A New Photo of Margaret Ashley Towle

Contributed by Ryan Wheeler

Several years ago as we organized the Peabody Institute’s extensive photographic collection, we came across a group of black-and-white prints that had not been flattened. These images relate to Warren Moorehead’s 1920’s era excavation of the Etowah mound group in Georgia. Any attempt to unroll the images would produce a tear and threatened to damage the prints. We did some research on techniques that might help these older prints relax a little, to no avail. Help was nearby, however, in the form of the Northeast Document Conservation Center or NEDCC, one of the leading paper and media conservation organizations in the country. We’ve used them before to digitize oversized maps and to scan black-and-white negatives.

The images were returned to us after conservation recently, and we also received high resolution digital versions. Most of the photos show items from the Etowah site, but one picture was of Margaret Ashley Towle, one of the pioneering female archaeologists of the southeastern United States. The image is marked on the reverse as “Etowah Ga 1928 Miss Ashley” and has our recent catalog number 2020.3.283. It is a wonderful complement to Frank Schnell Jr’s 1999 chapter “Margaret E. Ashley: Georgia’s First Professional Archaeologist,” which appeared in Grit-Tempered: Early Women Archaeologists in the Southeastern United States. She was also featured, sans photo, in Irene Gates’s Women of the Peabody blog in 2018.

Image of Margaret Ashley as a smiling young woman wearing a cloche hat and light-colored trench coat with collar turned up. She has several scarves loosely around her neck. Hazy, out of focus image of Warren Moorehead in the background.
Image of Margaret Ashley at the Etowah site, 1928. In the right background is a slightly out of focus image of archaeologist Warren Moorehead. The image has been cropped to exclude several cultural items from the site. Robert S. Peabody Institute of Archaeology 2020.3.283.

Margaret Ashley was already well-versed in archaeology and was a skilled outdoorswoman when she worked with Warren Moorehead at the Etowah site, and went on to assist with his projects in Maine and to continue her own research in the Southeast. She also contributed to Moorehead’s Etowah Papers publication and published on her technique for illustrating pottery. According to Frank Schnell’s chapter in Grit-Tempered, Ashley married Moorehead’s main field assistant Gerald Towle in 1930. Unfortunately, Ashley’s marriage coincided with a significant hiatus to her training and research. We do know that after Towle’s death, Ashley completed her Ph.D. at Columbia with her dissertation later appearing as The Ethnobotany of Pre-Columbian Peru, number 30 of the Wenner-Gren Foundation’s Viking Fund Publications in Anthropology (1961). Colleagues working in the Andes report that Ashley’s publication remains a significant resource. Ashley spent several decades as an unpaid research associate at the Harvard Botanical Museum where she worked with botanist Paul Mangelsdorf, who had also been encouraging Richard “Scotty” MacNeish’s interests in agriculture, also around this same time.

We are delighted that we have been able to recover this early photo of Margaret Ashley Towle. If you get a chance, get a copy of Grit-Tempered–the biographical entries also include Adelaide Bullen, another pioneering archaeologist with connections to the Peabody Institute!

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