Monday, September 23, 2013

Ladies of the Field by Amanda Adams

I would never make it as an archaeologist. I know this because I am reading Ladies of the Field and not one minute spent 'in the field' appeals to me.

Call me crazy, but I prefer a bug-free environment, hot coffee, and clean sheets.

Apparently, the seven female archaeologists of the Victorian era profiled by author Amanda Adams were not so picky. 

These women were bold in a time when women were not supposed to be too educated or think too much. Mostly, they were to learn the art of housekeeping, take care of children, and be supportive of their husbands.

The women profiled are Agatha Christie, Amelia Edwards, Gertrude Bell, Harriet Boyd Hawes, Dorothy Garrod, Zelia Nuttall, and Jane Dieulafoy.

They were all born between 1831 and 1892. They all left field notes, letters, journals, and travel books that Adams drew from for the book.

Zelia Nuttall

Although most of the digging at that time was done in the Middle East, American Zelia Nuttall was fascinated with Mexico and the ancient Aztec civilization. She lived in a grand house just outside of Mexico City surrounded by gardens that she maintained and loved. She was more of a scholarly researcher than a woman out in the sand with her little brushes and a trowel, but she did discover the remains of an ancient sacrificial temple on an island off the coast of Veracruz. 

Jane Dieulafoy

Frenchwoman Jane Dieulafoy, was a prolific travel writer as well as an archaeologist and together with her husband spent many seasons excavating the sands of Susa in Persia. Both she and her husband wore the pants in the marriage. Jane was known for wearing fashionable men's clothing when she was in Paris and comfortable and practical men's clothing when she was in the field. She unearthed the Frieze of Lions in Susa which is on display in the Louvre today. Too bad that on the the museum's website only her husband Marcel Dieulafoy is credited with the discovery. 

There is a photo of a formal portrait of each woman that opens her profile. Also, photos taken in the field or of found relics give the reader a real sense of how these women lived and what they unearthed.

My only quibble with the book is that the author speculates that some of the friendships and affections of the single women were perhaps actually lesbian relationships. I hate this propensity of modern authors to second guess the sexuality of their subjects.

These women rode horses across the deserts, carried guns for protection, fought off mice and lice, ate sand-filled food, supervised teams of workers and toiled alongside them in heat and rain and mud. They lived in tents and slept on the ground or on cots. 

More power to them for finding a way to do what they loved.

Adams writes:

Archaeology is a bit like camping with a sense of great underlying purpose and productivity; we are gathered here to uncover the past. Imagine what it was like in Victorian days to shrug off corsets and high-neck dresses. To ditch tea parties for the open road.

The story of archaeology's pioneering women captures a critical moment in time when a group of women challenged the mode of thinking that confined them. They embody a burst of daring and freedom, as much as they do the birth of a new science. 


  1. I should buy this book for my aunt who has worked at archaeological digs in California, researching early settlers. I'd be tempted to read it first, though! I worked on a dig in the City of David when I was in college one summer--I thought it was great fun (though hard work, with picks and shovels and buckets of dirt--none of these little trowels or brushes you see in the movies), but I doubt I would enjoy it much now. I'm a little too attached to my comfortable bed and the lack of sand in my food.

    1. What an adventure you had, Kathy. The closest I have ever been to an archaeological dig came from watching the Indiana Jones movies.

      This book doesn't go into a whole lot of detail about the digs themselves but offers an overview of each woman's life. Most, of course, came from wealth and were interested in travel. Archaeology became the focus for that.

  2. I loved this book. Thanks for mentioning it a while ago. I thought I wanted to be an archeologist when I was a teenager. Maybe if I'd pursued that way back then, I would have enjoyed it. Now, I can't imagine living in the conditions these women did. I, like you, like clean sheets, warmth or coolness depending, good food, no bugs, but I admire women like these and never tire of reading about them.

    1. Joan, I was surprised to read that some of the women were 'up in years' and still digging and sifting. I don't know how they did it. True grit!

  3. The only dig I've been on was in a city but it made up my mind for me that I was not cut from the archaeologist cloth - it was over 40 degrees centigrade, under an iron roof, and the dig was 19th century workers cottages. I think the best find was a handful of pins. But I still love the idea of archaeology! This book sounds like something I would enjoy, but I agree about the problems of over-speculating.

    1. Vicki, that sounds like a lot of trouble for a handful of pins! But if you love to dig then that might seem like a treasure!

      As to the speculation: actually it was only about one of the featured women but it struck me as superfluous wondering that didn't enhance the profile. I have just noticed in a few books or articles I have read that this goes on and I don't like it. Give me facts or give me nothing!