Dorothea Bate, pioneering palaeontologist and explorer in the early 20th Century | Library and Archives

Imagine travel with no need for a passport, no lengthy queues for security, no limits to baggage, and when passing through customs, you could happily note, ‘no questions asked about my gun’.

Portrait of Dorothea Bate in profile from the shoulders upwards.
Portrait of Dorothea Bate (published in Idök Volume 38, July 1932)
That, for the pioneering palaeontologist, Dorothea Bate, was the upside to travel in the early years of the 20th Century. It was by no means all positive, however. Travel by ship and train round Europe, not to mention journeying by a variety of ‘quads’ – donkey, mule and pony – over mountainous Mediterranean islands could be challenging, to say the least.

Dorothea’s adventures began in 1901 when she was just 22. With family friends, she travelled to Cyprus where she planned systematically to search for fossil mammals in the limestone caves of the island. She would be the first person, male or female, to do so and her brilliant fossil collections – from Cyprus, Crete, the Balearic Islands, Malta and Bethlehem – are preserved here in the Museum, as are her letters and papers.

It was only Dorothea’s first journey that was with friends. Thereafter, she travelled alone, and while in her letters and diaries she refers to the privations of travel, that she was a woman on her own seems not to have been an issue. She writes of hiring men as guides, translators and to do the heavy digging in her excavations. She knew the value of contacts and making friends, and this she did in abundance.

When she first left her friends to explore Cyprus alone, she sensibly ‘got the custom’s man’ on board the boat she’d taken ‘to look after me and my baggage’, and when the porters she hired to take her luggage to a hotel demanded a bigger tip, she ‘shut my door in their faces and told them to go the custom’s officer if they wanted more – after a time they ceased shouting and departed’.

Black and white, grainy full length image of Dorothea Bate circa 1912. She is wearing a wide brimmed hat with a bow, long sleeve white blouse, ankle length dark skirt and dark walking shoes. Hanging from her left shoulder, at hip length, is a binocular case. Behind her is an blurred background.
Dorothea Bate with her binocular bag ca. 1912. Image © Sir David Bate
But Dorothea suffered wretchedly from seasickness – even a rowing boat could be purgatory, while hot and airless cabins meant she often slept – or attempted to – on deck. She writes of being plagued by fleas both in steamers and in the many ‘hovels’ she slept in.  Mosquitoes devoured her and she contracted malaria. In Majorca she caught scarletina and was very ill and yet her only thought was to resume work as soon as possible – in every case far too soon for her health.

While for most of the time Dorothea confronted the difficulties of travel with determination, at times even she could be frustrated. There were obstinate mules that refused to move, or their owners who did not turn up as arranged – if at all – wasting her precious time and resources. There were springless carts which brought on agonising sciatica – and travel sickness, but more than anything she was thwarted by the sea.

Much of the terrain she was exploring was mountainous and going by sea from one cove to another not only should have been quicker, but many of the caves she wanted to explore were in sea-facing cliffs. But so often the wind and waves were against her, making it impossible to land. In November 1909 she wrote in despair, ‘it seems hopeless trying cave-hunting at this season as it must be done from a boat’.

Dorothea’s courage and resilience was much admired. In Crete in 1904 she met the American archaeologist Edith Hall, who wrote to her parents [in a letter held in the Archives of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology] that she ‘was one of the jolliest, most capable, and fearless girls I ever knew…She goes about by herself with one native to guide and help manage her luggage.

And the beauty of it is that she is entirely unconscious and girlish, she dresses well, and is altogether a most companionable person’. How Dorothea managed to dress well when her accommodation was primitive, her days were spent digging for fossils, and in her travels she was exposed to all the elements, is nothing short of extraordinary – but that is just what Dorothea Bate was!

Written by Karolyn Shindler, NHM Library Scientific Associate

Karolyn’s biography ‘Discovering Dorothea, the pioneering fossil-hunter Dorothea Bate’ will be published by NHM Publishing in July and will be available from

An image of the front cover of the book Discovering Dorothea. The full length sepia image is of the right hand side of Dorothea Bate as she is kneeing down in a excavation pit, surrounded by the sides of the pit. She is leaning her right hand on a large rock, as she looks to her left, at an excavation worker who is using a brush tool on the rocks in front of him. Dorothea's face is obscured by a wide brimmed dark hat, she is wearing a dark jacket and long skirt, walking shoes and you can just see a light skirt collar under the jacket. Only the upper body of the male worker can be seen, he is wearing a dark long sleeved top and a light skull cap. The right hand side of his face can be seen, but the detail is difficult. The black Natural History Museum logo is at the top left of the cover, with Discovering Dorothea written in red handwriting font in the top half of the cover, above the image of Dorothea. Immediately underneath Dorothea in type are the words, The pioneering fossil-hunter Dorothea Bate'. They are written in white. Underneath this, at the bottom of the image, in red type is the name of the author Karolyn Shindler.
Discovering Dorothea cover (2017 edition) ISBN 9780565094379
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