Human Journey

Marion Stirling in the field.

International Women’s Day Archive Discovery: Marion Stirling

Marion Stirling married Matthew Stirling in 1933, and in 1938 they embarked on their first NGS-Smithsonian expedition to Veracruz, Mexico, where they uncovered the infamous colossal Olmec head. At the time, Dr. Matthew Stirling was the Director of the Smithsonian’s Bureau of Ethnology and Marion had previously taken courses in anthropology at George Washington University. Together they were a tour de force in the field of archaeology.  Marion was Dr. Stirling’s right hand on every expedition and their archaeological partnership spanned over three decades.

Marion “was an integral part of her husband’s archaeological work, supervising the washing and cataloguing of artifacts after they were excavated by local workers. Hundreds of ancient Mesoamerican specimens — figurines, potsherds, skulls — passed through her hands, (a photograph taken in Panama shows her inspecting a necklace made of eight hundred human teeth) and her fieldwork gave her enough expertise so that the writer of a 1944 Society press release described her as an ‘archaeologist in her own right.’” (NG Library + Archives Timeline).

Marion even used the Mayan calendar to calculate and date artifacts that were excavated. In 1941, she was awarded the Society’s Franklin L. Burr Award in recognition of her meritorious services as Field Secretary of the National Geographic Society-Smithsonian Institution Expeditions of 1939, 1940, and 1941 to Veracruz, Mexico.

Karen Buckley Cerka is Director of the Film and Audiovisual Archive and has worked with the Archive since 2008. The Film and Audiovisual Archive dates back to 1901 and houses 770,000 hours of viewing material. Highlights include Louis Leakey and William Beebe, Dian Fossey and Jane Goodall.

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