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  • Writer's pictureDale DeBakcsy

Woman of Action: Harriet Boyd Hawes, From Archaeologist to War Nurse to Economic Activist.

Harriet Boyd Hawes was cursed from birth with an overabundance of Purpose. She was ever in search of a Problem to solve, and possessed both the ability to quickly master new fields of expertise and the fundamental drive to effect her novel solutions by sheer daring and persistence.

She saw a nation rising to revolution, and threw herself into ministering to its wounded, saw an island of deep historical mysteries, and employed her gifts of language and organization to discover a new archaeological wonder, and saw the rise of fascism and Depression, and engaged her mind and pen to probe the economic realities that pushed people into nationalist frenzy and war. Equally famous for her campaign to bring war relief to the devastated French villages of the First World War as for her title as the first woman to unearth an ancient Hellenistic city, Harriet Boyd Hawes (1871-1945) showed how much Life can be stuffed into a life when intellectual curiosity is married to a deep and active love of humanity.

She was the youngest child, and only daughter, among five siblings, and her mother died within ten months of her birth, leaving her father, who could never bring himself to remarry, to carry on as best he could. He was a sympathetic man who did as much as he was able to, and made sure that his only daughter had all the educational opportunities available to a girl in late 19th century America. Raised with four older brothers, she soon developed a reputation as a tomboy with little regard for the niceties of The Rules, a trait she would carry with her the rest of her life. If a dictate from on high didn't make sense to her, or if she thought its reasoning suspect, she felt fully justified in disregarding it to carry on with whatever childhood adventure she happened to be chasing at the moment.

Her great partner in life throughout adolescence was her older brother Alex, who understood her completely and gave her sympathy and well-considered counsel, taking over emotionally from the mother she never knew, only to himself die tragically young in 1891, followed shortly by her father in 1895. By the age of twenty-four, then, Harriet was left largely to her own devices in the determination of her life's course, and she decisively seized the wheel of her destiny. She had been an exasperating student at Smith College, and the faculty felt moved to send her a note after her second year telling her that her social schedule was seriously impeding her academic performance. They knew she had the brains to do better.

She soon found her academic purpose, however, in the form of a deep commitment to the study of antiquity that took her ultimately to Athens for a year of study. That year happened to coincide with Crete's rebellion against Turkish rule. Boyd found herself in the middle of a national uprising as the Greek people, who had themselves fought for independence from the Ottomans three quarters of a century before, rushed to volunteer to defend their neighbors while the Great Powers threatened reprisals should the government of Greece attempt to upset the balance of power in the region.

There would be blood, and Boyd was determined to be of use. She set herself the task of learning the rudiments of nursing in spite of a still palpable language barrier and no prior experience, and the need for medical care proved so great that she was rushed into service, and was in fact given charge of organizing a new field hospital within days of arriving in the newly established combat zone. Her energy and resourcefulness coupled with her genuine sympathy for the cause of the outnumbered and outgunned Cretan rebels brought her to the attention of the Queen of Greece, who took a life-long interest in Boyd's career thereafter.

Unsupported (in fact actively opposed) by the great powers of Europe, the Cretan revolution collapsed, leaving Boyd free again to return to her studies. After briefly returning to America, she obtained a fellowship to return to Greece and carry out some translations, but soon found that static scholarship was not for her. She was a person of motion, of action, but also one possessed of great questions about the mysteries of the past. For such a person, archaeology seemed to offer the perfect balance of field work and scholarship. She knew, however, that were she to do field work, she would need to be the one to lead it - from her experiences in the Revolution, she was fully aware that she could organize people, and even lead them, and so she began surveying various archaeologists asking their opinion of her chances as an archaeological investigator.

No woman had yet undertaken an excavation of a classical Mediterranean site (though Gertrude Bell was contemporaneously plumbing the depths of Syria's past) and yet the professionals she consulted were generally encouraging. Major archaeological studies of Crete had only recently gotten underway in the form of Arthur Evans's legendary unearthing of the palace of Knossos, and the landscape was littered with heretofore untouched sites of promise. Leading an excavation required a person with an intersecting web of skills - an instinct for evaluating a patch of land for archaeological significance, an ability to hire good people, keep them on task, and supply them with everything they require for their work, a knowledge of antique ornamentation to allow quick dating and sorting of finds, a fluency with languages, and a familiarity with the techniques of excavation as they were being progressively refined in the heady aftermath of Schliemann's discovery of Troy.

Harriet Boyd had all of these qualities, as well as an ability to inspire devotion amongst her workers that kept them coming back for campaign after campaign, working with her instead of combining against her, and taking pride in their work unearthing Crete's magnificent past. Success in archaeology is by no means guaranteed, but between her utilization of local knowledge and eye for the lay of the land, she discovered not only an Iron Age civilization at Kavousi in 1900, but gained international recognition for unearthing the Minoan town of Gournia in 1901, eventually uncovering 60 homes and a palace along with a treasure trove of artifacts, including the stunning Octopus Stirrup Jar.

Those excavations continued to 1904, a time when Boyd was also lecturing at Smith College, where her acts of absent-minded professorship were legendary, including forgetting to bring the class's final to the final, and forgetting her baby outside of a shop. That baby, Alexander, was born in 1906, just 9 months after her marriage to Charles Henry Hawes, a British scholar. Boyd regarded the birth of her son as the end of her career as a field archaeologist, and she turned instead to the writing of a book which would detail her Cretan findings. Gournia (1908) was a mammoth work featuring reports from several archaeologists working in Crete and Greece, and its legendary color plates were financed by Boyd at a time when she could ill afford it. Weighty and scholarly, it was followed the next year by Crete, the Forerunner of Greece (1909) which she co-wrote with Charles, and which served as a charming popular introduction to the complicated civilization she had been unearthing for the last decade.

Meanwhile, the situation in Eastern Europe intensified as the Balkan Wars stoked resentments between Austria and Serbia that would lead to World War I. Boyd, reading the news from home, took the Serbian cause for her own and argued passionately against American neutrality in that conflict. Taking the initiative, she gathered war resources privately and accompanied them as they made their way to the Serbian Army that was reeling in retreat to the island of Corfu dazed, starved, and weakened from deadly typhoid fever. Her efforts of organization there to bring resources and order where there were none saved the lives of many Serbians and propelled her to her next effort, to bring succor to the devastated regions of France that had been gutted by years of trench warfare.

Appealing to her students and fellow instructors at Smith College, she organized a relief society the explicit purpose of which was to go to the German-French front and bring some semblance of relief to the towns and villages that had been destroyed as the German and French armies advanced, retreated, and advanced anew. Her squad of nurses and organizers arrived in 1917, but no sooner did their crucial work begin than Boyd found herself being elbowed aside by other members of the expedition. They felt that she was too dictatorial in her demands, too uncompromising in her expectations, and that it would be better for all concerned if she retired with grace. She did, but only retreated as far as Paris, where she thought she could at least be useful in the direction of limited resources to the places they were most needed.

War's end brought the League of Nations, which Boyd enthusiastically supported as a means to bring justice and reason to a Europe that had known so little of it in recent years. But it also brought with it new problems of international finance that called for bold solutions. Boyd, sensing the new challenge to world stability, turned herself to the study of economic theory on the one hand, and the logic and appeal of fascism on the other. She felt that 18th century theories of classical supply and demand had to be adjusted in an era of industrial production when supply could be made virtually limitless. She advanced a theory that, in a post-scarcity world, monetary policy needed substantial adjustment, and governmental efforts had to be focused on problems of distribution.

She also threw herself into the cause of organized labor, personally driving laborers to protests and appearing in court to support workers' right to choose for themselves what union would best represent their interests. At one point, now in her sixties, she even went undercover to gather intel on a company that had hired out muscle to a factory that was attempting to intimidate its workers away from unionization.

Enraged at a Europe that seemed to bend over backwards to accommodate Hitler's hunger for land, frustrated with an America that had yet to find a modern economic system which did justice to workers and reality, and saddened by the failing health of her husband, Boyd's later years were lightened only by the pigs and chickens she kept on a patch of land which she allowed jobless workers to tend while they were finding their feet. But after Charles's death in 1943, Harriet's health began to falter. Annoyed by her inability to attend the events and do the things that meant so much to her, she planned one last trip to Greece to bring what aid she could to their recently enflared civil war there but between the risk of submarine attack and her own health issues, the trip came to naught, and in March of 1945, Harriet Boyd Hawes, whose life had been built on the breaking of rules, finally had to submit to the ultimate one: all things pass.


Born to Rebel: The Life of Harriet Boyd Hawes by Mary Allesbrook (1992) was written by her daughter and gives a vivid account of the irrepressible energy and drive of its subject. We see her as a mother whose complete inability to catch a train on time was a source of constant frustration to all those around her, but also as a human being whose stores of energy and will unearthed an ancient civilization, saved an army from typhoid, and imagined a post-scarcity economic landscape.


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