The pioneering archaeologist Dorothy Garrod

On 6 May 1939 the pioneering archaeologist Dorothy Garrod was elected to the Disney chair of archaeology at Cambridge. She was the first woman to be a professor at either Oxford or Cambridge; women were still not admitted to full degrees at the university – despite having been educated there since 1869. Her election brought matters to a head: women finally won full equality in 1948.

Garrod was also the first pre-historian – she specialised in the Paleolithic – to hold the chair at a time when archaeology was struggling to establish itself as an academic discipline in its own right; many still thought it little more than a hobby. Yet within a decade, Garrod – who disliked acadmic politics greatly – had nevertheless also won full-degree status for archaeology at the university.

Born in 1892 into an intellectual family – her father was Regius professor of medicine at Oxford – Garrod discovered archaeology while in Malta after World War One, during which she had served in the Catholic Women’s League. The war had cost her her likely fiancée and two brothers; a third brother died in the influenza pandemic of 1919.

Mentored by the influential French archaologist Abbé Henri Breuil – who Garrod remembered “exploring impossible caves in a Roman collar and bathing dress” – her field work quickly established a formidable professional reputation. Her primary focus was the paleolithic period in the Levant and western Asia; most notably, in a series of excavations at Mount Carmel she was able to map some 600,000 years of human activity.

One colleague later recalled her in the field as “unique, rather like a glass of pale fine stony French white wine”. Another remembered her as witty and congenial, but more than capable of pounding the table in argument when required.

No doubt a forceful personality was often needed: one 1928 dig in southern Kurdistan found her and her small team needing the protection of armed police to carry out their work. At Mount Carmel, colleagues suffered everything from tick fever to malaria.

It was thought she had destroyed her private papers, but they were discovered in a French archive by Pamela Jane Smith in the late 1990s.

This piece first appeared in the May 2020 Months Past column in History Today.

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