Roman women: tracing female archaeologists of the Roman frontiers

David Breeze, Tatiana Ivleva, and Rebecca Jones consider the contribution made to the study of Roman frontiers by Brenda Heywood, who died last December, and other contemporary female archaeologists.

In 1949, the first Congress of Roman Frontier Studies was held in Newcastle upon Tyne. It was attended by almost 40 archaeologists, mostly from Europe, some accompanied by their partners. The publication of the proceedings included 11 papers, all but one of which were by men – the sole female contributor was Anne Robertson of Glasgow University, who spoke about the Antonine Wall. A photograph of 38 participants, though, includes nine women. Who were they? It would be helpful if a record of those attending the conference had survived, but despite assiduous searches none has been found. Moreover, there are at least two other female participants known who are not in the photograph. Why is this important? It is because the contribution of female archaeologists to Roman frontier studies has generally been overlooked. A case in point is Brenda Heywood (née Swinbank), who died on 20 December 2022. Brenda is known to have attended at least part of the Congress, but does not feature in any surviving photograph.

Members of the first Congress of Roman Frontier Studies, held in 1949. Image: © Tullie House Art Gallery and Museum, Carlisle

Brenda was born at Ackworth in Yorkshire in 1929, and went on to study History at Durham University, attaining her degree in 1949. One of her lecturers there was Eric Birley, later Professor of Romano-British History and Archaeology, and it was he who kindled Brenda’s interest in the period. So, with a 2:1 under her belt (firsts in History were not usually awarded at Durham in those days), Brenda stayed on to undertake research on the Vallum, the enormous earthwork that runs behind Hadrian’s Wall from Newcastle upon Tyne to Bowness-on-Solway. She walked the whole length of the Vallum, notebook in hand, recording its state as she went: this valuable record of the Vallum in the early 1950s has been digitised by Newcastle University and is available online at Brenda identified the earthwork’s crucial issues and set out to try to solve them through selective excavations that were largely successful; her findings were published in the local archaeological journals Archaeologia Aeliana and the Transactions of the Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society.

No full-time academic posts were available at Durham when Brenda’s initial research grant ended in 1952, so she completed her research while working as a History and Latin teacher at a high school in the Yorkshire Dales. Two years later, she was awarded her PhD, making her only the third woman in Britain to have been granted a PhD in Archaeology (the external examiner was Mortimer Wheeler, also present at the 1949 Congress). Brenda became one of the first professional women in British archaeology in 1956, when she took up a two-year post at University College, Cardiff.

In Wales, she continued to excavate Roman sites, at Castell Collen, Neath, and Penydarren, and in 1958 she was elected a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London, but University College did not renew her post (when subsequently advertised, it went to a man!). Instead, Brenda turned to teaching and, at her school, met Peter Heywood, whom she would go on to marry. At that time, even if she had stayed in her university post, she would normally have been expected to relinquish her position on marriage. As her children grew up, though, Brenda returned to archaeological work, joining the team that undertook the mammoth task of publishing the 1967-1973 excavations under York Minister, as well as bringing her other unpublished excavations to print.

Looping back to the starting point of this profile, in 1949 Brenda attended the Centenary Pilgrimage of Hadrian’s Wall, which was held immediately before the Congress and represented an inducement for foreign archaeologists to attend this latter event. It is not clear if Brenda stayed on for the Congress – if so, she would not be the only woman missing from the group photograph – but it is possible to put some names to faces. In the centre of the photograph are Canon Thomas Romans, President of the Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle, and, probably, Kate Hodgson (in the hat), President of the Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society. Kate was an archaeologist in her own right, excavating on Hadrian’s Wall with Ian Richmond, and she was the equivalent of archaeological royalty: her parents had worked with Francis Haverfield during his 1894-1903 excavations on Hadrian’s Wall. Haverfield produced a report on each season, but the better reports were those penned by Elizabeth Hodgson (who, in the convention of the day, signed her reports as ‘Mrs Hodgson’). The Hodgsons donated their drawings of the excavations to the Society of Antiquaries of London, and these beautiful – there is no other appropriate word – images are currently being digitised by the Society with the support of the Cumberland and Westmorland Society.

Brenda Heywood, sitting at the north gate of Housesteads fort in about 1950. Image: © The Heywood family

Trailblazing women

Another member of archaeological royalty is Barbara Birley, shown sitting next to her brother Eric in the photo. Barbara had attended the 1930 Pilgrimage of Hadrian’s Wall, and was present on its 1999 iteration too. Roman research clearly runs in the family: her great-nephew Andrew Birley is now Director of Excavations and CEO at the Vindolanda Trust.

At the extreme right of the row of standing women is Grace Simpson, then at the start of her career as a Samian pottery specialist. To her right is Jocelyn Toynbee, a celebrated art historian who would be appointed Professor of Classical Archaeology at Cambridge shortly afterwards – to this day, she remains the only woman to have held the prestigious Laurence Professorship.

Standing next to Kate Hodgson is Margerie Venables Taylor, long-serving secretary of the Roman Society. She was the daughter of an antiquarian and historian, Henry Taylor, and in 1924 Margerie was the first woman to be proposed and elected as a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London through the same route as a man, proposed by Arthur Evans and numerous other notable (male) archaeologists of the time. Although she studied at Somerville College in Oxford (1900-1903), she was not awarded a degree, as Oxford University did not give degrees to women until 1920.

Many of the other women whom we have been able to identify in the photograph were from privileged and wealthy backgrounds, as indeed were the men: the father of Eric and Barbara Birley was a Lancashire mill owner; Grace Simpson was a scion of the Stead and Simpson shoe shops, and daughter of F Gerald Simpson, the leading excavator on Hadrian’s Wall in the first half of the 20th century. Many did not have to work, and archaeology could be seen as a hobby, though it must be emphasised that they excelled at it. Brenda Heywood was the daughter of a schoolteacher who achieved her distinctions through her intellectual acumen, coupled with her bravery – for a woman in the 1940s and ’50s, walking along Hadrian’s Wall by herself, directing the archaeological foreman for the Wall, and disagreeing with the interpretations of her (male) university teachers in her PhD were no mean feats – and her sheer indomitability. The mores of the time prevented Brenda from receiving the honour and esteem to which she was surely entitled, but today’s Wall community respect her achievements, and her work on the Vallum remains essential to understanding it.

To return to the 1949 Congress: we know that Anne Robertson from Glasgow University (another schoolteacher’s daughter) attended, although we have been unable to identify her with confidence in the photograph. She was well known for her work on Roman Scotland, especially the Antonine Wall, and numismatics. Our final identified woman, standing tall in the back row in white, is a successful Dutch anthropologist and archaeologist, Guda van Giffen-Duyvis, also from a wealthy background. She attended the Congress along with her husband (Albert van Giffen, excavator of Valkenburg Roman fort), but Guda was a celebrated scholar in her own right, specialising in and publishing on the Aztecs and the pre-Columbian art of Mexico and Peru, and popularising pre-Columbian Middle American archaeology to the Dutch public through exhibitions. She also ‘deputised’ for her husband on the Pilgrimage, as he had broken his leg and could not undertake the walking.

These were the distinguished female archaeologists who attended the first Congress of Roman Frontier Studies in Newcastle in 1949. All made their own mark, one way or another, in the male-dominated world in which they lived, forging new paths and opportunities for future generations.

Further reading
David J Breeze, Tatiana Ivleva, Rebecca H Jones, and Andreas Thiel (2022) A History of the Congress of Roman Frontier Studies 1949-2022. A Retrospective to mark the 25th Congress in Nijmegen (Archaeopress, open access:
David J Breeze (2022) The Congress of Roman Frontier Studies (Current World Archaeology 114; August/September 2022)
David J Breeze (2020) The Pilgrimages of Hadrian’s Wall 1849-2019 (CWAAS).
Suzanne Heywood (2019) Recollections of a Female Archaeologist: a life of Brenda Swinbank (Blurb Publishing).