Women’s History Month – A tribute to Harriet M. Smith

By Ann Eberwein

Harriet Smith (Illinois State Museum)

Born is 1911, Harriet M. Smith was the first female archaeologist in Illinois and led early excavations at Cahokia including the salvage excavation of Murdock Mound (Mound 55). Smith received her Doctorate in Anthropology from the University of Chicago where she studied under Fay-Cooper Cole, who was one Franz Boas’ students. After graduating, she was hired by the Illinois State Museum as State Supervisor of the Museum Project in 1938. In 1940, a landowner adjacent to Cahokia Mounds Park began leveling a mound in preparation for house construction and discovered human remains. An archaeologist contacted the director of the Illinois State Museum, Thorne Deuel, who sent Smith to excavate Mound 55, where she supervised a crew of WPA archaeologists. Smith’s interpretations of the mound and Cahokia were generally rejected at the time but are consistent with our current understanding of the site. For example, she used ceramics and stratigraphy to accurately date the continuous occupation of Cahokia, suggested that Cahokia was a planned city with houses oriented on a north-south axis parallel to Monk’s Mound, and recognized that the foundations of houses themselves were dug into the ground rather than being built on the surface. Smith’s thorough excavation and analysis make Mound 55 one of the most completely excavated mounds at Cahokia.

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, all excavations at the site came to an abrupt halt; at that point, Smith left the Illinois State Museum and joined the Chicago Field Museum’s education department. When speaking of the challenges she faced as a woman working in the field of archaeology during the late 1930s and 1940s, Smith said, “I assure you, my training and qualifications are adequate and the whole problem hinges on whether my prospective employers are willing to take a chance on a young woman, in what by precedent, is a man’s field.” For more information about Harriet M. Smith and other pioneering female archaeologists see this Midwest Archaeology Conference poster session from 2017: