BMCR 2004.08.14

Born to Rebel. The Life of Harriet Boyd Hawes. Edited by Annie Allsebrook. First published in 1992, reprinted with corrections and a postscript

, , Born to rebel : the life of Harriet Boyd Hawes. Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2002. 244 pages : illustrations, portraits ; 21 cm. ISBN 9781842170410. $15.00 (pb).

Harriet Boyd Hawes (1871-1945), an ‘audacious person of wide, intense interests, always doing the unexpected and frequently becoming involved along the fringes of history, will be best known to readers of this review as the pioneer archaeologist of Gournia in Crete. Her daughter, Mary Allsebrook, who urged her to write a light-hearted account of her experiences before her death, based this book on what she had sketched out and readily acknowledges that the sources (diaries and letters) were ‘hit-or-miss’. The present volume is revised by her granddaughter, with the addition of a postscript which takes into account the centenary of the first excavations of the American School of Archaeology in Crete. The title, Born to Rebel, sets the tone of the book, as does the first sentence, ‘Mother was a problem!’ Although she will always be remembered for the excavation of Gournia, she in fact spent only five years of her life in field work. Much of this biography, therefore, is given to her other activities, which included political activism, nursing, and war relief. The pace of the book is partly determined by the intensity of the life of its subject, and perhaps by the fact that her daughter, a journalist, had inherited her zest for adventure.

Naturally, the story is told chronologically, and this review will perforce follow the narrative of her life. Born in 1871, Harriet was the youngest of four children. After her mother’s death in Harriet’s infancy she was left the only girl in the family. The lack of a female role model, it is hinted, may have contributed to the disregard for the conventional deportment of women, which actually served her well as she pursued a life in archaeology and politics.

She entered Smith College, was reprimanded for paying more attention to extra-curricular activities than to her studies, abandoned Latin because ‘she did not really approve of the Romans’, enjoyed Greek but treated it with the cavalier attitude with which she approached all her studies. Even at this age she was more interested in the social problems of the working class. She was passionate in her convictions and ferociously argumentative in anything concerning politics, economics, archaeology and history. She considered a career in nursing, but turned to teaching instead. When her father then died of cancer, she looked for a change in her life and decided to take the ‘Grand Tour’ of Europe, after which she applied to the American School of Classical Studies in Athens for further study in archaeology and history. She began her studies at the American School in 1896, taking part in its tours of the archaeological sites. She also applied herself to learning Modern Greek.

But no sooner had she arrived in Athens than a new uprising against Turkey broke out in Crete, and Cretans started to pour into Athens. Boyd immediately signed up for nurses’ training, dividing her time between her study of ancient Greece and support of the Greeks in their struggle against the Turks. When war broke out along the Thessalian border in 1897 and the Red Cross opened a hospital in Volos, she threw herself into the humanitarian effort.

When in 1899 she was awarded the Agnes Hoppin Fellowship, offered annually to women members of the School, her first thought was to join the American excavations at Corinth, only to be told that the opportunities at Corinth ‘did not afford enough material for women.’ Undeterred, she turned her sights to Crete. The timing was fortuitous, since hostilities had just ended in Crete, and excavation was possible for the first time. Boyd travelled first to Herakleion, where she saw the fledgling museum and witnessed the discovery of the ‘Throne Room’ at nearby Knossos. She then set out to tour the southern coast of the island. Her companion Aristides was an invaluable help. Travelling ahead he conducted a sort of ‘Antiques Roadshow’, encouraging local peasants to show him all the various incidental finds they had made on their land, potsherds, seals, coins and bits of bronze. He persuaded them also to show him extant landmarks, such as the remains of ancient walls, caves and tombs. However, it was Kavousi, near Mirabello Bay, that Arthur Evans had especially recommended. On May 10, 1900, she received official permission from the Cretan government to excavate as a representative of the American School. Wasting no time she hired workmen and started digging at a number of nearby sites in rapid progression, with astonishing success. Three weeks later she paused in order to take her finds to the museum at Herakleion where she worked at cleaning and cataloguing them.

Returning to America at the end of the summer, she took up a post at Smith College. A lecture on Kavousi persuaded the Archaeological Institute of America to provide financial backing for further work in Crete, and opened the way for further excavation. When she returned to the site the following year, a peasant led her and her two companions to the site of Gournia, and with a crew of 36 workmen a great many finds—a street, houses, pottery, bronzes and stone jars—were made in the first few days of excavation. The workforce increased to over a hundred.

Boyd Hawes had a genius for organization and kept meticulous and detailed records. By August the London Times reported that Gournia was ‘the site best worth visiting in Crete.’ Other finds of that season included a double axe, a gaming board, a double-jug, a shrine, and a clay female figure with raised arms.

The 1903 season was marked by distinguished visitors: Sir Arthur Evans, Sir John Myres, Wilhelm Doerpfeld. That year again was fruitful for finds, notably the ‘octopus vase.’ The ‘palace’ area was cleared, as was the eastern part of the town. The following year she was joined by Edith Hall, the last of the Agnes Hoppin Fellows at the American School in Athens, and by Richard Seager, who later went on to undertake the spectacular excavation of Mochlos. This year saw the discovery of new styles of pottery, including the ‘Vasiliki’ ware, which provided a valuable clue to the dating of the finds. Corroboration of the chronology called for painstaking work among other tombs and caves in eastern Crete, work which she admitted to detesting. She managed, however, to remove several thousand fragments and a large number of unbroken objects, which the Cretan government deemed to have little interest for the museums of Crete, and to ship them to the Free Museum of Science and Art in Philadelphia, the first Minoan collection to be acquired by an American Museum.

The first International Congress of Archaeology, held in Athens in 1905, drew many Classical scholars to Greece, Harriet Boyd Hawes being one of the only two women two give papers. (The other was Jane Harrison.) She was particularly interested in Sir Arthur Evans’s proposal for a new classification of Minoan artefacts. Afterwards she continued on to Crete together with him and many others from the Congress and spent time in the Herakleion Museum, classifying and photographing material. This was to be her last season in Crete. Returning to Mirabello Bay she met for the second time the English anthropologist Henry Hawes who had travelled the world measuring heads for his research into ethnography. Harriet’s records are reticent about their friendship, but he proposed to her later that summer, and they were married the following year.

Marriage, children and the outbreak of fresh hostilities in Crete combined to bring about an end to her work of excavation. Nevertheless she published the mammoth book Gournia with colour plates partly at her own expense, followed by Crete the Forerunner of Greece, co-authored with her husband. She was awarded an MA by Smith College, and an honorary Doctorate of Humanities (the first ever offered by the College) in 1910. (She did not return to Greece until 1926, when she was relieved to find that her excavations were still in good order.)

When fighting broke out again in the Balkans in 1912, she immediately involved herself in relief work, collecting funds and clothes. She was prescient in her concern for world peace, convinced that it must be enforced internationally, with the necessary proviso of a Court of Appeal. In 1915 she set out for Corfu, backed by agencies such as the Red Cross, to give humanitarian aid to the Serbian refugees. The conditions were appalling, but she rose to the challenge with outstanding organizational ability, imagination, compassion and incredible pluck as she worked among the dying soldiers.

Back in the U.S. after the Serbian crisis she steeped herself in political activism. When the Americans declared war in 1917, she established the Smith College Relief Unit, and left for France, where she set up a relief station in an abandoned stately home near Paris. However, she was shortly relieved of her directorship, allegedly because she was on the brink of breakdown. She found work in Paris with the YMCA and later with the American Red Cross, finally sailing for home in 1918, just before the Armistice was signed.

As soon as the war was over she took her children on a six-month visit to France, after which she returned to Boston, teaching ancient art at Wellesley for sixteen years. Later she returned with them to Greece to investigate three puzzles of ancient art that particularly interested her: the provenance of the ‘Boston relief’, with its similarity to the Ludovisi Throne; the shape of the Erechtheum; and what had filled the missing parts of the pediments of the Parthenon.

She also took her children to the Balkans so that they might see the theatres of war and understand its horrors. Her daughter moved there as a reporter the following year, and with the outbreak of war imminent Boyd Hawes undertook a very difficult journey to Prague to find her. On her return to the U.S. she managed to arrange a luncheon with Eleanor Roosevelt at which she presented her understanding of what was taking place in Europe. Among her convictions was that Europe must federate. She vociferously maintained that neutrality on the part of the U.S. was both immoral and futile. She spoke out against any leader, including Churchill, who engaged in empire-building. No nation, she declared, should undertake to boss another. She thought and wrote about the need for an organization such as the United Nations before that organization existed, and stressed that it must have the backing both of an international court and of military staff. She described Anglo-American world domination as nothing less than disgusting. ‘Ageless, unbeatable, and vividly alive’ to the end, she died in 1945.

Readers of BMCR will find this is a fascinating book, but its attempt to be lighthearted can be frustrating. It is told as a rattling good story (which it is), but in the process Boyd Hawes’ achievements sometimes come across as amazing stunts. Much is made of her small stature, as though this made her pioneering work all the more phenomenal. She was apparently absent-minded in the extreme; the story is replete with details of missed trains and lost children. The newspapers of the day sensationalized her work and romanticized her marriage; their headlines are pressed into chapter headings (‘Love Among the Ruins’) or echoed in such titles as ‘Buried Treasure’, ‘In Search of Skeletons.’ Other chapters are entitled ‘Harriet and the Kitchen Sink’ and ‘Keeping Tabs on Harriet.’ These, and the correspondingly jaunty journalese style of her daughter’s narrative, tend to undermine Boyd Hawes’ truly remarkable scholarly achievement. One is continually craving more background information, for instance about the American School at Athens and its programs and about individuals whose names appear in the narrative and who obviously played a significant role in Boyd Hawes’ success.

I could not help making comparisons between this book and Jessie Stewart’s Jane Harrison: A Portrait from Letters. Both books are compelling introductions to the lives and work of women who flourished in the first decade of the twentieth century. Both were written by women in their eighties who had known their subjects well. Both seek to introduce pioneering women scholars to a general audience. Both writers idolized their subjects, and neither ventured to take a more critical stance. Whereas Jessie Stewart was a scholar in her own right, and entered into the academic frays of her subject, Mary Allsebrook, as a daughter and a journalist, had access to more detail of her subject’s private and family life, but her research did not go much beyond letters and diaries. Nevertheless, the two books have this in common: each of them paints a vivid portrait of its subject with an immediacy that can be attained only by someone who had known her well.

The book is attractively produced, and includes occasional ‘doodles’, or line-drawings. There are a few typographical errors, mostly clustered near the beginning of the book, notably ‘hairless’ for ‘heiress.’

A book like this must be taken on its own terms as a daughter’s account of her mother. It is a delightful read. More importantly, Mary Allsebrook has put on record and made accessible Boyd Hawes’ astounding achievements. What is needed now is a full-scale critical biography of this remarkable and influential woman.