Breaking Ground, Breaking Tradition First Generation of Women Archaeologists

Bryn Mawr College established one of the first independent archaeology departments in America nearly a century ago, and in doing so, brought the College’s reputation for rigorous academic training for women to this emerging field. The Bryn Mawr-trained archaeologists during these early years did not simply break through gender barriers, but they also transformed the field of archaeology through their meticulous scholarship. This exhibition examines Bryn Mawr’s leading role in training the first generations of American women archaeologists, and focuses particularly on the careers of five women who helped change the face of classical archaeology.

These five women had impressive careers. Edith Hall Dohan (Ph.D. 1906) received Bryn Mawr’s first doctorate in archaeology and was the second woman to direct an excavation on Crete. Hetty Goldman (A.B. 1903) was the first woman to direct an excavation on mainland Greece, at Halae, in the 1910s and directed the Tarsus Excavations in Turkey in the 1930s, the first excavation sponsored by Bryn Mawr. Dorothy Burr Thompson (A.B. 1923, Ph.D. 1931) became a leading authority on terracotta figurines and, as the wife of Homer Thompson, the director of the American excavations in the Agora of Athens, was a leading figure at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens for many years. Virginia Grace (A.B. 1922, Ph.D. 1934) inaugurated the study of stamped amphora handles and demonstrated their value for dating and revealing trade links among regions of the ancient world. Lucy Shoe Meritt (A.B. ’27, Ph.D. ’35) opened up a new field of archaeological investigation with her study of the profiles of Greek and Italic mouldings and established their first chronologies.

This exhibition also highlights the achievements of the College’s early professors of classical archaeology, Mary Hamilton Swindler (Ph.D. ’12) and Rhys Carpenter, who jointly inspired and taught several generations of archaeology students and shaped the Archaeology Department and the College itself. It was Carpenter who famously told his students to “See what you look at,” and then taught his students how to see the remains of the ancient past. But it was Swindler who said, “Yes, but what is the significance of the thing at which you are looking?”

A century ago, the Archaeology Department at Bryn Mawr College awarded its first archaeology Ph.D. degree to Edith Hall Dohan. Since then, hundreds of students of archaeology have been taught and inspired by the professors of Bryn Mawr and many have gone on to have distinguished careers. The legacy of these early years of the College, its first dedicated and inspirational professors, and the first generations of women archaeologists unfold in this exhibition.
Megan Risse, M.A. 2006, Curator
Ph.D. Candidate, Classical and Near Eastern Archaeology