Dorothy Garrod was one of the most influential prehistorians and archaeologists of the twentieth century. She left an enduring legacy not only through her pioneering scientific research but also by challenging the status quo and helping to transform prehistory and archaeology into more open and accessible fields. Her trail-blazing life and career helped change attitudes and break down barriers to women in science.
Garrod received many honors in her lifetime. She was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 1952. She was awarded the Huxley Memorial Medal of the Royal Anthropological Institute in 1962 and the Gold Medal of the Society of Antiquaries in 1968 (the year of her death). She was also appointed to the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire with the rank of Commander, bestowed on her in Paris by the British Ambassador in 1965.
Dorothy Annie Elizabeth Garrod was born in London on 5 May 1892, into an upper-middle-class family, the second of four children and the only daughter. It was a formidable family, with a strong scientific tradition. Her grandfather, Sir Alfred Garrod, was a physician, as was her father, Sir Archibald Edward Garrod (1857–1936), who was to become Regius Professor of Medicine at the University of Oxford. Her uncle Alfred was a physiologist and zoologist. All three men were Fellows of the Royal Society.
Dorothy was educated at home by a governess, read history at Newnham College (Cambridge), and gained a diploma in anthropology in 1921 from Oxford. During the First World War, she was an assistant in the Catholic Women’s League, which saw her travel to France, Germany, and Malta, nursing the wounded and the dying. Two of her brothers and her fiancé were killed in the war and her third brother died of influenza just prior to demobilization, leaving Dorothy as the only surviving child. Gertrude Caton Thompson, an archaeologist of prehistoric Egypt and Garrod’s friend, relates that Garrod pledged to achieve a life deserving of her family’s remarkable intellectual tradition to compensate her bereaved parents.
Garrod’s Historical Importance
It is important to remember the time in which Garrod was raised. Women could not yet vote; academic establishments were emphatically patriarchal; and Victorian ideals of the role of women still very much lingered. The general expectation was that a woman would simply marry, keep house and children, and support her husband in his interests and business.
In 1892, the year Garrod was born, higher education for women was slowly beginning to emerge, with five women’s colleges existing at Oxford and Cambridge, one of which was Newnham College, Cambridge. However, even in 1913, when Garrod entered Newnham College to read History and Classics, full membership within the university was still denied to women: they were omitted from the official lists of university results and were not awarded degrees. Also at that time, degree courses in archaeology did not yet exist in either Oxford or Cambridge.
It was into this male-centered academic environment with its backdrop of long-established social conventions and expectations that Garrod entered and achieved success, thereby challenging it and making changes to the disciplines of prehistory and archaeology that endure to this day. As the archaeologist Margaret C. Root points out, any woman venturing into the field of archaeology at that time had to be a radical nonconformist, as indeed Garrod was in every part of her work and life.
Disney Chair of Archaeology at Cambridge
Garrod was the first woman and first prehistorian to attain the prestigious post of Disney Professor of Archaeology at the University of Cambridge, a position she held from 1939 until her retirement in 1952. It was a position of great academic influence, which she used to ensure significant changes in the practice and teaching of archaeology. Her appointment to such a post also served as an inspiration to and greatly promoted the acceptance of women in universities and in archaeology. As the May 1939 issue of The Cambridge Review observed, “The election of a woman to the Professorship of Archaeology is an immense step forward towards complete equality between men and women in the university.”
While her appointment might have ruffled many feathers in the university and beyond, it no doubt also produced much excitement, expectation, and delight, especially among the female students at Newnham College, as well as at other women’s colleges and in the wider academic world. Garrod’s father had passed away in 1936 and so was not able to witness and share in this momentous event. Caton Thompson, who was with Garrod immediately following the announcement, recalls that thoughts of her father and her brothers were not far from Garrod’s mind. Caton Thompson reports Garrod later saying, “I wish my father had been alive, and the others.”
Garrod’s Influence on the Establishment of Archaeology and Prehistory as Academic Disciplines
When Garrod accepted the Disney Chair, archaeology was still considered a “hobby pursuit” and the field of prehistory was new and fighting for recognition. Moreover, all types of archaeology other than classical archaeology were still very much in the early stages of development and acceptance.
During her time at Cambridge, Garrod spearheaded the reorganization of the Cambridge Tripos university degree system. She designed, won acceptance for, and subsequently implemented the creation of Part II (Archaeology) of the Cambridge Archaeological and Anthropological Tripos in 1948, a system that remains to this day. As a result, Cambridge became the first British university to offer prehistoric archaeology as part of its undergraduate curriculum. Garrod also introduced a module on World Prehistory, expanding the existing France-and-Europe-focused module into one that incorporated a worldwide view of prehistory. There can have been no one at that time more qualified by experience than Garrod to ensure that prehistory as a whole and in its global context was appropriately and accurately established within the British university teaching system.
In 1948, four years before her retirement from Cambridge, Garrod saw the full admission and membership of female students. One can only suppose that Garrod’s position as Disney Chair contributed to this decision.
Garrod and Women Archaeologists: Then and Now
Garrod faced many difficulties while at Cambridge, having to fit into an essentially male and hierarchical system, barred from evening dinners at male colleges, where most of her colleagues would have been and where high-level discussions would have taken place, and unsure and unaware of all the subtle nuances and not so subtle behaviors required to “get on” in universities and academia—something which only a born-and-bred public school graduate would be aware of. Yet, despite all this and more, Garrod’s influence and legacy continue through each generation of archaeologists and prehistorians, since many of the issues and obstacles Garrod faced remain today.
Garrod’s Scientific Importance: Pioneer of Prehistoric Archaeology
Garrod was a pioneer of the development of early prehistoric archaeology in three main ways: first, by advocating and implementing in her own research a global approach to prehistory that made connections among continents—essentially taking prehistory “out of Europe,” second, by conducting expansive fieldwork over a vast geographical area; and third, by her seminal publications. In total, Garrod produced over 105 publications, including fieldwork reports, reviews, academic papers, books, and monographs.
Fieldwork in Seven Countries and Two Continents
Garrod excavated almost every year between 1923 until 1968. She excavated a total of at least twenty-three sites, in seven countries, across two continents: in France (13 seasons), then-Palestine (7 seasons), Lebanon (4 seasons), Britain and Gibraltar (2 seasons), and Bulgaria (1 season). The wide geographical range of her practical fieldwork experience was part of the significance of her work, especially as none of her contemporaries had at that time traveled or excavated so widely.
Contribution to the British Paleolithic
In 1926, Garrod published The Upper Paleolithic of Britain, which brought the Paleolithic period in Britain in line with that of continental Europe. It was both pioneering and pivotal in its consolidation of the Upper Paleolithic on a national scale and demonstrated the significant contribution of Britain to worldwide prehistory. Garrod received a B.Sc. degree from the University of Oxford for this publication. In it, Garrod reviewed, synthesized, and evaluated the scattered array of typologically ambiguous and poorly excavated sites as well as identifying, describing, and naming a new Upper Paleolithic “industry”—the “Creswellian,” which is firmly established in the chronology of the British Paleolithic period today.
Garrod’s First Excavation as Director: The Discovery of “Abel”
Garrod’s friend and mentor, the Abbé Henri Breuil, provided the opportunity for Garrod to lead her first independent excavation at the site of “The Devil’s Tower” in Gibraltar. With the wealth of experience gained through two years working with and learning from Breuil in France, as well as four other major Paleolithic excavations in France, including La Qunia with Henri-Martin, where the remains of twenty-seven Neanderthal individuals were recovered, and with the publication of The Upper Palaeolithic of Britain, which established her as a leading figure in prehistoric archaeology, Garrod was more than ready to lead the Gibraltar expedition.
Excavations took place over the course of seven months between November 1925 and December 1926. The whole site was discovered to be Mousterian and the discovery of the skull fragments of a Neanderthal child established the significance of the excavations. Garrod aged the skull fragments as those of a 5-year-old child and made comparisons of some of its features to those of the finds at La Qunia, France, which she had worked on previously. Garrod named the child “Abel” and the discovery made a great impact on her: in her photographic album is a picture surrounded by red stars showing Garrod sitting on a rock, holding the skull fragments of Abel in her hands. Below the photo, Garrod has written this description: “b. B.C. 20,000. d. aet. 5. Disinterred June 11, 1926.”
Garrod’s leadership and overall handling of the excavations in Gibraltar and publication of it resulted in solidly established her as a Paleolithic and Pleistocene Archaeologist. For her work in Gibraltar, Garrod was awarded the Prix Hollandais by the Institut Internationale d'Anthropologie in Amsterdam in 1927.
Trailblazing Research in the Near and Middle East.
Garrod was at the forefront of Paleolithic research in the Near East, with her ideas continuing to generate discussion today. She was the first person to search for the Paleolithic in southern Kurdistan and her excavation in 1930 of Zarzi cave, located in the northwestern Zagros Mountains of Iraq in southern Kurdistan, was one of the first excavations ever in the Middle East. Garrod’s excavations in Lebanon between 1958 and 1963, building on her work at Mount Carmel in Palestine, significantly contributed to the fundamental understanding of the Lower and Middle Paleolithic in Lebanon and the Near East region.
Garrod’s Excavations at Mount Carmel: World-Changing Discoveries
In 1929, Garrod began the first season of excavations at the Mount Carmel Caves near Haifa in then-Palestine. While precedents already existed for women’s involvement in archaeology in the eastern Mediterranean and Near East, mainly involving the women’s colleges in Oxford and Cambridge, there were no such precedents in British Mandatory Palestine. So, Garrod was a pioneer, with her all-female archaeologist team as well as her all-female Arab workforce. Her team included archaeologists from both Britain and America.
Excavations were carried out over seven seasons during a period of almost twenty-two months, in four caves, recording an almost unbroken Paleolithic succession from the end of the Lower Paleolithic to the Mesolithic, firmly placing the prehistory of Palestine on the archaeological map. Over thirteen individual Neanderthal and modern human burials were discovered, as well as over 92,000 artifacts ranging from the Middle Palaeolithic to the Mesolithic. Garrod classified and analyzed all 92,000 artifacts.
The results from Mount Carmel were unprecedented. Garrod’s work on the lithic assemblages and her subsequent theories provided the foundations for the chronology of the Levantine prehistoric sequence, which are still accepted today. One significance of this regional chronology was the overthrow of a Eurocentric prehistory in which all evidence could be tied into the French data and the dominance of France-focused prehistoric chronologies.
The finds from her excavations in Tabun and Skhul caves were, and remain, central to any discussion on the origins of modern humans and the demise of the Neanderthals. The 1937 book, The Stone Age of Mount Carmel, by Garrod and Dorothea Bate, established a new standard for its time in its interdisciplinary nature, and in recognition of this Garrod was awarded the degree of D.Sc. by the University of Oxford.
Garrod as a Christian: Faith, Hope, and Love
Garrod converted from Anglicanism to Catholicism during the First World War, though the reasons for her conversion are not known. It may be that the death of her brothers had some bearing on her decision.
For two years (1922-1924), Garrod was a student of the Abbé Breuil at the Institut de Paléontologie Humaine in Paris. She had met him the previous summer while visiting French Paleolithic Cave Art sites, and she described the meeting thus: “We also met the Abbé Breuil, who knows more than anyone about these things, and explores caves in a Roman collar and a bathing dress.”
At the Institut, Garrod discovered shared experiences and a friendship with Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the well-known paleontologist and Jesuit priest. As Garrod proceeded with her studies, a conflict emerged within her as to how to reconcile her faith with her growing knowledge of human prehistory. Her intellectual honesty caused her to withdraw from the Church while she wrestled with this conflict. This is perhaps a testament to Garrod’s integrity, sincerity, and part of her journey as a Christian growing in her faith—all Christians face situations and events which shake their faith and lead them to ask questions, and such experiences ultimately become part of their growth in faith.
Garrod did not ask the Abbé Breuil for guidance in this struggle. It was through the influence of Teilhard de Chardin’s philosophy of evolution that Garrod was able to finally bring together her faith and her work and return to the Church. Teilhard was twelve years older than Garrod and had already worked through his own questions concerning faith and evolution. His philosophy followed an evolutionist understanding of human origins and human nature and posited an ongoing development of human consciousness towards an “omega point” (still to come) of the divinization of humanity. Garrod was not the only Christian prehistorian and archaeologist at this time: Gertrude Caton Thompson, Nina Layard, and, of course, the Catholic priests Henri Breuil and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin shared her belief in the Christian God.
Garrod’s friend and biographer Caton Thompson tells us that Garrod, following her return to the Church, found conviction and strength in her faith throughout the remainder of her life. She describes aspects of Garrod’s personality that perhaps reflected her faith. In particular, she describes Garrod as compassionate, calm under pressure, as having a genuine interest in people regardless of their age, status, or background, and as striving with whatever resources she had for the alleviation of the mental and physical distress of others. Reading this, one cannot fail to see “salt and light” in action. Within Garrod’s work and interactions with others, her humility, thoughtfulness, and gentleness shine forth.
EDITORIAL NOTE: This article is part of a collaboration with the Society of Catholic Scientists (click here to read about becoming a member). You can ask questions and join a wider discussion of the above essay at the bottom of this page where the original version of this essay is published with extensive footnotes.