The Adventurous Life of Jane Dieulafoy, Pioneering Archaeologist, Artist, and Feminist

Eugène L. Pirou // Public Domain
Eugène L. Pirou // Public Domain / Eugène L. Pirou // Public Domain

In 1851, Jane Magri was born to a French family that already had four daughters. Her father died shortly after her birth. She was educated at a convent, where she learned several languages and excelled in art. Jane had no interest in becoming a housewife, which is what was expected at the time. She seemed to have no interest in marriage, either, until she met Marcel Dieulafoy, a man who matched Jane in both education and thirst for adventure. They agreed to a marriage of equals, in which neither ruled over the other. He was a civil engineer employed by a railroad when he and Jane married in 1870.

That same year, the Franco-Prussian War broke out. Marcel joined the French Army as an engineering officer—and rather than stay at home, Jane dressed in a soldier's uniform and went with him. She became a sharpshooter, accompanying Marcel on every mission, and was never discovered to be a woman during her self-imposed tour of duty.

After the war, Marcel returned to a job with the railroad, but he and Jane wanted more adventure than France could offer. They took trips to Egypt, Morocco, and Persia (now Iran) and developed an interest in history, antiquity, and archaeology. In 1879, Marcel quit the railroad to prepare for a life of exploration. Both Dieulafoys spent 1880 in preparation for an expedition to Susa, an archaeological dig in Persia that proved to be the site of a 6000-year-old regional capital.

Emila Bayard via Adams 2010 // Public Domain

Jane Dieulafoy called herself Marcel’s collaborateur. She used the masculine form of the word deliberately, saying “a [female] collaborator would have been an annoyance.” And once again, Jane donned men's clothing for the Dieulafoys' 14 months in Persia, during which they traveled 6000 kilometers, mostly on horseback. It was a practical decision: The presence of a woman on such an expedition would be both culturally insensitive and dangerous. Both carried weapons, and had several occasions to use them. 

During their travels, both Dieulafoys suffered from mysterious fevers, and Jane had to shave her head at one point due to lice. When they met the Shah, he at first refused to believe Jane was a woman.

After they reached Susa, weather interfered with the excavation, and they soon had to return to Paris. Jane and Marcel were enchanted by Persia, and vowed to return.

Jane Dieulafoy via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Jane took photographs of everything she saw in Persia, drew pictures, and kept a journal. Her role as documentarian on the expedition enabled her to turn her experiences into a book, which became a best seller in France.

The Dieulafoys' second expedition to Susa in 1885 yielded better results. Jane was by then a trained archaeologist in her own right, and led teams of hundreds of male workers at the dig. They sent 400 crates of artifacts back to France, the most famous being the Lion Frieze from the palace of Darius the Great. It can be seen at the Louvre.

dynamosquito via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0

Jane worked as hard as any laborer—and she held her own against bandits as well. Once, she was unloading a raft by herself and was accosted by eight men. She held them off at gunpoint for half an hour until the rest of her crew arrived. She reportedly told the bandits, "I have 14 balls at your disposal. Come back with six more friends." The incident was later made into a famous lithograph

via Cohen and Joukowsky 2006 // public domain

Back in Paris, Jane was awarded the cross of the Légion D’Honneur in 1886. She was also given official government permission to dress in men’s clothing, which was otherwise illegal. She wore men’s attire and short hair for the rest of her life, and considered it a great time saver.

public domain

Changing global politics forbade the Dieulafoys from returning to Persia after their second expedition. Instead, they traveled to Spain, Portugal, and other areas together. Jane wrote many books and articles about her adventures in Persia and elsewhere, and two novels. However, she was barred from winning any literary awards because she was a woman. In response, she and other authors founded the Prix Femina, an award for women authors, in 1904.  

Jane and Marcel-Auguste Dieulafoy via Wikimedia Commons // public domain

When World War I broke out, 70-year-old Marcel volunteered for a post in Morocco, and Jane, of course, accompanied him. At 65 years old, Jane contracted dysentery and was forced to return to Paris to recuperate. Sadly, she did not, and died from the illness in 1916. Marcel followed her in death in 1920.