Breaking ground: Female archaeologists at Avebury

Veronica Keiller

To mark the 100 year anniversary of some women gaining the right to vote in Britain, this year at Avebury we will bring to light the contributions made by female archaeologists in the twentieth century.

Throughout the twentieth century and up to the present day, female archaeologists have helped to shape the way we view Avebury and the surrounding landscape. From early excavators to supervisory staff and Museum Curators, these women are part of Avebury’s story. 


Between March and November there will be a trail leaflet and pop-up exhibition to explore the lives and work of these women as well as the wider context of women in archaeology. Some of this work has been done in partnership with TrowelBlazers, an organisation that seeks to raise the profile of women in the field sciences.


Meet the archaeologists


Nine female archaeologists are featured in our ‘Breaking Ground’ programme. Four of these are pulled out here.


Maud Cunnington


Maud Cunnington (1869-1951) was one of the most important excavators working in Wiltshire at the beginning of the twentieth century. Maud’s most significant contribution to the Avebury landscape was that she identified the site of The Sanctuary. While William Stukeley sketched this prehistoric site in the eighteenth century, the stones had since been broken up or removed and its location lost. It was Maud who identified the site’s exact location and preserved it for generations to come by purchasing the land and giving it to the nation. 

This picture shows some of the holes at The Sanctuary which had held posts. Possibly taken by Maud. Alexander Keiller Museum
Excavation at the Sanctuary
This picture shows some of the holes at The Sanctuary which had held posts. Possibly taken by Maud. Alexander Keiller Museum

Dorothy Liddell


Dorothy Liddell (1890-1938) worked as one of the supervisory staff for the 1925-1929 Windmill Hill excavations. This causewayed enclosure site, with its huge quantities of stone tools, pottery and animal bones had a profound influence on twentieth century understanding of Neolithic life. As part of these excavations Dorothy became the first to recognise the use of bird bones to decorate Neolithic pottery.


Dorothy was clearly a much respected member of the team. The Alexander Keiller Museum opened just a few weeks after Dorothy’s death and Keiller thanked her personally in his opening speech and spoke of the Museum as a tribute to her work. Stuart Piggott, a fellow supervisor on the team also wrote a memorial poem to Dorothy on her death. In it he describes her as a ‘fighter’ and writes ‘those rare few who take the challenge, proud, To pit themselves against the sullen crowd, Throw all away until the waiting foe, Takes from them even breath. Always the fighters go’. 

Thought to be Dorothy Liddell excavating a skeleton as part of the Windmill Hill excavations. Alexander Keiller Museum
Dorothy Liddell
Thought to be Dorothy Liddell excavating a skeleton as part of the Windmill Hill excavations. Alexander Keiller Museum


Doris Chapman


While beginning life as an artist and painter, Doris Chapman (1903-1990) went on to become a prehistorian and archaeological illustrator. She used her artistic skills to create facial reconstructions from skulls. Although a familiar method today, this was pioneering for her time. 


During the West Kennet Avenue excavations at Avebury, Doris drew detailed illustrations of the stones and went on to do the same for the henge monument. By 1935, Doris and Keiller were living in the Manor at Avebury and in 1938 they married. For this marriage Doris renounced ‘the right to any claim’ and agreed not to ‘buy any furs or jewellery without her husband’s knowledge’.

Doris Chapman and William Young at work. Alexander Keiller Museum
Doris Chapman
Doris Chapman and William Young at work. Alexander Keiller Museum


Dr Isobel Smith


Isobel Smith (1912-2005) was a long term resident of Avebury, living in a small cottage off the church yard for nearly fifty years until her death in 2005. In her early career she was employed by Keiller’s widow, Gabrielle Keiller, to write up the excavations of the 1920s and 30s. This was a huge task but the archive at Avebury attests to Isobel’s thoroughness and her tiny writing is a feature which threads its way through the collection. The reports Isobel produced were published in 1965 and remain highly valued by prehistorians today.


 Avebury today


Today the on-site curatorial team at Avebury happens to be made up entirely of female archaeologists. Excavations and discoveries continue to be made and published as we work to form a better understanding of this intriguing landscape.

The curatorial team at Avebury today
curatorial team
The curatorial team at Avebury today


The hidden history of TrowelBlazing women


Discoveries in archaeology are often presented as the work of male pioneers, yet the real story is quite different. Women were there in large numbers right from the start undertaking ground-breaking research. 


Three of the exhibition panels at Avebury have been written in partnership with TrowelBlazers. This organisation exists to change minds about who did – and does – archaeology, geology and palaeontology. Revealing the scale of women’s contributions past and present is vital to allow the next generation to ‘See It, Be It’. Find out more at trowelblazers.com