10 Biographies of Early Female Archaeologists & Explorers

I’ve always thought of Lara Croft as a modern-day “romantic explorer”, albeit one who’s armed to the teeth and equipped with all the latest high-tech gadgetry. Her insatiable thirst for knowledge and adventure drives her to explore ancient ruins and remote lands in search of priceless artefacts and long-lost civilizations.

But she is not alone in her quest.

Women have been blazing trails through foreign lands and archaeology long before she was a twinkle in Toby Gard’s eye. Some of these early pioneers were featured in Amanda Adams’ book, Ladies of the Field: Early Women Archaeologists and Their Search for Adventure and in my article 5 Female Explorers Who Made Their Marks in Siberia.

If you’ve already read Amanda Adams’ book on female archaeologists or simply want to learn more about these intrepid women, here are 10 biographies that might be right up your alley:

  • Star of the Morning: The Extraordinary Life of Lady Hester Stanhope by Kirsten Ellis, HarperPress (2008) – The controversial niece of William Pitt the Younger not only survived a shipwreck, she also became the greatest female traveller of her day, conducted the first archaeological excavation in Palestine, and practically established her own little fiefdom in Lebanon. [Buy this on Amazon/Amazon UK]
  • Daughter of the Desert: The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell by Georgina Howell, Pan (2007) – Georgina Howell looks at the extraordinary life of Gertrude Bell, the so-called “Queen of the Desert”, who was fluent in several languages, passionate about archaeology, and travelled extensively throughout the Middle East. Her expertise was highly sought after by British imperial policy-makers and she helped establish the Baghdad Archaeological Museum – now the National Museum of Iraq – shortly before her death. [Buy this on Amazon/Amazon UK]
  • Passionate Nomad: The Life of Freya Stark by Jane Fletcher Geniesse, Modern Library Inc. (2001) – At the age of 34, Freya Stark embarked on the first of her many adventures, which would see her travel through the scorching, often hostile, deserts of southern Arabia and wilderness of western Iran and lead her to locate the lost Valleys of the Assassins. [Buy this on Amazon/Amazon UK]
  • Among Stone Giants: The Life of Katherine Routledge and Her Remarkable Expedition to Easter Island by Jo Anne van Tilburg, Scribner (2003) – In 1913, Katherine Routledge and her husband led an expedition to Rapa Nui (Easter Island) and conducted the first archaeological and ethnographic survey of this remote island nation. [Buy this on Amazon/Amazon UK]
  • Sisters Of Sinai: How Two Lady Adventurers Found the Hidden Gospels by Janet Soskice, Vintage (2010) – A thrilling tale of how Scottish twins Agnes and Margaret Smith crossed the Sinai Desert and discovered the Syriac Sinaiticus, an early copy of the four canonical Gospels, tucked away in Saint Catherine’s Monastery. [Buy this on Amazon/Amazon UK]
  • Yucatan Through Her Eyes: Alice Dixon Le Plongeon, Writer and Expeditionary Photographer by Lawrence Gustave Desmond, University of New Mexico Press (2009) – This photographer and amateur archaeologist accompanied her husband on expeditions to Chichén Itzá, Uxmal and other Maya sites within the Yucatán Peninsula, where she helped document and photograph the monuments and inscriptions found there. [Buy this on Amazon/Amazon UK]
  • More Usefully Employed: Amelia B. Edwards, Writer, Traveller and Campaigner for Ancient Egypt by Brenda Moon, Egypt Exploration Society (2006) – A British novelist who fell in love with Egypt during a cruise along the Nile, Amelia Edwards went on to become a prominent Egyptologist and co-founded the Egypt Exploration Fund (now Egypt Exploration Society) to fund the research and preservation of Egypt’s ancient monuments. [Buy this on Amazon/Amazon UK]
  • Tatiana Proskouriakoff: Interpreting the Ancient Maya by Charmaine Solomon, University of Oklahoma Press (2002) – Tatiana Proskouriakoff immigrated to the United States as a young girl and had to make some difficult personal and professional choices throughout her life but this did not deter her from becoming a leading Mayanist scholar and playing a major role in the decipherment of Maya hieroglyphs. [Buy this on Amazon/Amazon UK]
  • Born to Rebel: The Life of Harriet Boyd Hawes by Mary Allsebrook, Oxbow Books (2002) – Written by her daughter, this biography looks at the life and times of Harriet Boyd Hawes, the first woman to lead an archaeological excavation in Greece and speak before the Archaeological Institute of America. [Buy this on Amazon/Amazon UK]
  • Breaking Ground: Pioneering Women Archaeologists edited by Getzel M. Cohen and Martah Sharp Joukowsky, The University of Michigan Press (2007) – Not a biography per sé but a collection of twelve mini-biographies of female archaeologists who have made valuable contributions to the development of Old World archaeology. These include the aforementioned Gertrude Bell and Harriet Boyd Hawes as well as the Egyptologist Margaret Murray, the archaeologist and art historian Winifred Lamb, and Gertrude Caton-Thompson, the woman who led the excavation of Great Zimbabwe. [Buy this on Amazon/Amazon UK]
A hand-drawn illustration of Abu Simbel by Amelia B. Edwards (Image credit: Wikimedia Commons)
A hand-drawn illustration of Abu Simbel by Amelia B. Edwards. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Please note that I have not read all of the books listed above so I cannot vouch for their historical accuracy or the quality of the writing.

Readers are welcome to share their thoughts on these books or recommend any other titles about female archaeologists and explorers.

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About Kelly M

Kelly McGuire is a writer, part-time translator, and gamer who is passionate about archaeology, language learning, travel, and wildlife conservation. She tweets under the username @TRHorizons and is the admin and chief content creator for Tomb Raider Horizons.

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