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A group unearths the forgotten history of women in archaeology

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

When archaeologist Brenna Hassett was at University College London, she heard the story of Dame Kathleen Kenyon.

BRENNA HASSETT: She was incredible. And she used to storm down the hallways of the building with these terrifying beagles, scaring the more nervous sort of undergraduates.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Kenyon was a pioneering archaeologist who began working in the late 1920s. But her achievements didn't get the same level of acknowledgement as her male contemporaries.

HASSETT: I knew her story, but it seemed like no one else knew her story.

SUMMERS: Now, Hassett wasn't the only one that noticed this discrepancy. Suzanne Pilaar Birch, an archaeologist at the University of Georgia, did, too. Naturally, Pilaar Birch and Hassett voiced their frustrations online.

SUZANNE PILAAR BIRCH: We were complaining, as one does on Twitter. And we were really just unhappy with the fact that you don't see women so well represented and particularly just sort of in mass media, you know, documentaries and things that the average person would be watching or reading.

CHANG: So Pilaar Birch and Hassett, along with two other colleagues, decided to change that. They started a website called TrowelBlazers - get it? - featuring stories of overlooked women in the fields of archaeology, paleontology and other so-called digging sciences.

PILAAR BIRCH: You know, some of them - their work wasn't recognized. But for a lot of them, it was, and then it was forgotten about promptly.

SUMMERS: What they thought was a small passion project went viral, and soon readers began submitting their own stories.

HASSETT: It was like an avalanche. It's amazing. Like, we've become a crowdsourced archive.

CHANG: At this point, trowelblazers.com has amassed hundreds of stories of female archaeologists, paleontologists and geologists throughout history. But in the early years, Hassett says they noticed a concerning pattern.

HASSETT: They had very similar characteristics, i.e. they were white, wealthy and Anglophone. And it turns out that that's not at all the entire experience of women in science.

SUMMERS: So the TrowelBlazers team dug deeper and unearthed stories of women like Yusra, a Palestinian woman who worked on a historic excavation of Neanderthal remains called Tabun 1, who had gone unrecognized for decades.

HASSETT: It turns out the person who found the little tooth that went on to become Tabun was Yusra. You know, her story is utterly lost until you start looking at all of the people who contributed but didn't get their names on.

CHANG: Brenna Hassett says this experience changed her view on how history should be recorded.

HASSETT: So maybe instead of looking to women and asking them to do all of the work to tell you about their history, maybe we need to stop and think about how we're doing that and not put that burden on the groups that are underrepresented to tell you their story but to actually go out and do the work to find it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.