Behind Every Successful Historical Archaeologist…

…There was his partner, who often did the real work. As with other professions in the past, women were denied opportunities to lead from the front, so they worked behind the scenes. In archaeology, this was particularly true. While their husbands received much of the credit, these four women were co-discoverers.

Jane Dieulafoy 

Jane Dieulafoy was a rarity in her time. Born in 1850, she was both religious and conservative but had no intention of taking on the role of a housewife. In 1870, she married Marcel-Auguste Dieulafoy, a renowned engineer. Throughout their 46-year marriage, they shared a love of travel and archaeology. Marcel Dieulafoy did not push her to fit into the generic ‘wife’ role.

This lengthy, respectable marriage is one of the reasons that society accepted her, despite her less-than-feminine ways. During the Franco-Prussian war, she found a loophole that allowed her to become a sharpshooter. Normal army regulations did not apply to sharpshooters, so her gender did not exempt her from the position.

Dieulafoy did not just accompany her husband on archaeological digs, she was central to them. The French government even granted her special permission to wear men’s clothing.

Jane Dieulafoy. Photo:


A power couple in the archaeological world, the Dieulafoys focused on the Middle East. Between 1873 and 1878, they spent much of their time in Egypt and Morrocco. In 1881, they began a 6,000km journey to Susa in Persia. There, Dieulafoy once again donned men’s clothing. They made it to Susa in early 1882 but because of lack of funds, poor weather, and illness, they abandoned their project. When they returned two years later, Dieulafoy was a fully trained archaeologist.

Archaeologists thought Susa was one of the world’s oldest cities but few excavations had explored the site. The Dieulafoys gained permission to dig from the Shah of Persia, with two conditions. The first was that he received a portion of anything they recovered, the second was that they did not touch the Tomb of Daniel. The second condition made no difference to their plans. They wanted to excavate the palace of Darius the Great.

Friese of Archers. Now on display at the Louvre. Photo:


During the excavation of the palace, Dieulafoy kept records of everything that they found, photographed, made drawings, took part in fieldwork, and led hundreds of men at the dig. Artifacts uncovered included the Lion Frieze and the Frieze of Archers.

When they returned from Persia, the couple was famous. Rather than settle in France, they continued to travel. Dieulafoy wrote many books and articles about their discoveries. Despite their popularity, she was not allowed to win any literary awards because of her gender. Her response? To set up the Prix Femina, an award solely for female authors.

Lady Hilda Petrie

Hilda Urlin studied geology at university and became highly adept in facsimile drawing. It was because of this skill that she was introduced to Flinders Petrie, a renowned professor of Egyptology. In 1896, soon after this introduction, they married.

The day after they married, they skipped their wedding breakfast to leave for Egypt. The first places they visited were Cairo and Giza. In Giza, they decided to climb the Great Pyramid. Rather than let her large skirt slow her down, Petrie removed it completely and climbed in her underwear. Though much more modest than modern underwear, it was scandalous at the time.

Hilda Petri climbs the Great Pyramid of Giza. Photo: History Today


Throughout her husband’s career, Petrie joined him for most of his fieldwork. She only missed out when their children were young. Eventually, she became an expert in Egyptology and was crucial to many discoveries. Her drawing skills were particularly handy, as she could draw copies of their finds for excavation reports.

In the Temple of Dendra, she spent days copying over 20,000 hieroglyphs found on the sarcophagus of one tomb. In 1902, with other female archaeologists, she attempted a dangerous excavation at Abydos.

Sir Flinders Petrie and Lady Hilda Petrie. Photo: Petrie Museum of Egyptology, UCL


Eventually, World War I halted their many excavations. Then, after the famous discovery of King Tut in 1922, Egypt placed restrictions on excavating bodies and exporting items found during the digs.

At this point, the Petries turned their attention elsewhere. In 1926, they moved to Gaza. Four years later, they excavated Tell el-Ajull. Hilda Petrie had full control of the project.

Flinders Petrie died in 1942. For years after, Hilda Petrie remained in Palestine and finished editing her husband’s papers before returning to England. For the final 10 years of her life, she worked with the British School of Archaeology and finally published the drawings she had made of tombs in Saqqara, almost five decades earlier.

Anne Stine Ingstad

Anne Stine Ingstad was a Norwegian archaeologist who discovered the only confirmed Viking settlement in North America.

In her early life, she studied archaeology at the University of Oslo. With a clear love of other cultures and exploration, it was no surprise when she married well-known adventurer Helge Ingstad in 1941. In 1926 he had given up a career in law to live with indigenous communities in Canada, studying their history and way of life.

Anne Stine Ingstad. Photo:


Once married they became partners in every sense, including on archaeological projects. In 1961, the pair retraced a Viking voyage along the northern tip of Newfoundland, and locals led them to L’Anse aux Meadows. Though Helge Ingstad is often credited for the discovery of the 1,000-year-old Viking outpost, it was Anne Ingstad who coordinated and supervised the excavation.

The discovery provided the first conclusive evidence that Vikings made it to North America 500 years before Columbus. At first glance, there were no signs of Vikings, but Anne Ingstad began digging. Once her husband had seen the outline of the old turf wall, she completed the rest.

Anne Stine Ingstad. Photo:


Over several summers, she continued to lead the excavation. She uncovered the foundations of eight buildings and a stone spinning wheel, suggesting that women had been among the group. She continued to work at the site for six years before handing it over to others. The couple returned in 1980 when UNESCO designated it a World Heritage Site.

After returning to Oslo, Ingstad completed her doctorate in archaeology and published academic texts on Viking textiles.

Ann Axtell Morris

Ann Axtell had wanted to study other cultures since she was a young child. Though she had a bachelor’s degree in the subject and was a working archaeologist, she described her career as that of “an archaeologist’s wife.”

In 1923, when very few women in the field were taken seriously, she married fellow archaeologist Earl Halsted Morris. Morris has been described as the father of Southwest archaeology, and he was reportedly one of the inspirations for Indiana Jones.

Ann Axtell Morris. Photo: Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University


The pair worked for decades together in the field, but sadly only Earl Halsted Morris was truly recognized for their work. On their honeymoon, they excavated Mummy Cave in Arizona. Between 1923 and 1929, they excavated Canyon del Muerto, Arizona. Starting in 1924, for five consecutive winters, they carried out digs at the world-famous Mayan city of Chichén Itzà in Mexico.

When Ann Morris arrived at Chichén Itzà, archaeologist Sylvanus Morley instructed her to babysit his children and play hostess to visiting guests. She eventually convinced him to let her excavate a small temple.

Ann Morris was crucial to all their projects. As well as taking part in and leading excavations, she documented the architecture, petroglyphs, pictographs, and landscapes at various sites. After noticing that black-and-white photography did not capture the detail and nuances of what they were looking at, she drew and painted full-color copies of what they saw.

Later, she authored two books about their work, Digging in the Southwest and Digging in Yucatan. But publishers refused to publish them for adults, and instead classed them as children’s books. They did not think it plausible that a woman could write an archaeology book for adults.

Ann Axtell Morris. Photo: University of Colorado Museum of Natural History


Later in life, Ann Morris suffered from severe alcoholism. This damaged her reputation and contributed to her being largely forgotten. One researcher told Smithsonian Magazine that when he asked about her at the University of Colorado, some questioned why he was interested in Earl Morris’s drunken wife.

Yet Ann Morris played a pivotal role in the world of archaeology. She was one of the first female field archaeologists in America and helped popularize archaeology through her books.

Rebecca McPhee

Rebecca McPhee is a freelance writer for ExplorersWeb.

Rebecca has been writing about open water sports, adventure travel, and marine science for three years. Prior to that, Rebecca worked as an Editorial Assistant at Taylor and Francis, and a Wildlife Officer for ORCA.

Based in the UK Rebecca is a science teacher and volunteers for a number of marine charities. She enjoys open water swimming, hiking, diving, and traveling.