Uncovering the Invisible Women of History


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Historical written records were almost exclusively written by men, but archaeology and the women scholars in the field can make the women of history visible.


By Dr. Louise Hitchcock
Professor of Archaeology
University of Melbourne


In the ancient classical world, writing was a very exclusive activity, limited to elite males who had the wealth and time to undertake an education. Exceptions, like the female poet Sappho, are rare.

In earlier cultures such as ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt writing was sometimes even more restricted to a class of scribes who were all male. They held their knowledge close so as to maintain familial exclusivity in handing down what was essentially sacred knowledge.

The ruins of the Minoan palace of Gournia on Crete, excavated by Harriet Boyd Hawes. Picture: DmitriyGuryanov/Flickr

The fact was that not everyone needed to write because in most instances writing was used for record keeping or other specialist activities like religious activities. It wasn’t something that the average person needed in their everyday life, which was largely taken up with agricultural work or specialisations like weaving, metallurgy, or other craft production.

Ancient writing then was rather limited and usually linked to a complex or palatial civilisation such as the Egyptians or Mycenaean Greeks.

Given that the knowledge and use of writing was restricted throughout antiquity, and that the surviving written word is a powerful source from the past – women and their views are marginalised in the historical record.

Archaeology then is an important, and sometimes the only, source we have for understanding the role of women in ancient societies, as well as the roles of other marginalised groups like children, slaves, and even lower-class soldiers.

Archaeologists interested in women can focus on excavated households and their contents related to crafts like textile production. Other techniques like skeletal analysis make it possible to identify female warriors; through the sexing of skeletons and determining that they had the musculoskeletal development to use the weapons they were buried with.

The marginalisation of women in the written record means that archaeology is an often critical sources for understanding the lives of women in ancient times. Picture: Getty.

Progress in making women more visible in the archaeological record has been steady, but it has also been slow. But one of the key reasons for this tardiness is that archaeology itself was a male dominated field.

When I arrived in Melbourne in 2004 to take up my lectureship in Greek Prehistory, one of my senior colleagues in Classics taught a subject that focused on the great archaeologists. All of them male.

This doesn’t mean that there weren’t famous women archaeologists to learn about, there were. Among them Harriet Boyd Hawes who excavated the Minoan palace at Gournia on Crete in the early 20th century and Trude Dothan who single handedly developed the field of Philistine archaeology. She is now regarded by many as the ‘Queen of the Philistines’ for her knowledge and expertise on this subject.

More recently and closer to home in Australia, Professor Claire Smith of Flinders University has made a name for herself in the study of indigenous archaeology and as President of the World Archaeology Congress, while Professor Jo MacDonald of the University of Western Australia is a leader in the study of Australian rock art.

The study of women and gender through archaeology only really took off with the publication in 1989 of Engendering Archaeology by Meg Conkey and the late Joan Gero – a pioneer of feminist archaeology.

Studying gender through archaeology is still a new and open field of research. Picture: Getty Images

Although my specialty is the study of Aegean architecture, I published my first study my of gender as it was represented in Minoan bronze figurines while I was still a student. As the field was still limited, the success of this paper lead to many other invitations to publish on the topic of gender.

Since that first article, I have published on ambiguous depictions of males and females, a handbook article on this topic and a commentary on gender and violence in archaeology.

Although I never set out to become an expert on the archaeology of women and gender, I am proud of the body of work I have written in this area and in the fact it has been used to inform and encourage the next generation of archaeologists, women and men, to take on the challenge of uncovering the ancient lives of women.

But the study of women in archaeology has been slow to penetrate Mediterranean pre-history and classical archaeology, which includes the Greece of Socrates and Plato as well as Ancient Rome.

Interestingly, the first (and only) conference on gender in Greek Prehistory was not held until 2005, more than 25 years after Engendering Archaeologyappeared. And, the proceedings weren’t published until 2009.

What this means is the study of women, as well as gender, through archaeology remains a wide open field for research.

Skeletal analysis has uncovered female warriors. Picture: Getty Images.

Gender identity was a powerful organising principle in Ancient societies – alongside economy, religion and political structure – making it an important reason to study women, as well as gender issues, in history.

Although initial research on women and gender was undertaken primarily by female scholars, the maturity of this field is now being demonstrated, ironically, by the growing number of men studying women in the past.

But regardless of who is looking back at the role of women in history, it means some of their stories can be restored to us and make their lives visible in the historic record.


Originally published by Pursuit, University of Melbourne, 03.07.2019, under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia license.

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