It’s just been Women’s History Month, and now we have International Womens’ Day. The internet is full of fabulous lists of women in science who should be better known. So here’s our trowelblazing version: 5 women who really deserve to be bigged up for their contributions to palaeontology, geology and archaeology, but were overlooked, sidelined or forgotten. Who had you heard of?
While you probably have heard of Marie Stopes, we’ll bet its for her work as a womens’ health campaigner. But before this part of her life, she was one of the leading experts in ancient plants (palaeobotany) of her age.
This might not be surprising given that Marie grew up surrounded by the largest private collection of fossils and ancient stone tools in Britain, amassed by her father. She specialised in studying coal, formed by the great forests of the Carboniferous, and even travelled to Japan to work for a year in 1907.
By 1923, the year of her last scientific publications, she was already being hailed for her work on womens’ social and health rights, including contraceptive clinics which evolved into today’s Marie Stopes organisation. But in 2015 she also deserves to be remembered for her first love, palaeontology.
Growing up in a village in 1920s Palestine was a young girl who went on to make one of the most important early discoveries of a Neanderthal fossil, the Tabun 1 skull. Yet despite such a find, which might have led to a stellar career in archaeology in other circumstances, today we don’t even know Yusra’s surname.
She made her find in 1932 as part of local team of women workers excavating with Dorothy Garrod at her Mount Carmel dig. Excavating alongside another woman who did go onto become an archaeologist, Jacquetta Hawkes, Yusra spotted a tooth, and then most of a skull was un-earthed. Her skills as an excavator were well-respected by Garrod and Hawkes, but Yusra’s dream of studying at Oxbridge wasn’t to be, following the massive social unrest in the region.
Her contribution to science, uncovered in large part by scholar Pamela Jane Smith, is gradually becoming better known, and we are grateful to the Smithsonian who recently changed their webpages to acknowledge her find.
We love Yusra’s story so much, that we have created our first live Trowelblazers performance piece, WOMAN IN TIME, EXPLORING OUR HUMANITY THROUGH POETRY AND SCIENCE, for British Science Week! It tells the story of how her, Jacquetta Hawkes and the Tabun 1 Neanderthal woman’s lives all intersected one day 80 years ago, and explores the scientific legacy that speaks to the fundamental question of what it means to be human, and a cultural legacy which stretches from the arts to activism. It’s on 18th March in Bradford, completely free, and you can book tickets here.
3. Tina Negus
Not only should the name of this trowelblazer be much more widely celebrated, she should by rights also be immortalised in the history of science with one of the world’s most important fossils named after her. A teenager in 1956, Tina was keen on geology, and while checking out a quarry with deposits from before life began, was amazed to see something that looked distinctly fossil-like. However, she was fobbed off by her teachers when she tried to bring it to their attention, with the implication that she didn’t know what she was on about.
In fact, her keen eyes weren’t mistaken- and just the next year, a boy called Roger Mason saw the fossil, reported it and via a family contact who was a geologist, went on to claim the credit, showing that it’s not always what you know, but who. While the fern-like fossil in question was named after him, Charnia masoni, today Tina is still proud of her prior discovery, and still passionate about palaeontology, regularly involved with Precambrian researchers.
While Tessa is quite rightly a familiar name within archaeological circles, she is like a White Dwarf star in a binary system, eclipsed in the wider public consciousness and often also the archives by the enormous bulk of her Red Giant of a husband, Sir Mortimer Wheeler. We have yet to feature this amazing woman on TrowelBlazers (so we don’t have any photos of her with permission to use) but you can read about Lydia Carr’s biography of her and see more photos here. Tessa is a major figure in trowelblazing history, for her archaeological findings, her development of excavation best practices (including at Maiden Castle, below), and for being one of the first media-savvy figures in the field. She co-founded the Institute of Archaeology at UCL, and is a key node in the vast network of women working in archaeology in the first half of the 20th century, having trained many other trowelblazers on her excavations such as the legendary Kathleen Kenyon.
A triple-trowelblazer, Gudrun Corvinus was a pioneer in archaeology, geology AND palaeontology. She was one of the team working in Ethiopia in 1974 who found the famous early human ancestor Australopithecus skeleton, Lucy, but it was actually Gudrun who discovered the Gona deposits on the same project, which would turn out to hold the oldest known stone tools in the world, although she was barely acknowledged. She began her career, which spanned three continents and 200 million years, studying Jurassic ammonites, and then in the 1960s moved to India and made ground-breaking massive landscape surveys of the Palaeolithic archaeology there, as well as multi-disciplinary excavations.
Following the Ethiopian project, she worked in Namibia on rich animal fossil deposits but then returned to Asia in the 1980s, and went on to be the first to uncover the prehistory of Nepal over 25 years more research. Her astonishing career was brutally cut short when she was killed in 2006.
6. The lost legions of trowelblazers
The thing we’ve found since we started TrowelBlazers, is that as well as the big figures and lesser known scholars, there are many more women who have been involved with these fields from the beginning. They are present as un-named diggers, partners of professionals (often doing a lot of the work too), and anonymous figures in photographs of field trips, obviously there because they were interested in the subject.
Our Trowelblazing Enigma post by Jan Freedman explores the story of one of these lost women he found during research, photographed standing in front of a geological section, quite clearly knowing what she’s about. She represents what we really think TrowelBlazers is about: discovering not only individual contributions but the way in which so many women, from the mid-19th to the 21st centuries, are connected through their shared passion for geology, palaeontology and archaeology. That’s the real take-home message- these fields have never just been about lonely, isolated female figures, but huge webs of collaboration, support and mentoring. We are proud to be part of that in our own careers.