scorecardA 13-year-old girl helped unearth an ancient Roman town. She's finally getting credit for it over 90 years later.
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A 13-year-old girl helped unearth an ancient Roman town. She's finally getting credit for it over 90 years later.

Jenny McGrath   

A 13-year-old girl helped unearth an ancient Roman town. She's finally getting credit for it over 90 years later.
LifeScience2 min read
  • In the 1930s, teen Helen Carlton-Smith and other female archaeologists excavated a Roman settlement.
  • Tessa Wheeler helped lead the dig and taught the team valuable archaeological skills.

In the early 1930s, a 13-year-old girl, Helen Carlton-Smith, helped excavate a former Roman settlement. She joined several female archaeologists in finding gold coins and pottery and uncovering mosaics. Until recently, few people knew of her participation.

Located near what's now Hertfordshire, England, Verulamium was one of Britain's largest Roman cities. Archaeologist Mortimer Wheeler, then director of the London Museum, was in charge of the excavation. His wife, Tessa Verney Wheeler, was also an archaeologist.

"In reality, the day-to-day running of the project fell to" Tessa Wheeler, Lexi Diggins, the guest curator of an exhibit at the Verulamium Museum on the women who worked at the site, told Business Insider via email.

Women have been part of archaeological digs since the 19th century if not earlier, Diggins said. They often "didn't receive the same public acknowledgment as their male colleagues or partners," she said.

Amateurs like Carlton-Smith were usually overlooked as well.

A 13-year-old's diary of a dig

Carlton-Smith lived nearby and saw archaeologists digging in the park. She was curious enough to ask about their work. That led Tessa Wheeler to ask the teenager if she wanted to help, Diggins said.

Carlton-Smith's mother was a talented amateur artist, and the Wheelers enlisted her to sketch the mosaics and make drawings of the dig. "Helen inherited her mother's talent and also traced the mosaics," Diggins said.

Over the course of a few years, the girl kept a detailed diary of the excavation, Diggins said. The team became so used to Carlton-Smith's presence that Mortimer Wheeler nicknamed her "Helen of Troy."

"Helen became a schoolteacher and had three daughters, all of whom were taught how to draw and record fossils," Diggins said, "and she taught them the importance of the natural world and of being outside and observing everything."

Carlton-Smith's family kept the trowel she used for excavating, which is part of the exhibit.

A network of female archaeologists

Carlton-Smith's diary also revealed how Tessa Wheeler helped instruct the men and women working on the excavation. "Her method was to teach by doing," Diggins said.

In addition to teaching the archaeologists skills like photographing and drawing archaeological features, Tessa Wheeler instructed them on managing similar projects, allocating resources, and training others.

"To Tessa's credit, many women archaeologists cut their teeth working at the site and then went on to achieve incredible things within the discipline of archaeology," Diggins said.

Kathleen Kenyon excavated Verulamium's Roman theater and was later appointed Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire because of her archaeological work.

Peggy Piggot Guido turned 21 while working on the Verulamium site. Six years later, she helped excavate a seventh-century ship at Sutton Hoo, as depicted in Netflix's "Dig."

Tessa Wheeler's work was cut short with her death in 1936 at age 43. She had fundraised to open the Verulamium Museum but didn't live to see it, Diggins said.

"I believe the real heroine of the story is Tessa Wheeler," Diggins said. "Her impact on those she met was impressive and has created ripples of influence and connection right up to today."




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