Harriet Boyd Hawes – Archaeologist

Harriet Boyd Hawes

Harriet Boyd Hawes (source)

“Riding on mule-back in attire like that shown in her photograph, accompanied by the faithful Aristides (a native of northwestern Greece) with his mother as chaperon, she was apparently perfectly unconscious – in the best American tradition – of doing anything unusual or courageous.” From the Introduction to Archaeology: Memoirs of a Pioneer Excavator in Crete by Harriet Boyd Hawes.

When Harriet Boyd finally decided that she wanted to study Greek archaeology at the source, in Greece, it must have been frustrating to find that her instructors didn’t think she should get her hands dirty. They expected female archaeologists to become librarians or museum curators, but she had always been more inclined to action than academics. So she set off to find her own site to excavate.

Early Life

Born on October 11, 1871, Harriet was the youngest of five children and the only girl.  Her mother died while she was still an infant and whatever her father did to try to “rouse domestic tastes” and “induce womanliness”, according to Harriet’s daughter, was useless against the influence of her brothers. Her doll house was taken over by a “military coup”, she would “scout” for the boys and took delight in pyrotechnic shows. They also had an area in their home where they kept pet squirrels. It was a happy, rowdy home and Harriet loved it.

One person who had a particular influence on Harriet was her brother Alex. Eleven years her senior he was a parental figure of sorts. He was especially influential in her love of and decision to study the Classics at Smith College. When he died her senior year it was a very sad time for her, but she graduated in 1892 and had to make a decision about what to do with her life.

For the next four years, Harriet taught school, first in a boarding school for impoverished students in North Carolina and then in a finishing school. When she became dissatisfied with teaching, she decided to take a tour of Europe. She was able to do this in part because of her inheritance from Alex. In this way he helped to set her on the path to her destiny.

Excavations in Crete

The sources I read didn’t give a name, but supposedly Harriet met a man in Europe who challenged her not to study Classics in Europe or America, but to go right to the source. Also, as a student at Smith, she heard a lecture by Amelia Edwards about her travels up the Nile. (Edwards wrote a book titled A Thousand Miles up the Nile which became a best seller about her adventures in Egypt and Egyptian archeology.) At that time she became intrigued by archaeology. Now she decided to combine the two, took the man’s advice and, in 1896, enrolled at the American School of Classical Studies in Athens, Greece.

Map of Crete showing major archaeological sites, including Gournia.

Map of Crete showing major archaeological sites, including Gournia. (Author: Bibi Saint-Pol, Wikimedia Commons)

Her graduate studies went well, but as she advanced she wanted to take part in field work. As I mentioned, the common expectation for women in archaeology was that they would work as librarians or curators. Harriet had already made a bit of a stir by traveling to Greece without a chaperone and riding around Athens on her bicycle, so when she couldn’t get an excavation site through the school she decided to strike out on her own.

Jug found at Kavousi (source)

Jug found at Kavousi (source)

In the spring of 1900, Harriet decided to go to Crete and look for her own site. This involved traveling around and talking to farmers and villagers about the artifacts they found. She obtained all the necessary permissions to excavate and decided on Kavousi. With the help of hired workers, she excavated baskets of artifacts, a house, a number of Iron Age tombs, a small “castle” and one 3000 year old undisturbed bee-hive tomb. It might not have compared to the finds Arthur Evans was currently finding at Knossos, but it was her excavation. She returned to the US and published her work in the American Journal of Archaeology.

Returning the next year, Harriet made the discovery that she would be primarily remembered for, Gournia. After several discouraging weeks of searching for a new site, they were led to a place with “old walls” by a local man named George Petakis. Deciding that it looked promising, Harriet sent the men ahead the next day while she took care of mail. When she arrived, the site was buzzing with excitement. All the men were eager to show them what they had found and it was clear they had their site. Three days after first seeing Gournia, she sent a telegram saying “Discovered Gournia Mycenaean site, street, houses, pottery, bronzes, stone jars.”

Gournia consisted of a small acropolis surrounded by paved roads, more than 70 houses and “the small palace of the local governor.”  It was a town of workers and artisans with evidence of weaving, fishing, bronze-casting, and the making of pottery of different types. They discovered pottery ranging in age from around 2500 to 1000 BCE. Gournia was rich with history. All of this provided three years work for Harriet and her crew, 1901, 1903, and 1904.

Gournia, Vasiliki and other prehistoric sites on the isthmus of Hierapetra, Crete; excavations of the Wells-Houston-Cramp expeditions, 1901, 1903, 1904. By Harriet Boyd Hawes, Blanche E. Williams, Richard B. Seager, Edith H. Hall Philadelphia, The American Exploration Society, Free Museum of Science and Art, 1908

Pottery found at Gournia, Vasiliki and other prehistoric sites on the isthmus of Hierapetra, Crete by Boyd’s team. (source)

Harriet had a talent for organizing, but she also had a desire to share her passion. She took on a number of younger archaeologists such as Blanche Williams, Edith Hall, and Richard Seager. And since excavating is a seasonal activity, she also taught Greek archaeology at Smith and gave lectures for the Archaeological Institute of America becoming a recognized authority on Crete.


Harriet took time out from her life regardless of where she was to be of service through nursing. Her talent for organizing extended to field hospitals. In 1897, she took time off from school to nurse soldiers during the Greco-Turkish War. In 1915, she took supplies and relief to wounded Serbian soldiers at Corfu. The next year she went to France.

Then in 1917, she spoke to an alumnae group at Smith about war relief. The first Smith Relief Unit sailed for France in August of that year led by Harriet and consisting of doctors, professors, social workers and of course a few archaeologists.

Personal Life

Gournia was the last excavation that Harriet directed. Her active life was complicated by the fact that at the age of 35, she decided to marry. During one of her trips to Greece, she met and fell in love with Charles Henry Hawes a British anthropologist. They married on May 3, 1906 and had two children, Alexander Boyd Hawes and Mary Nesbit Hawes.

Even though she gave up field work, she didn’t give up archaeology. In addition to publishing the results of the Gournia excavation, she and Charles wrote a book together called Crete: The Forerunner of Greece. She also continued teaching, lecturing and nursing.

Harriet did consider having a family an “interruption” in her active life, but she said that whether or not a woman was happy in this decision would “depend largely on her having anticipated it as part of the Good Life.”

Harriet Boyd Hawes was a pioneering woman in archaeology and should be remembered as such. She died on March 31, 1943 at the age of 73.

Gournia ruins Photo credit: Lourakis, Wikimedia Commons

Gournia ruins Photo credit: Lourakis at en.wikipedia


Ladies of the Field: Early Women Archaeologists and Their Search for Adventure by Amanda Adams
American Journal of Archaeology: Excavations at Kavousi, Crete, in 1900  by Harriet A. Boyd

Smith College: Despair in War-Torn France Eased After Smith Women Arrived in 1917

Breaking Ground, Breaking Tradition: Bryn Mawr and the First Generation of Women Archaeologists “Edith Hayward Hall Dohan (1877-1943)

This is the video on YouTube where I first heard of Harriet Boyd. The focus is primarily on Knossos, but the video is great.
The Ancient World: The Minoans with Bettany Hughes

These two articles are behind a subscription wall at JSTOR. However, you can register free and read three articles every fourteen days and her writing is delightful.
Archaeology: Memoirs of a Pioneer Excavator in Crete by Harriet Boyd Hawes
Archaeology: Part II Memoirs of a Pioneer Excavator in Crete by Harriet Boyd Hawes

Read about other Famous Women in Science

Hypatia – A Martyr for the Truth

This was inspired by the life of Hypatia, who lived in the 4th and 5th centuries C.E.  She was a real person and brilliant mathematician.  Often she is the only woman mathematician mentioned in books on the history of math.  The character writing is fictitious, but the events are true.

 A Day in Alexandria

 I arrived in Alexandria as the sun was going down.  The trip from Cyrene had been a rough one and I was glad to have my feet on solid ground again.  My teacher and mentor, Synesius, had corresponded with her for years.  He raved about her brilliance, her inventions, her ability to teach others, and her original mathematical work.  Hypatia!  Finally, I would hear for myself.  Little did I know what horrors I would witness and how the world would change from this year on.

This was my first trip to the great city of Alexandria.  I planned to be here for a while to take advantage of the magnificent library (at least what was left of it) and many great teachers.  I would eventually find a place to stay, but for now, I had a letter of introduction to a friend of my mentor.  He very kindly invited me into his home and gave me a meal and place to sleep for the night.  The political climate is very tense these days.  It is the year 415 (A.D.) and the Christians are gaining strength in many places.  They have very little tolerance for beliefs different from theirs.  Cyril, the church patriarch, considers anyone of the neo-Platonic school of thought to be a heretic.  But, there are still many of us who are members of this school, including Hypatia.

As we sat down to a simple meal, or rather reclined in the Greek fashion, my host began to tell me a little more about the city and Hypatia.

“You know her!”, I cried.

“Actually, I’m a friend of the family. More her father’s friend.” He replied.

“Please tell me. Are all the stories I hear of her true?”

He laughed, “Actually, many of them are, but what in particular are you interested in knowing?”

“They say she inspires great devotion in her students and anyone interested in learning.”

“She does.  She’s a magnificent orator, devoted to teaching, and to the truth.  I make sure that I hear her often and read most of what she writes.  She has done quite a bit of original work in mathematics, written commentaries and built on the works of some of the greats – Diophantes, Apollonius, among others.  ”

“And she is a scientist as well,” I added.  “My mentor, Synesius, has been particularly interested in her inventions, such as the astrolabe and the planesphere for studying astronomy.”

“I know nothing of that field, but am told that she has a number of inventions that have added to it.  I am more familiar with her writings in mathematics, although, she is very learned in many fields.  Her father, Theon, my friend, was determined to produce the ‘perfect human being’ as he says.  Many think that he has.  Of course, he is a professor of mathematics at the university as well, so he had access to many resources and took charge of her education.  I’m sure she picked up the love of mathematical elegance from him, but he didn’t stop there.  She learned it all – astronomy, astrology, mathematics, religion.  And he didn’t neglect the body.  She is accomplished at rowing, swimming, horseback riding .  And yes, she is very beautiful as well, even now in her mid 40s.  She has also traveled extensively and basically made a name for herself.”

“Did you say she studied religion?”

“Yes, as in ALL religions, rather than one.  Theon was particularly concerned that she NOT be caught up in any one religion to the exclusion of new truths.  He feels that all dogmatic religions are false.  If we can’t be open to new ideas, we have cut ourselves off from the truth.  Hypatia has been raised to be very discriminating in her thoughts and acceptance of new ideas.  As Theon frequently says, ‘Reserve your right to think, for even to think wrongly is better than not to think at all.’ . . . It hasn’t made it easy for her in the current climate.  She is a close personal friend of Orestes, the prefect.  I think that is one reason that her popularity is tolerated.  But, ever since 412, when Cyril became patriarch, things have become more and more tense.  Sometimes I fear for her and others who are seen as champions of other ways of thought.”

“She must be an amazing person.  Is she married?”

“She is very beautiful, but no, she has never married.  She has had opportunities, but always says that she ‘is married to the truth.’  But, I think you’re a little young for her,” he teased.

I was embarrassed, but still had to ask.  “Do you think I could meet her?”

“Hmm . . . I think she has a gathering at her home tomorrow night.  Her students often gather there and anyone is welcome.  Right now though, it is getting late, and her lecture is the first of the day tomorrow.  I had planned to go with you, but won’t be able to if I can’t get any sleep.”

I was the one who had trouble sleeping that night because of my excitement.  I was up with the sun and after a brief meal, we set out toward the university.  It was a beautiful day as we walked along the bay.  The sun was bright and the colors were vivid.  It was a perfect complement to what I felt inside.  We followed the coast for just a short period before we turned to go up to the main thoroughfare that led to the University of Alexandria.  As we approached, it became noisier and more crowded as I expected.  When we got closer, however, it seemed to be more of a mob than the usual crowds of a city.

“What is happening?” I asked my new friend.

“I’m not sure.  This is unusual.  I have friends who live here.  Let’s go in and see if we can go up to the roof to get a better view.”

We were allowed entrance by one of the slaves who recognized my host and told us that the master was already on the roof observing.  As we joined him, I could see that the street was crowded by an angry mob.  In the center of the mob was a woman in her chariot.  The crowd had brought the horse to a stop and was attacking the woman, hitting her, grabbing her hair, and throwing stones.  I could already see where a clump of her hair had been pulled out.  She was fighting back, but it was useless against so many.  Someone yelled above the crowd, “to the church, to the altar.”  At that point, strong hands grasped the woman and she was carried into the nearby Christian church.

“The poor woman, what can we do?  Do you know who she is?”

“That,” whispered my host, “is Hypatia. . .  I doubt we can do anything against that mob to help her, but we can try.  I know a back way into the church.”

As we raced to the door, fear seized my heart for this woman I had never met, but heard so much about.  The mob of people, mostly men, were obvious as Christians by the way that they dressed.  I understood that they didn’t favor her teachings, but this anger seemed extreme.

We were unable to get through the door until it was too late.  When we did, the extent of their depravity was overwhelming.  The mob, whom I later learned was a group of monks from a monastery in the desert, had stripped her and peeled away her skin with bits of tile and pottery.  Her limbs had been torn from her body.  Her voice was silenced.

I couldn’t stay in Alexandria after that.  It wasn’t really safe for a non-Christian foreigner, and besides, I didn’t have the heart for it.  I heard rumors later about what had happened.  Some said that Hypatia’s limbs were put on display in different parts of the city; some said her body was burned.  Orestes fled and Cyril finally had what he wanted – power.  I went to Athens to continue study, but everywhere things were changing.

Note:  Although partially destroyed in 391 C. E. the library in Alexandria would be completely destroyed a few years after Hypatia’s death and the western world would be plunged into a period that has come to be known as the dark ages.

Carl Sagan speaks about Alexandria and Hypatia:


Hubbard, Elbert. Little journeys to the Homes of Great Teachers. Vol.23. New York. The Roycrofters. 1808.

Mlodinow, Leonard. Euclid’s Window: The Story of Geometry from Parallel Lines to Hyperspace. New York. Simon and Schuster. 2001.

Osen, Lynn. Women in Mathematics. Cambridge, Massachusetts. The MIT Press. 1974.