Images courtesy of the Pitt-Rivers Photo Collection.

Special Exhibition on until 2016 at the Pitt Rivers Museum – My Year in Siberia!

While the first battles of World War I were being fought, Maria Czaplicka was travelling the Yenisei Province of Siberia to study ways of life north of the Arctic Circle.   Maria spent much of 1914-15 in this little-studied region, recording the lives and languages of the people she met.

Born in 1884 in Russian-dominated Warsaw, Maria was one of the young Poles to study with the “Flying University”, an underground organisation which between 1885 and 1905 secretly provided education for men and women alike.   In 1910 she was awarded a Mianowski Fund scholarship.  This enabled her to travel to England to study at Bedford Women’s College, London; and then at the University of Oxford as a member of Somerville College.  She was awarded the Oxford Diploma in Anthropology in 1912.

In Oxford, where she was a contemporary of O.G.S. Crawford, she studied under Robert Marett, who encouraged her to review the available literature on the indigenous populations of Siberia.   This work was published in 1914 as Aboriginal Siberia: a Study in Social Anthropology.   In his forward to the book, Marett identified its importance as making accessible for the first time in English the Russian language work on the subject.   The book became the major reference work on these communities of Asian Russia.

This region was little understood especially by contemporary British anthropologists who tended to focus their research on parts of the British Empire.  Maria’s pioneering expedition to north-west Siberia began in May 1914.   Maud Haviland (ornithologist), Dora Curtis (artist), and Henry Usher Hall (University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology) met Maria in Moscow.  They travelled by train to Krasnoyarsk, the regional administrative capital.  From there, a three week journey by paddle-steamer north up the River Yenisei took them 1,500 miles to Golchika.  It was late June, but the boat had to negotiate ice floes on the river.  They spent the short Summer above latitude 70ºN in the tundra around the Yenisei estuary, exploring the people and the archaeology of the area.  Maria collected objects from the people they met, and from the platform burial sites on the permafrost; took photographs; gathered plant specimens and mammoth bones; and wrote down her experiences.

Maud and Dora left at the end of the Summer.  With Michikha, a Tungus (Evenki) woman, Maria and Henry spent Winter 1914/Spring 1915 travelling the mountainous area east of Turukhansk.  Although Maria made light of the conditions in her book My Siberian Year, she experienced considerable hardships and illness through the Arctic Winter.  Meals were eaten with nomadic reindeer-herding families; “Armed with this [knife] I caught hold of the meat with my teeth, and sliced off a mouthful, which I proceeded to masticate as well as its parboiled condition would permit”.  The miles of walking and sledding from tent to tent were exhausting.  Frostbite was an ever-present danger despite being “ensconced in a foot-bag made of the winter coat of a reindeer buck, and cased in thick Jaeger stockings worn inside a pair of dog’s-hair stockings and two pairs of hairy skin boots.”

Maria made a special study of shamanism and religion in the region, and also commented on the history and politics of Siberia.  She also wrote poetically about the short days in the Winter landscape, “There is a rosy light that was never anywhere else by land or sea, that flushes the mountain peaks of the ‘stony’ tundra to an ineffable glory during the brief twilight days that precede the return of the sun in the spring, while the valleys and the lowlands are filled with a blue sea of unlifting shadow.”   After her return to England in 1915, the objects she had collected with Henry were deposited in the Pitt Rivers Museum and the Pennsylvania University Museums, and the botanical specimens in the Fielding-Druce Herbarium (Oxford).

Maria seems to have completed some war work for the British Foreign Office’s War Trade Intelligence Department.  In 1916 she became the University of Oxford’s first female lecturer in anthropology.   Her three-year appointment came to an end in 1919.  She toured the United States to meet leading anthropologists.    In 1920 she was awarded the Royal Geographical Society’s Murchison Award, and she obtained a year-long teaching position at the University of Bristol.   Sadly this promising career was cut short when Maria committed suicide in May 1921, a few days after her naturalisation certificate was issued.   A fund in her memory was established at Somerville College.   Her collected works, edited by David Collins, were republished by the Curzon Press in 1999.

post by Katy Whitaker

The Pitt-Rivers Museum, Oxford, has a Showcase display about Maria’s Siberian expedition on until 28 February 2016 (

Collins, D. and Urry, J. (1997) “A flame too intense for mortal body to support” Anthropology Today 13(6): 18-20

Czaplicka, M.A. (1914) Aboriginal Siberia: a Study in Social Anthropology   Oxford: Clarendon Press [available at]

Czaplicka, M.A. (1916) My Siberian Year   London: Mills and Boon

“A Woman’s Travels.” Times [London, England] 8 Sept. 1915: 9. The Times Digital Archive. [Web] Accessed 16 October 2014

“Death Of Miss M. A. De Czaplicka.” Times [London, England] 30 May 1921: 8. The Times Digital Archive. [Web] Accessed 16 October 2014

Home Office (1921) HO 334/92/8081 Naturalisation Certificate: Marie Anteinette Christine Elizabeth Lubicz de Czaplicka. From Poland. Resident in Bristol. Certificate A8081 issued 24 May 1921 [The National Archives]

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One thought on “Maria Antonina Czaplicka

  1. Jaanika Vider says:

    Great article! Just wanted to note that MAC (as she was known to friends) didn’t actually attend Bedford College – I checked their records. Not entirely sure how that information has crept into certain articles about her. She did get some financial support from the Reid trust linked to Bedford College for her work on “Aboriginal Siberia”. Her studies in London were based at LSE and British Library.

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