The forgotten female archaeologists

One of Ola’s enduringly popular jewellery collections is Skara Brae, inspired by the discovery of a Neolithic village at the Bay of Skaill, on the west coast of Orkney, in the mid 19th century. Ola’s handcrafted pieces takes their inspiration from the stones and artefacts discovered on the site, which was properly excavated in the late 1920s.

The site excavation was led by Professor Gordon Childe, the first professor of Archaeology at the University of Edinburgh, who was brought in to preserve the site for the public. Childe has long been credited with the dig and its historical findings but it was only recently that the women involved in the excavation project have been given credit for their work.

Skara Brae archaeologists

It was always assumed that the women photographed at the site with Professor Childe in the 1920s were tourists, but closer inspection of the images indicate that they were, in fact, assisting Childe on the project. The photo below from Orkney Library & Archives clearly shows one of the women holding a trowel. Further investigation has found that there were several women in Childe’s classes in Edinburgh, so it would make sense that they accompanied him to Orkney as active field archaeologists on the project.

 

Speaking to BBC Radio, Dr Antonia Thomas from the University of the Highlands and Islands in Kirkwall said that it shows that women can often be overlooked in history.

“What is interesting about this is, not only the fact that we so readily accept the given narrative without looking at the details – for example the fact that she was holding a trowel, which I'd never really noticed.

“But perhaps we're maybe more inclined to do this when it's women in history, and female archaeologists particularly.

“And I think it really does beg quite a few questions about why these women have not been more widely known.”

As a pioneer in her own field, Ola Gorie can imagine the frustration these women, and their families, must have felt at being written out of the Skara Brae excavation story, but she hopes the impact of their work can find a voice with a new generation of historians and visitors to the Skara Brae site.

View our Skara Brae collection and find out more about this historic site.

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