This Day in Jewish History

1972: A Trailblazing Female Archaeologist Dies

Hetty Goldman wanted to write novels but thought she had ‘nothing to say.’ Then she discovered human history – and war. And found she had something to say.

U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Daniel Phelps / Wikimedia Commons

On May 4, 1972, Hetty Goldman, a pioneer in the academic discipline of archaeology and a trailblazer for women in academia in general, died at the age of 90.

Born on December 19, 1881, in New York City, Goldman chose the right family in which to grow up. Her father was Julius Goldman, a lawyer whose father Marcus Goldman was the founder of the New York investment bank Goldman Sachs.

Her mother was the former Sarah Adler, whose father Samuel Adler had been the rabbi of Reform Temple Emanu-El in Manhattan. One of Sarah’s brothers was Felix Adler, who founded the godless Ethical Culture movement.

After graduating from the private school founded by her uncle Julius Sachs, who shared his interest in classics and archaeology with his niece, Hetty attended Bryn Mawr, the women’s college outside Philadelphia, where she studied classics and English. Further classics studies at Columbia University, and a three-month tour of archaeological sites in Italy, led Hetty to put aside a dream of becoming a fiction writer, having concluded that she had “as yet nothing to say.”

Instead, she enrolled in the graduate school at Radcliffe College, then the women’s counterpart to Harvard, in archaeology and classical languages.

Conversion on a hill

Her master’s thesis on “The Oresteia of Aeschylus as Illustrated by Greek-Vase Painting” was instrumental in winning Goldman a prestigious fellowship at the American School of Classical Studies, in Athens, for the year 1910-11. It was that experience that turned her into an archaeologist.

As she described it many years later, “I cannot remember the exact process by which .... I was transformed into a passionate excavator who was either turning up the soil of Greece, or planning to return to it; but complete conversion took place on top of a hill in Boeotia.”

What she saw from that hilltop was a man-made mound that turned out to be the many layers of the cultures that once inhabited the ancient town of Eutresis.

As an archaeologist, Goldman oversaw important excavations at sites such as Colophon in Greek-controlled Turkey; at Eutresis, where she came back to dig in 1924; and most significantly at Tarsus in southeast Anatolia.

If her name is not well known among the general public, it may be because she was less focused on unearthing impressive physical finds than on understanding the various cultures whose remains she uncovered, and on establishing any connections between distinct societies living at the same time in different areas of the eastern Mediterranean.

That pesky World War I

Often during her career, Goldman’s work in the field was interrupted by wars. In 1912-13, the Balkan Wars forced her to stop digging. Instead, she volunteered at a Red Cross field hospital in Greece, an experience that, according to one of her sisters, “rendered her for all time responsive to the appeal of suffering.”

In fact, in 1918, Goldman, whose work had again been interrupted by World War I, was sent by the Joint Distribution Committee for the Relief of Jewish War Sufferers (as the JDC was originally called) as its representative to Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia and Romania, to determine the conditions of Jewish residents in war-torn communities. Two decades later, Goldman would use her ample financial resources to help a number of scholars, Jewish refugees from Nazi-occupied Europe, resettle in the United States.

Goldman is remembered for the fastidiousness with which she planned and executed her excavations, and for the training she provided to local people who were hired to work on her digs. She was an early supporter of the idea of sending artifacts back to their countries of origin, and is still appreciated for the literary quality of her scholarly writing – once she found “something to say.”

In 1937, Goldman became the first woman appointed to the faculty of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton, New Jersey. Even though her work at the research center did not require her to enter a classroom, many budding archaeologists were influenced by less formal encounters with her.
She retired from the institute in 1947 and spent some 15 years writing up her findings from Tarsus.

Hetty Goldman died at her home in Princeton, of pulmonary edema.