Margaret Elizabeth Ashley-Towle – Georgia’s First Professional Archaeologist

Margaret Elizabeth Ashley-Towle was not only Georgia’s first trained Archaeologist but perhaps the first female archaeologist in the south. It’s no small title to bestow on someone, but from all accounts Margaret was not only capable but admired among her male counterparts.

She was born to Claude Lordawick Ashley and Elizabeth Miller in Atlanta, Georgia on January 12, 1902. Entering into a prestigious pedigree, she none the less struck out to make a name on her own [2]. She attended Oglethorpe University in Atlanta and graduated an A.B. in English literature and a minor in journalism [2]. Afterwards, she enrolled in Columbia University in 1926, pursuing a graduate degree in anthropology and studying under Franz Boas [2].

Also that year she began excavating, working on the Indian Island site, now known as the Shinholser Mound site (9Bl2) in Baldwin County, Georgia [2]. This site is still located on the Oconee River near Milledgeville, GA [1]. This site contains two mounds dating to the Middle Mississippian Savannah period, along with artifacts from the Late Archaic, Late Mississippian Lamar, and Historic Creek Indians which have also been recovered [1]. There is also some evidence of early Spanish trade with the local Indian population [1].

Here Ashly did what all of Boas’ students were taught to do; good documentation and careful excavation. She did most of her work on Mound B and wrote a report for the Museum of the American Indian [2]. She described the stratigraphy and the recovered materials along with a few illustrations. Thought she wanted to return to the site, it’s not clear if she did or not.

In July 1927, Ashly notified Boaz that she’s spent a good deal of time traveling through Georgia and visiting sites. She formally began what she called “an archaeological survey of Georgia”, possibly meant to be her dissertation topic. At the time of the letter she had already surveyed four counties and some 500 sites [2].

In September of the same year, Ashley was asked to organize a department of archaeology for Emory University and to represent Emory in Warren K. Moorehead’s excavations at the Etowah site (9Br1) in North Georgia [2]. Ashley accepted this position and discontinued her official studies at Columbia. She assisted Moorehead until the spring of 1928, when she took over as director of the site [2]. She continued her survey of Georgia while working with Moorhead taking a field crew and investigating another 12 sites [2].

In 1929 she turned her attention to studying the pottery of the Etowah for Phillips Academy and the inevitable report became a major contribution to the Etowah Papers [2]. In it, Ashly tried unsuccessfully to use stratigraphy to separate pottery types. Still if gave her a good deal of experience that served her on other sites as wel [2]l.

Ashly conducted many, many more surveys during her time in the field. They would take pages to list them all, but at some point she bumped into or worked with just about every up and coming or already well know archaeologist in the state.

One of the last sites Ashly apparently surveyed was the Lockett Mound, now known as the Neisler site (9Tr1), located near the Flint River [2]. Ashley and her assistant Frank T. Schnell, spent three weeks at Neisler, performing major trench excavation atop the mound and surveying 250 test units [2]. Two fire pits were uncovered on the mound and fourteen burials excavated in the outlying area [2].

A great quote comes from this time. Ashly removed two burials while at the Neisler site and was asked by a reporter in attendance if they could have a bone as a “souvenir.” Ashly admonished the reporter by saying, “We do have respect for our finds.” [2] I whole-heartedly agree, it is because of this sentiment that so much of our past is preserved.

On February 18, 1930, the field lost Margaret Elizabeth Ashley as she became Margaret Elizabeth Ashley-Towle when she married Gerald Towle, a Harvard graduate and Moorehead’s top field assistant [2]. During her marriage she abandoned archaeology for some fourteen years, never to resume field work in Georgia [2]. During this time she was apparently injured severely causing her to spend the rest of her life in some pain that made field work nearly impossible [2].

In 1944, Gerald Towle died, and suddenly Ashly rejoined the field, returning to her pursuits at Columbia, this time studying ethnobotany [2]. In 1958, Margaret completed her dissertation, The Ethnobotany of Pre-Columbian Peru as Evidenced by Archaeological Materials, and received her Ph.D. Her dissertation was published as book 30 in the Viking Fund Publication in anthropology [2].  It was well received and filled a much neglected hole in archaeological study, enriching the study of agriculture in archaeology. Ashly worked for the Harvard Botanical Museum as an unpaid associate until her death on November 2, 1985 [2].

For more in this series check out Mother’s of the Field.


[1] Hammack, Stephen A. 2011. OAS members visit Shinholser Mound site. ( accessed September 06, 2011. Published by The Society for Georgia Archaeology.

[2] White, Nancy Marie, Sullivan, Lynne P., and Marrinan, Rochelle A., eds. 1999. Grit-Tempered: Early Women Archaeologists in the Southeastern United States. Tallahassee: University Press of Florida.

Other Rescorces:

Etowah Indian Mounds State Historic Site (

Shnell, Frank T. and Newell O. Wright, Jr. 1993. Mississippi Period Archaeology of the Georgia Costal Plain. ( University of Georgia.

The Society for Georgia Archaeology. (

William, Mark. 2009. Mapping the Shinholser Site, 2007 ( Lamar Institute. Lamar Institute Publication

1990 Archaeological Excavations at Shinholser (9BL1): 1985 & 1987. ( Lamar Institute / University of Georgia.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Website Powered by

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: