Friday, 3 March 2017

Trowelblazers - Dorothea Bate, Welsh Palaeontologist

Since it's close to St David's Day, I thought I'd choose a Welsh archaeologist this time. Dorothea Bate was born in Carmarthenshire, the daughter of a police superintendant.
In 1898, when she was nineteen, she went down to London and talked her way into a job at the Natural History Museum - and stayed there for fifty years. Her first job was sorting bird skins and later she prepared fossils, being paid piece work, by the number of fossils she prepared. She was learning all the time, and in 1901 she published her first scientific paper, "A short account of a bone cave in the Carboniferous limestone of the Wye valley", which appeared in the Geological Magazine.
She also visited Cyprus, first at her own expense and in 1902 with a small grant from the Royal Society, where she discovered the fossil bones of a new species of dwarf elephant, which she named elephas Cypriotes. She was able to do this with the help of a family connection on the island.
Later she visited other Mediterranean islands, making other discoveries of previously unknown prehistoric fauna. She was known for using dynomite to get at the fossil layers! Most of this work was financed from her own pocket, and she was unable to become a scientific member of staff with the museum, as this was forbidden to women until 1928.

The Coves dels Coloms in Majorca, where Dorothea Bate found the remains of Myotragus balearicus, the mouse goat

She became friendly with the archaeologists working at Knossos, including Sir Arthur Evans, while working in Crete, and in the 1920s worked with Professor Dorothy Garrod in Palestine. In 1937, they published The Stone Age of Mount Carmel, detailing the prehistoric fauna found there, including a hippopotomus.
In China, she worked with Percy Lowe on fossil ostriches - and she also found a fossil giant tortoise in Bethlehem!
She was consulted throughout her career by other archaeologists, including Louis Leakey, for her expertise in identifying fossil bones.
During the Second World War, she was transferred from London to Tring, where she eventually became officer-in-charge when she was nearly seventy. She died in 1951, and sadly, shortly after that, her personal papers were destroyed in a house fire. Her field notebooks, however, have been preserved at the Natural History Museum, including detailed maps of the islands where she worked.
Last year she was the subject of an episode of a Radio 4 series called Natural History Heroes (still available on iplayer), and there is also a book called Discovering Dorothea by Karolyn Shindler.

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