of indigenous artifacts and manuscripts.

One of Zelia Nuttall’s most notable achievements was her research on Aztec culture and artifacts, including the Codex Nuttall, a Mixtec manuscript. Her meticulous analysis and publication of this and other pre-Columbian documents provided valuable insights into the history, religion, and social organization of Mesoamerican civilizations. Nuttall’s work remains a cornerstone in the study of pre-Columbian archaeology.

Marija Gimbutas (1921-1994)


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Marija Gimbutas was born on January 23, 1921, in Vilnius, Lithuania. She pursued her education in archaeology and linguistics, earning a Ph.D. from the University of Tübingen in Germany. Gimbutas later emigrated to the United States, where she became a prominent professor at Harvard University and the University of California, Los Angeles.

She was well respected for her research on Neolithic, Bronze Age, and Middle Stone Age, cultures in Europe. Her theories on the role of women in prehistoric societies and the concept of the “Old Europe” civilization were groundbreaking. Gimbutas’ interdisciplinary approach combined archaeology, mythology, and linguistics to provide a holistic understanding of ancient European cultures.

Gimbutas’ notable work includes her theories on the role of women in prehistoric Europe and the “Old Europe” civilization. She proposed that these early societies were matristic and peaceful, centered around the worship of goddess figures. Her publications, such as “The Civilization of the Goddess,” sparked significant academic debate and brought greater attention to the importance of female figures in ancient cultures.

Final Thoughts on Female Archaeologists Who Changed the Way We View the World

The pioneering female archaeologists highlighted in this article have made indelible marks on the field of archaeology through their groundbreaking discoveries, innovative methodologies, and dedication to uncovering the past. From Kathleen Kenyon’s revolutionary excavation techniques to Marija Gimbutas’ profound insights into prehistoric European societies, these women have challenged conventions and broadened our understanding of ancient cultures. Their work not only paved the way for future generations of archaeologists but also enriched the narrative of human history with their unique perspectives and tireless efforts.

As we celebrate their achievements, we are reminded of the importance of diversity in academia and the vital role these trailblazing women have played in shaping our collective knowledge of the past. We encourage you to honor these women in archaeology every day, not just during Women’s History Month!