Agnes Newhall Stillwell: Women in archaeology in the interwar period

By Ludovica Girau

My name is Ludovica Girau and I’m a 25-year-old student from Italy. I have a BA in Cultural Heritage from the University of Milan. I’m now attending a MA in Art History and Archaeology at the Catholic University of Milan. I have a strong interest in classical archaeology, social archaeology, women’s studies, gender studies and visual arts.

As an Italian student, I didn’t know much about gender archaeology, feminist archaeology or women in this field before 2020. As a matter of fact, in Italy there’s a huge academic problem related to gender and feminist studies. In the first university I attended there was only one course on the history of women and it hasn’t been active for at least three years.

Since the 1990s, an increasing number of volumes and articles on the history of women in archeology have been published. It is a growing field of study. Despite the fact that there are well-known volumes, such as Claassen (1994), Du Cros and Smith (1993) or Diaz-Andreu and Stig-Sørensen (1998), Italy still has only a few texts on the subject: Archeologia al femminile by Laura Nicotra (2004) and Lettere dall’Egeo by Giovanna Bandini (2003).

Books on the history of archeology have for a long time accepted and spread a distorted vision of the discipline. They have focused exclusively on male contributions, and unfortunately this problem is common to many other disciplines.

The inclusion of women in the history of archaeology is not a simple process of rectification, but a deep revision. Knowledge is always created within specific contexts – historical, social, political and economical – and the androcentric and Eurocentric perspective is nowadays increasingly questioned.

I did my BA research on women in archeology, focusing on the work of two American archaeologists, Harriet Boyd Hawes and Agnes Newhall Stillwell. Both women were students of the American School of Classical Studies in Athens. 

There are several studies and contributions on the extraordinary work of Harriet Boyd Hawes in Crete, the most important of which is the biography written by her daughter in 1992, Born to rebel. However, on Agnes Newhall Stillwell, who worked in Corinth in the first half of the 20th century, the material is almost non-existent.

Agnes Newhall Stillwell in Eleutherae. She is seen standing next to some large stones. Rolling hills can be seen in the background.
Agnes Newhall Stillwell in Eleutherae (credits: Richard Stillwell Collection Photographs)

We know very little about her personal and professional life. Agnes Newhall Stillwell was born in 1906 and graduated from Bryn Mawr College in 1927. Then she joined the American School of Classical Studies in Athens and remained in Greece until 1935 on a series of fellowships. Women were still considered too weak and not well suited for scientific work due to biological prejudices.

Harriet Boyd Hawes was the first woman to lead an excavation in the Mediterranean area and to challenge those biases. About thirty years later Agnes Newhall Stillwell was invited to begin directing an excavation in Corinth. The area turned out to be the potter’s quarter.

The academic environment was profoundly changing and women’s claims were paying off. Agnes Newhall Stillwell is part of the generation of archaeologists following that of the pioneers. The First World War was a crucial moment for women in the field. Women were more involved in the profession, they came from a wider range of social classes and countries, they were gradually allowed full access to university degrees and archaeology itself was definitely becoming institutionalized.

The First World War didn’t just act as a watershed for women in archaeology – using a definition by Diaz-Andreu and Stig Sørensen – indeed during this period many of them, who certainly made important contributions to the field, disappeared from archeological records. This, I imagine, could be the case of Agnes Newhall Stillwell. She married Richard Stillwell in 1932. He was committed to both Princeton University, where he taught history of architecture from 1926 to 1967, and to the American School of Classical Studies in Athens, where he rose from professor to director of the school in 1932.

She accompanied him when he took up his position in Princeton. While there she published her three volumes on Corinth (which is the series dedicated to the oldest site excavated by the American School of Classical Studies) in 1948, 1952 and 1984. The last one came out after her premature death in 1957. I haven’t been able to discover the cause of her death in the documentation I have found so far.

Her work about the potter’s quarter is meticulous, detailed and clear. It gave a great contribution to the study of an important area of ceramic processing in Greece in the form of a catalog of nearly three thousand objects, especially terracotta figurines, molds, vases and fragments. The number of pottery workshops adequately excavated was not significant until the early twentieth century, in a very similar way to what had happened for the island of Crete, little explored before its emancipation from the Ottoman Empire.

The potters’ quarter is located about a mile west of the ancient agora of Corinth, on a tongue-shaped plateau that forms the northern end of a series of north-south ridges located to the west and northwest of the Acrocorinth. The site’s structures date from the mid-8th century BC to the mid-4th century BC.

Her husband worked in Corinth too and contributed to her work, as she always points out in the prefaces to the volumes. Any conclusion as to why her story is unknown to date is a hypothesis. Is she little known due to her husband’s greater fame? Did she decide to devote herself above all to her family having had two children? As said by Diaz-Andreu and Stig Sørensen, could the interwar period have been a critical moment to recognize the contribution of many women of that time to the field? These and other questions await an answer. Archival documents, correspondence and more will hopefully help shed light on Agnes Newhall Stillwell and on other women whose work is not adequately known.

Works Cited

A. Newhall Stillwell, J. L. Benson, The Potter’s Quarter: The Pottery, The American School of Classical Studies at Athens, Princeton, New Jersey, 1984.

A. Newhall Stillwell, The Potter’s Quarter, The American School of Classical Studies at Athens, Princeton, New Jersey, 1948.

A. Newhall Stillwell, The Potter’s Quarter: The Terracottas, The American School of Classical Studies at Athens, Princeton, New Jersey, 1952.

M. Díaz-Andreu, M. L. Stig Sørensen, Excavating Women: A History of Women in European Archaeology, Routledge, New York 1998.

T. Leslie Shear Jr., Necrology in “American Journal of Archaeology”, vol. 87, n. 3, luglio 1983, pp. 423-425.

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