Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

TrowelBlazers: In search of the female Indiana Jones

By Victoria Herridge, Special to CNN
June 21, 2013 -- Updated 1629 GMT (0029 HKT)
TrowelBlazers, a blog and social media project, was created to celebrate women in archaeology, palaeontology.
TrowelBlazers, a blog and social media project, was created to celebrate women in archaeology, palaeontology.
  • Archaeologist Dorothy Garrod led an excavation in 1930s with all-female team
  • Palaeobiologist Dr. Victoria Herridge was so inspired, she co-founded blog TrowelBlazers
  • TrowelBlazers celebrates women in archaeology, palaeontology and geology

Leading Women connects you to extraordinary women of our time -- remarkable professionals who have made it to the top in all areas of business, the arts, sport, culture, science and more. Dr Victoria Herridge is a palaeobiologist working as a Scientific Associate at the Natural History Museum, London who co-founded TrowelBlazers, a blog celebrating the contribution of women to archaeology, palaeontology and geology.

(CNN) -- Close your eyes and imagine this. It is the 1930s and, as Nazism starts to flex its muscles in Europe, you are in the Middle East bouncing along a rough road on your way to visit an archaeological dig. The excavation is taking place on Mount Carmel, fabled site of the Prophet Elijah's burning altar, and archaeologists are digging deep to uncover the roots of humanity in the region.

So far, so Indiana Jones. Except that when you arrive and walk through the tented camp to the trenches, you realize that almost every single person -- from the Palestinian excavators and overseers, to the Cambridge University team directing the project -- is a woman. Because this isn't a feminist fantasy -- this is Dorothy Garrod's excavation project at the Carmel Caves, and it's the reality.

Read: Celebrating 50 years of women in space

If you are surprised, I don't blame you. I felt much the same when I dug deeper into the story of a hero of mine, the pioneering palaeontologist Dorothea Bate.

Herridge at the entrance to Spinagallo Cave, Sicily in April last year -- where the smallest elephants ever (just 1m tall as adults) to have exisited are found.
Copyright Dr. Dan Nita

Between 1901 and 1905, totally unchaperoned, the twenty-something year-old Dorothea Bate explored the cliffs, caves and mountains of Cyprus and Crete in search of fossils. She was phenomenally successful, with her fossil finds becoming an important part of the collection at London's Natural History Museum that I now work on. To do all of this as a woman in the early 1900s, I thought, she must have been truly extraordinary.

Tina Brown: 'Taking risks comes easily'
A crusader for children worldwide
Beyonce: The poster child for success
Sandberg: Women must toughen up

Except I was wrong. Daring, clever, courageous and pioneering, yes -- but extraordinary? It seems not.

At the same time as Dorothea Bate was exploring Crete, an archaeologist named Harriet Boyd was directing the excavations of the Minoan town of Gournia. With her were two more women, Edith Hall and Blanche Wheeler. This image of not one, but four Edwardian women, digging for fossils and Minoan potsherds during the turbulent early days of post-Ottoman Crete surprised and captivated me. So I did the obvious thing and tweeted about it. I was totally unprepared for what followed.

Read: Who were the real 'Gatsby' women?

I was bombarded with more examples of pioneering women archaeologists: Dorothy Garrod, who we met above; cross-dressing Jane Dieulafoy; Gertrude Bell, spy and mentor to T.E. Lawrence; the explorer and painter of Mayan ruins, Adela Breton; Gertrude Caton-Thompson, excavator of Great Zimbabwe; Nina Layard, Jacquetta Hawkes, Freya Stark, Frederica de Laguna, Amelia Edwards, Mary Butler, Agatha Christie (yes, that one), Kathleen Kenyon -- the names just kept on coming, and as they did my delight turned to indignation.

Why hadn't I heard of these women? Not the individual names -- I can barely name any male archaeologists from that period -- but the idea of these women, working in such numbers and even leading their fields. It was as though we'd blithely wiped them all from our popular imaginations, and thus allowed each woman to be easily dismissed -- albeit with an approving pat on the head -- as anachronistic and an exception-to-the-masculine- rule.

As the names of pioneering women archaeologists bounced around my corner of the Twittersphere, so too did demands for more information, for television programs (which don't exist) and books (which do). These women's lives were packed full of adventure, tales of derring-do and breathtaking discovery, and together they subvert an idea of femininity that persists to this day. Stories worth celebrating.

Read: Is architecture sexist?

So when Mike Sizemore suggested I start a Tumblr to do just that, I punched the air and the simple brilliance of the idea. Yes! But there was no way I could do it on my own.

Herridge (left) abseiling down a cliffside in Crete, found a cave Bate had worked in. She says: "It fitted her diary descriptions perfectly, and there were even fossils of dwarf deet still in place in the cave earth!"
Copyright Dr. David Richards

Fortunately, much as Dorothea Bate wasn't alone in Crete in 1903, I was not alone in the wild frontiers of social media. Brenna Hassett, Rebecca Wragg Sykes and Suzanne Pilaar Birch -- all, like me, in the early stages of their scientific careers -- immediately stepped up. In the space of just a few hours, four women who barely knew each other outside the realm of Twitter, had signed away their free time to start a blog celebrating pioneering women in archaeology, palaeontology and geology. We called it TrowelBlazers.

"Why hadn't I heard of these women? ... It was as though we'd blithely wiped them all from our popular imaginations.
Victoria Herridge, palaeobiologist

TrowelBlazers is now just over one month old and we already have over twenty posts online, and more submitted, written by people who want share their admiration for the women who inspired them. And we have a lively -- and lovely -- Twitter feed and Facebook page, where hundreds of people join in funny, joyous, free-flowing conversations, celebrating these women, sharing fieldwork stories, and forging new friendships and networks in the process. We're planning Wikipedia edit-a-thons as part of Ada Lovelace Day , and stepping in wherever we think a trowelblazing opinion is needed. And we want everyone to join in.

We dare to dream that TrowelBlazers will help to reset people's imaginations -- for it to become as normal to imagine Gertrude Bell as it is Lawrence of Arabia. For Dorothy Garrod to trump Indiana Jones. We want to ask children to draw us pictures of palaeontologists and geologists and archaeologists, and we want those pictures to be of women as often as they men. Because this isn't political correctness, and this isn't fiction -- though the stories are great. It's the reality.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Victoria Herridge.

Part of complete coverage on
April 1, 2014 -- Updated 1619 GMT (0019 HKT)
In 2007, Arianna Huffington collapsed at her desk. Suffering from a broken cheekbone, the editor-in-chief decided to change her workaholic ways.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1623 GMT (0023 HKT)
Meet Mo Abudu, the talk show host portraying a very different Africa. As a glamorous presenter, she also heads up Ebony Life TV network, based in Nigeria.
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1216 GMT (2016 HKT)
Their job is capturing the most horrifying images on Earth -- keeping their eyes open, where others must look away. Meet Kate Brooks and Gerda Taro, the war photographers of today and yesterday.
March 25, 2014 -- Updated 1819 GMT (0219 HKT)
Gloria Steinem speaks onstage during Equality Now presents 'Make Equality Reality' at Montage Hotel on November 4, 2013 in Los Angeles, California.
As Gloria Steinem turns 80, Kathleen McCartney highlights the remarkable life of the feminist so far.
March 8, 2014 -- Updated 1632 GMT (0032 HKT)
CNN hosted a Tweetchat on gender equality with special guests including Nobel Peace prize laureate Tawakkol Karman. Here's what you missed.
March 13, 2014 -- Updated 1059 GMT (1859 HKT)
From shaving her head for climate change to opting for a sustainable business model, Vivienne Westwood is simply unstoppable.
April 2, 2014 -- Updated 1502 GMT (2302 HKT)
In what would be a dream come true for her alter ego, Carrie Bradshaw -- Sarah Jessica Parker has turned her love of fashion into a new shoe range with Manolo Blahnik.
March 12, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
The Facebook COO's latest headline-making action is a new "Ban Bossy" campaign, which aims at getting rid of the word "bossy."
March 18, 2014 -- Updated 1417 GMT (2217 HKT)
Meet Gail Kelly, the woman who started as a bank teller -- and now runs the banks.
March 6, 2014 -- Updated 0546 GMT (1346 HKT)
What kind of politician is slashed in the face with a knife, and upon waking up in hospital the first thing they ask about is the election campaign?
February 26, 2014 -- Updated 1650 GMT (0050 HKT)
Former U.S. State Deparment Anne-Marie Slaughter says Brad Pitt is 'posterchild for engaged fatherhood'.
February 25, 2014 -- Updated 1525 GMT (2325 HKT)
Cast your eye across a line-up of world leaders and it might look a little something like this: Man in dark suit, man in dark suit, man in dark suit, Angela Merkel in fire engine red two-piece.
February 18, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Meet Margarita Louis-Dreyfus, the chairperson of French commodities giant Louis Dreyfus Holdings, with a net worth estimated at an eye-watering $6 billion.
February 17, 2014 -- Updated 1138 GMT (1938 HKT)
YouTube has a new boss and she has a "healthy disregard for the impossible" -- according to Google CEO Larry Page. Here are five things you didn't know about her.