‘Resetting imaginations’ when it comes to women in the digging sciences – Brenna Hassett, Bioarchaeologist and Co-founder of TrowelBlazers

Raising Horizons - Leonora Saunders

Brenna Hassett is a bioarchaeologist, specialising in using clues from the human skeleton to understand how people lived and died in the past. Her research focuses on the evidence of health and growth locked into teeth, and she uses dental anthropological techniques to investigate how children grew around the world and across time. She is one of the four co-founders of TrowelBlazers, an advocacy group that celebrates women’s contributions to the digging sciences: archaeology, geology, and palaeontology.

Brenna-Hassett - TrowelBlazers

Brenna Hassett

“…We hope to support better equality in future generations of earth scientists by providing inspiration, role models, and insight into women’s work…”

The role of a bioarchaeologist

In recent years, I would describe myself as a bioarchaeologist – that’s someone who uses the evidence from skeletons, teeth, and other human remains to try to reconstruct the lives of people from the past. I also write about the study of the past (Built on Bones – Bloomsbury), and try to use some of the amazing things that scientific study can teach us to get more people interested in archaeology and our human past.

As a bioarchaeologist, I have a pretty varied role. Currently, I am on a writing break, but usually my day to day job is in a laboratory, analysing finds from archaeological digs. When I am in the field, the day is very structured; excavations, particularly in the Near East and the Mediterranean, have you up at dawn, with the much beloved ‘second breakfast’ and lunch being the only breaks in a solid day of digging. In the evening, we clean and record the finds of the day.

About TrowelBlazers and our mission

TrowelBlazers is a grass-roots community initiative that seeks to ‘reset imaginations’; our goal is help people understand the many ways in which women have contributed to the ‘digging’ sciences (archaeology, palaeontology, and geology) throughout history.


From left to right – Suzanne Pilaar Birch, Becky Wragg Sykes, Victoria Herridge and Brenna Hassett

Our collective is made up of Suzanne Pilaar Birch, Becky Wragg Sykes, Victoria Herridge and myself. We hope to support better equality in future generations of earth scientists by providing inspiration, role models, and insight into women’s work. This has taken many forms, including our website archive of biographies, the Raising Horizons touring exhibition, and even designing a TrowelBlazing doll – Real Fossil Hunter Lottie, from ArkLu.

Addressing underrepresentation of women in archaeology, geology and palaeontology

While there is no solid consensus on all of the factors that underlie the under-representation of women in the earth sciences, our disciplines face the same hurdles as most. In fact, archaeology is more than 50% female at undergraduate level but we lose women as we go up the ranks.

This is a pattern seen across professions, where cultural expectations of work-life balance disadvantage women at key stages of their careers. Bringing these structural barriers to light is the first step to addressing them, but the issue is a larger cultural one that we all need to be discussing.

Raising Horizons

Raising HorizonsRaising-Horizons is a touring exhibition featuring some of our favourite historical TrowelBlazers, modelled by real-life modern-day women from the earth sciences. As imagined by Leonora Saunders and our own Becky Wragg Sykes, it has become a very popular touring exhibition, taking the stories of these women across the UK in 2017-18 and even abroad in future.

The exhibition will open at the Oxfordshire Museum on 20th of March until 21st of April, and those interested in finding a local showing can keep an eye on www.raisinghorizons.co.uk/.

Other ways Womanthology readers get involved with our work

We are an organisation that thrives on community participation. We are always looking for new stories of TrowelBlazing women to feature on our site, and we welcome submissions from the public. We are especially keen to feature more women of colour and women from non-Anglophone backgrounds.

Additionally, readers can support our work through our online shop or by visiting Raising Horizons, but of course the best way to get involved is to help ‘reset imaginations’ – less Indiana Jones, more TrowelBlazers!

Coming up next for TrowelBlazers

We are very excited to be working on a number of TrowelBlazers projects and our own personal projects. Becky Wragg Sykes will be publishing a very exciting book with Bloomsbury next year on our Neanderthal ‘Kindred’, and we hope to start work as a group on a TrowelBlazers volume. The exhibition will keep touring, and we will hopefully keep finding ways to reset those imaginations.






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