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Harriet BOYD HAWES: Archaeologist and Nurse

“I never was a collector but a detective and cared for what fed my mind and heart” Harriet Boyd Hawes

Portrait of Harriet Boyd Hawes

Archaeology is the study of past civilisations that examines the remains of artifacts in their historical context. Depending on the speciality, archaeology requires outdoors activity in remote and challenging conditions. In the 19th century, archaeology was a men-dominated activity and considered inappropriate for women. It is hard to imagine that women would be attracted to field archaeology. Harriet Boyd Hawes was an adventurous and courageous woman who was interested in classic and ancient history. She was a pioneer archaeologist who left a scientific legacy and a trained nurse who cared for people supporting humanitarian efforts during several wars.

Early Life and Education

Born in 1871 in Boston, United States, Harriet Ann Boyd was the only daughter of Alexander Boyd and Harriet Fay Wheeler Boyd. Harriet lost her mother at a young age so her father and older brothers raised her. She attended Prospect Hill School in Massachusetts where she grew an interest in classical studies. In 1892, she earned a bachelor’s degree in classics from Smith College. 

 Excavations in Crete

Map of the location of the excavation sites in Cretan

After her father’s death and rejecting the Victorian society’s expectations, Harriet moved to Athens, Greece to undertake courses in archaeology and history at the American School of Classical Studies. While archaeology was dominated by men, Harriet gained government permission to excavate in the island of Crete, Greece, on behalf of the Cretan Government. Sir Arthur Evans, an eminent English archaeologist, who was excavating on the island, advised Harriet to investigate the region of Kavousi, a village located in eastern Crete.

Archaeological site of Gournia in Crete (2020)

During her first excavation in 1900, Harriet meticulously explored the site with a systematic approach and scientific analysis. In three weeks of excavation, Harriet found a few memorable and fascinating artifacts including pottery, jars, and tombs from the late Bronze Age and early Iron Age. The findings shed light on the presence of an oldest human settlement.  From 1901 to 1904, Harriet obtained fundings from the University of Pennsylvania Museum to pursue her work in Crete. During this period, she was the first woman archaeologist to lead an excavation crew composed of more than 100 workers to explore the site of Gournia. Harriet and her team discovered the remains of the Minoan town, a prehistoric settlement built between 1700-1400 BC. The good state of preservation of stone-paved steps including the Gournia “Palace” covering an area of 30x40 meters and a cemetery emerged during the excavation. Located in Greece's largest island, Crete, a few meters from the sea, the archaeological site of Gournia or "Pompeii of Minoan" welcomes a large number of visitors daily attracted by fascination of history and its well-preserved architecture.

Harriet Boyd Hawes at the frontline

Trained as a nurse, Harriet volunteered in the Red Cross during several wars in Europe including the Greco-Turkish War in 1897, the Spanish-American War in 1898, and humanitarian aid to the Serbian refugees in Corfu in 1915. During World War I, Harriet created and directed the Smith College Unit Relief unit, a Smith alumnae group to provide humanitarian help in France. For her dedication to nursing soldiers, Harriet received the Red Cross Medal by Queen Olga of Greece, the “Medaille de Guerre” in 1919, and the silver medal of reconnaissance in 1920.

Harriet Boyd Hawes president of the Smith College Relief Unit (front seat, first row in white shirt) pictured with Smith graduated who volunteered to give medical care during the “Great War”


Illustrations and description of artifacts from Harriet Boyd Hawes’ textbook

Once married with two children, Harriet stepped away from fieldwork to dedicate her time to sharing her discovery in Gournia. During 5 years of excavation, Harriet meticulously cataloged by location, described, illustrated, and organized her archaeological work. Her outstanding findings listed everything from sherds, small animal figurines, and intact artifacts such as plume jugs. Harriet published several books titled “Crete, the Forerunner of Greece” (Co-written with her husband) and “Gournia, Vasiliki and Other Prehistoric Sites on the Isthmus of Hierapetra”. Watercolors depicting key finds on the archaeological sites done by the artist, Adelene Moffat, were used for publication. Her notebooks and massive collection are housed at the Pennsylvania Museum (USA) and Heraklion museum (Greece). Throughout her career, Harriet undertook a lifelong career as a teacher. For over 30 years, she taught Greek archaeology, Modern Archaeology language and epigraphy.

Couverture du livre "Born to Rebel - The Life of Harriet Boyd Hawes" écrit par sa fille

On March 31, 1945, in Washington, DC, at the age of 73, Harriet Boyd Hawes died. A thorough biography written by Harriet’s daughter and published in 1992 chronicles Harriet’s legendary achievement in archaeology including her personal life and her important role in humanitarian aid.

Harriet Boyd Hawes paved the way for many women in archaeologia, why not you?

Click here for additional information on jobs in archaeology!

 Written by Akila R. and edited by Tiffanie C.



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