Goddesses in the Dirt - Sylvia Benton

Unearthing the Divine Feminine, one archetype at a time.....

Issue #6: Sylvia Benton

Before our team traveled to the Greek island of Ithaka to begin excavations and continue the search for the palace of Odysseus, we needed a permit. The island hadn't been excavated since the British worked there in the 1930s and 40s, under the leadership of an archaeologist named Sylvia Benton. Benton was still alive and in her 90s, living in her Scottish manor, and someone from our team needed to travel to Scotland to procure the permit in person. A team member living in London volunteered for the duty and spent a few days with Benton at her home. One evening the team member went to open a cabinet in the guest bedroom and almost had a heart attack when she found herself face to face with a life sized mannequin: apparently Benton used it to store wigs and the poor team member thought someone was trying to scare her by hiding in the closet. The story had an Agatha Christie feel to it, and appropriately so, because Sylvia was the consummate intrepid female explorer. 

Sylvia is one of my heroes, and I look up to her. I've excavated the same landscape that she did, many decades after her team left, but whenever I find myself in a trench, I think of her. 
Being a woman in this field is not always an easy thing, as archaeology is still dominated by men. Sylvia was ahead of her time in so many ways, but the way that resounds so powerfully to me is how she embraced life itself. 

Sylvia was born in India of Scottish parentage. She was educated at Oxford and in 1929 began her studies at the British School of Athens. In 1932 she began excavations on Ithaka, succeeding in locating the remains of 12 bronze tripods dating to the 9th and 8th centuries B.C., which established an important link between modern Ithaka and Homer's Odyssey. She continued to excavate on Ithaka until 1939, when war was breaking out in Europe. In the intervening years she worked at the Postal and Telegraph Censorship office in London (Uncommon Languages Department), while fighting fires at night. In 1945 her office was bombed and she was badly injured. 

She returned to Ithaka for the first time in 1947, where she worked to restore the two small museums on the island. Then in 1953, a catastrophic earthquake struck Ithaka and other islands of the Ionian chain; the quake was so destructive that only one house in the main town of Vathy was left standing. She returned to the island on a minesweeper - the only craft available at the time. Standing on the deck and watching her beloved harbor come into view, it is told that she was so overcome to be back that she dove off the deck and swam to shore. She worked in Greece until 1974, when, at the age of 84, as her obituary so properly states, "she delighted in eluding the surveillance of those detailed to accompany her." 

Atta girl Sylvia. May your memory be eternal. 


  1. I love that she dove off of the boat...such passion! It's so good that you feel her presence and think of her. She left some of that passion in the trenches......

  2. I have wondered about this many times before: archaeology being a rather "male" profession. I once met an engineer woman who used to lead hundreds of men in mines in Brazil - and she was a recent graduated in her field, just 26 y. old then. She never bathed naked in a river, and always used a deodorant "for men". She developed male behaviors/gestures and had a short hair as well. This was in the 80's and she even gave some interviews for feminine programs on Brazilian TV. I see you "fresh & fruity" on the pic above and wondered how many stories on that matter you would have to tell...

  3. thank you for giving me a glimpse into a subject i know little or actually nothing. I will read more about her. I am glad i found this place..

  4. And now is archeology stil men's world?

  5. Ahh...a familiar name from the past! Thank you for reminding us of what a truly extraordinary woman she was, Amanda. It was a great honor to be with you in the trenches and follow in her footsteps back in 1984!

  6. Amanda I am normally impressed by you but today I am floored. Thank you for sharing. I think you very much resemble the lady's spirit.

  7. Fascinating woman. I've googled her and just read a very long piece about her life as your great post whetted my appetite.

  8. Ah, amanda. I can see you and Sylvia as a real pair. I'm sure the two of you formidable, passionate women could surely terrorize any neighbourhood, with your indomitable spirits, and perhaps Odysseus' bow and sword!

    Thanks for sharing the story, and the picture of you at work (last year, perhaps?).

  9. An extraordinary woman, Amanda. I like this series.

  10. What an indomitable spirit. I've been meaning to tell you this for ages although it might be something you already know. Malta has a sister island called Gozo and there is a deep-rooted tradition that Gozo is the island of Calypso. Whether Homer had Gozo in mind when he wrote the Odyssey, I have no clue, but there is a cave in Gozo called Calypso's cave and it has become a popular tourist attraction.

  11. What an exceptional woman, both in passion and personality.

  12. Sylvia DID leave some of her passion in the trenches - for you!
    I admire both of your courage, your strength to defy the norm and go forth into a male-dominated field! (I also love the fact Sylvia had the life-size manniquin in the closet! I laughed! It is very Agatha Christie!!!!

    A wonderful, informative post!!!


    ♥ Robin ♥

  13. What a beuatiful tribute to most obviously a very strong woman. I guess we all take inspiration in people that walked before us, as we find ourselves in their footsteps.;) Particularly when we face obstacles and difficulties.;)
    I think your line of work is incredibly exciting and fascinating, even though I can imagine not at all easy and often very tough. But then again, that is what defines the best in life.
    I love the picture of you at a dig.;)
    Can you tell me more about your header picture? I find it very liberating and the whole feeling of it shouts freedom and at the same time longing and dreaming.

    Thank you also for your very kind comment on my yesterdays post and for expressing your sentiments and offering sympathy with eloquence and sensitivity.

  14. I'm enjoying your goddesses in the dirt series Amanda. I remember listening to a book review about several women who were the first archealogists/explorers from the victorian era. They certainly would have caused a few raised eyebrows from the male archealogists of the day*!*

  15. After reading your beautiful article, no wonder why Sylvia is one of your heroes!

  16. What a remarkable person and inspirational role model! I also love that she dove off the boat, and was born in India, and kept a manequin in the guest wardrobe hehe I am loving this series - thank you x

  17. I can see why you would admire her. I've always been amazed by women who go after their dreams and have passion for what they do. it sounds like you're also one of them with your work and your writing. Keep going and following your dreams. Thanks for sharing Sylvia's life.

  18. Sylvia Benton appears to be worthy of your adoration. I admire both you and her for following in her trench steps.

    On the post below - the moon was spectacular indeed. I didn't know about it but noticed it and called the kids over for a gander.

  19. susan -- ah, sylvia had passion for sure - i'll see if i can dig any of that up in the trenches this summer (hehe ;-)

    ana - what an interesting story about the female engineer - talk about a male dominated field! btw i don't know what fresh and fruity is but it sounds good!

    glenn - glad you enjoyed reading about sylvia - she deserves recognition for the things she accomplished in her life.

    ola - there are plenty of women in archaeology but the digs i work on are run by men, so......

    renee -- ah yes, memories of ss yelling 5 minutes!!!

    yoli -- that's high praise - not so sure i deserve it, but i appreciate it my friend ~


  20. dd - if you've found out any more info about sylvia i'd love it if you'd send me the links~

    r-bear - that's me, terrorizing the neighborhood ;-)
    and the foto? not last year, my friend....haha! i'll make a point to have someone snap a shot of me this summer so i have an updated image.

    robert - thank you~

    loree - i have heard of gozo so i will do a little research on this - so many islands in the med like to lay claim to features in the odyssey so this makes sense!

    farmchick - she was quite the spitfire!

    robin - don't you just love that story of the mannequin? my friend almost had a heart attack she was so freaked out!

  21. zuzana -- the header foto was taken at my sister's in montana - only after the fact did i realize it captured the feeling of the persephone myth. thank you for your kind comment - it is so appreciated ♡

    annie - you are right - it was tough to be a woman in the victorian era, let alone a female archaeologist!

    philip - kind thanks xo

    val -- all those things are what endeared her to me too ~ xoxo

    sonia - many thanks -- and blessings to you as well in the pursuit of your dreams, my friend~

    sarah - i cannot imagine what the supermoon looked like looming over the atlantic as it rose --i hope you were lucky enough to see it from the beach.

  22. This is a great story, I remember her name but didn't realize her passion for her work. I'm with Robin on what she left behind for you

  23. incredible story.. love your blog..
    glad to have found you :)

  24. Wow, what a remarkable woman! I love all this history you shared with us.


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