“We are the archaeologists” the voices sang out. “And we want you to know – we only sink the mattock where the poison ivies grow!”

Summer 1939. The world is not at war. Mary Butler has just returned home from the northern highlands of Guatemala, where her excavations at Alta Verapaz yielded Mayan potsherds. Now she has taken on the directorship of Vassar College’s Hudson Valley Archaeological Survey, one of the first of its kind in the region, and her team are singing as they dig.


Like Tatiana Proskouriokoff after her, Mary Butler (1903-1970) began her career working with Linton Satterthwaite at the Ancient Mayan site of Piedras Negras, Guatemala, excavating there in 1932. Butler specialised in pottery, and in 1936 she gained her PhD – the first woman archaeologist in the Department of Anthroplogy at the University of Pennsylvania to do so.

By 1939, Butler’s Guatemalan projects had established her as a field archaeologist. But Northeastern American archaeology was renowned for its hostility to women’s involvement in fieldwork (women were even banned from some digs). A woman director of a big field program like Hudson Valley project was far more unusual in New York state than it was in Mesoamerica.

Butler’s excavations on Goat Island (now called Magdalen Island) uncovered rich remains of prehistoric settlement. A second season in 1940 uncovered yet more. But when America entered World War Two, funding was stopped – diverted instead toward the war effort – and Mary Butler had to abandon her dig. Butler stuggled to have her work recognised (final site reports were never published), and the New York State Archaeologist from 1949-71 did not inlcude her survey results in any of his major works.

Mary Butler went on to teach at Bryn Mawr College (1942-43) and was a research associate at the Penn Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology  (1940-70), based in the America section along with Frederica de Laguna.

Written by Tori (@ToriHerridge)

Posted by Suzie (@suzie_birch)


Elizabeth Chilton finally wrote up the excavations on Goat Island in 1992 – read her report here.

Goat (or Magdalen) Island is still yielding up archaeological remains, and is under threat from oportunistic and illegal plunderers in search of arrowheads or, as Butler noted in her field notebook, Captain Kidd’s Treasure rumoured to be buried nearby.

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