Harriet Boyd Hawes: A Tale of Two Cities

By Kari Fossum

The Homeric Question

On the Mediterranean island of Crete, 1900 marked something more than just the start of a new century: it was also the year in which the crew employed by British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans broke ground at Knossos. This site would, within a few months, yield the now-famous ‘Palace of Minos.’ Each new find there supplied Evans with ever more momentum in the race to answer the ‘Homeric question.’

Evans' now heavily reconstructe 'Palace of Minos' at Knossos
Evans’ now heavily reconstructe ‘Palace of Minos’ at Knossos (Image: https://www.greece-is.com/in-sir-arthur-evans-footsteps-at-the-palace-of-knossos/)

This so-called ‘Homeric question’ motivated much of the archaeological inquiry taking place in the eastern Mediterranean region and, more specifically, on Crete, at the turn of the 20th century. To make a long story (or perhaps a long epic poem or two) short, the ‘Homeric question’ is a consolidated series of questions concerning who Homer was, if Homer was, how old the Homeric poems were, how old the myths behind the poems were, and, of primary concern to archaeologists, whether and where the locations described in the poems physically existed. Most scholars at the end of the 19th and the start of the 20th centuries assumed that the answer to the ‘Homeric question(s)’ would make clear that Homer had, in fact, been in the business of recording history.

Most scholars scoff at that assumption now. At the turn of the century, however, it was something of an industry standard. Thanks to the flamboyance of characters like Sir Arthur Evans on Crete and Heinrich Schliemann on the mainland, the quest to answer the ‘Homeric question’ had also accrued plenty of popular appeal. However, these men – though they certainly have the most name recognition – were certainly not alone in seeking answers to this question(s). I now turn my attention away from them and towards one of their approximate contemporaries: Harriet Boyd Hawes. I am not going to try to tackle the ‘Homeric question’ myself, but I do hope to illustrate how Harriet Boyd Hawes’ circumstances – including her background, the site on Crete where she conducted the bulk of her research, and the way that this research was presented to the public – influenced her approach to the ‘Homeric question.’

Harriet Boyd Hawes sitting at a table with a tray of what appears to be pottery sherds in front of her. The photo is black and white.
Harriet Boyd Hawes (Image Harriet Boyd Hawes Papers, Smith College Archives)

Harriet Boyd Hawes

Harriet Boyd Hawes had already been studying classics for several years when she enrolled at Smith College. She graduated in 1892 with a degree in Greek. After four years of teaching ancient and modern languages, Harriet Boyd Hawes made the decision to continue her studies at the American School of Classical Studies (ASCS) at Athens. From 1896 through 1900, she struck a seemingly impossible balance. In addition to upholding her academic commitments at the ASCS, she trained and served as a nurse amid the strife of the Greco-Turkish War. Starting in 1900 and throughout the period in which she was actively excavating on Crete, Harriet Boyd Hawes held a teaching position at her own alma mater, Smith College. She would also eventually receive her M.A. (in 1901) and an honorary doctorate (in 1910) from Smith.

Photo of Athens in 1897-1898, possibly taken by Harriet Boyd Hawes and certainly taken during her time at the American School of Classical Studies there. The photo shows mountains in the background, the city in the midground, and bare earth in the foreground. The photo is in sepia tones.
Athens in 1897-1898, possibly taken by Harriet Boyd Hawes and certainly taken during her time at the American School of Classical Studies there (Image: Harriet Boyd Hawes Papers, Smith College Archives)

It seems fair to say, then, that Harriet Boyd Hawes was a more qualified candidate to direct an excavation than Sir Arthur Evans. As Cathy Gere writes in her Knossos & the Prophets of Modernism, Evans had no formal education in classics or ancient history (unless you count fond childhood memories of tagging along with his father on amateur Stone Age excavations). Even Harriet Boyd Hawes’ many qualifications, however, were not enough to convince the ASCS director, Rufus B. Richardson, to reconsider his ‘dictum that a woman could not endure the hardship of active excavation.’ Despite Richardson’s refusal to let her join his team, Harriet Boyd Hawes was determined to dig. Rather than admit defeat, she decided to go around him and try her hand on Crete.

Harriet Boyd Hawes made two significant trips to Crete. She spent the first, at the recommendation of none other than Sir Arthur Evans, working primarily at a site called Kavousi. However, it is the focal point of her second visit to Crete that served as the basis for Harriet Boyd Hawes’ major publication: Gournia. Gournia was a fundamentally different type of site than Evans’ Knossos. Rather than hosting a palace, it turned out to be what the Cretan workmen called a viomichaniki polis, or ‘industrial town.’ This disparity extended beyond what Evans and Harriet Boyd Hawes, respectively, found at their sites. It also impacted how they interpreted these finds in the shadow of the ‘Homeric question.’

Sepia toned photos shows a large group of men dressed in local garb and Harriet Boyd Hawes. Everyone in the photo was involved in the dig.
Harriet Boyd Hawes (far right, standing and wearing all white) and the workmen at Gournia in 1904 (Image: Harriet Boyd Hawes Papers, Smith College Archives)

 In keeping with the archaeological trend at the time, Harriet Boyd Hawes’ 1908 publication of her findings included a chapter titled ‘Homeric Problems in the Light of Cretan Discoveries.’ She kicks this chapter off with the question, ‘is anything in…the preceding chapter contradicted by the Homeric poems?’. The expected answer is evidently ‘no.’ Emphasizing links between archaeological discoveries and the Homeric myths – or, as many believed at the time, histories – drew a popular audience to her work as well as an academic one. Newspapers like the Washington Post heralded Gournia as the ‘covered city of Homer,’ reporting in 1902 that Harriet Boyd Hawes had ‘found one of the ‘Ninety Cities’ sung of by [the] Greek Poet’. However, Harriet Boyd Hawes’ attendance to the ‘Homeric question’ and her public presentation as some sort of Homeric historian never gave way to the heavy-handed mythmaking practiced by Sir Arthur Evans. So, the question becomes this: why not?

In short, my answer to this question is ‘see above.’ Harriet Boyd Hawes, unlike Evans, had formally studied classics and ancient history. While she was excavating, synthesizing the results into her major publication, and doing the rounds giving talks about her work, she was affiliated with the ASCS and Smith College. Evans, on the other hand, was accountable to no one so much as himself. Gournia, industrial town that it was, also did not lend itself to whimsy and fantasy quite as well as Evans’ grand ‘Palace of Minos’ at Knossos did.

One further element that is implicit in each experience comprising Harriet Boyd Hawes’ career as an academic and archaeologist is this: she was a woman. For Evans, passion, impulse, and a good chunk of cash were enough to secure his Cretan archaeological career. For Harriet Boyd Hawes, years of study and academic achievement were not enough to convince the director of the ASCS that she belonged in the field. In this context, it does not seem like a stretch to assume that the general attitude of skepticism directed towards women in classical and archaeological academia at the turn of the 20th century might prompt those women to work doubly hard to justify their conclusions. This attitude may even have influenced some women to tone down their own interpretations in an effort to toe the line of what was generally considered acceptable.

Although it is tempting (to me, at least) to characterize Harriet Boyd Hawes as the unequivocally rational, ‘modern’ antithesis to Sir Arthur Evans’ romantic nature, that is not quite the reality. She, too, was a product of her time. As such she, too, made room for the ‘Homeric question’ in her fieldwork at Gournia on Crete and the major publication that came of it. However, her more measured, academic approach to this question, as well as the factors that influenced that approach, deserve acknowledgement. I certainly do not think that it is fair that Harriet Boyd Hawes was held to an apparently different standard than Evans and other male contemporaries. I do think that it is fair to say that this groundbreaking woman archaeologist rose to meet – and exceed – this standard.


Cohen, G., & Joukowsky, M. (Eds.). (2004). Breaking Ground: Pioneering Women Archaeologists. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. doi:10.3998/mpub.17654

Hawes, H., Williams, B., Seager, R., & Hall, E. (2014). Gournia, Vasiliki, and Other Prehistoric Sites on the Isthmus of Hierapetra, Crete: Excavations of the Wells-Houston-Cramp Expeditions 1901, 1903, 1904. Second Edition. PHILADELPHIA, PENNSYLVANIA: INSTAP Academic Press. Retrieved June 4, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1287h17

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