Halet Çambel, at her home in Istanbul Credit: R. DALTON

The colour of her historic, red wood villa on the Bosporus waterfront in Istanbul may be fading, but archaeologist Halet Çambel's memory still shines bright after 94 years.

She was a fencer for Turkey in the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin and recalls refusing a private invitation to meet Hitler. Then there were the trips on horseback in 1947 into the roadless Taurus Mountains in southern Turkey — where she was the co-discoverer of the Hittite fortress at Karatepe. And there were environmental causes championed long before such drives were popular.

Studying with German professor Helmuth Bossert, she helped unravel Hittite hieroglyphics in the 1940s by finding and restoring a tablet with the Phoenician alphabet, which permitted philologists to decipher the inscription1.

She is "our scientific hero," says Yücel Kanpolat, an Ankara neurosurgeon and current president of the Turkish Academy of Sciences, who is a good friend. Kanpolat says that Çambel's lifetime of work on scientific and social causes should serve as an example for younger researchers in Turkey. The country has the rich store of ancient human sites, but problems have held back progress in some areas. (See Nature 466, 176-178; 2010).

Modestly, Çambel won't say which of her accomplishments was the most rewarding. After 62 years, she still goes on a field trip annually. "But I don't ride horses any more," she says.

She also spends her days organizing her life's papers and memorabilia in the three-story family home, where she has lived most of her life. The house looks east toward the Turkish mainland and its many past civilizations.

Her main workroom is a study in contrasts. A second-hand laptop computer, which she received as a gift, rests on a century-old desk. There are old photos of her in period dress, and a pair of graphite walking sticks for when her balance goes awry.

"Yes, I e-mail," she says. "But I prefer a fax."

Her father, Hasan Cemil Çambel, was close to Kemal Ataturk, who founded the secular Turkish republic in 1923. Her mother, Remziye Hanim, was the daughter of the Turkish ambassador to Germany. Çambel was born in Berlin in 1916 and received her undergraduate training in archaeology at the Sorbonne University in Paris, completing her doctorate in 1940 at the University of Istanbul.

With Ataturk stressing the importance of athletics for women, she became a fencer, which led her to the historic 1936 Olympics, where black American Jesse Owens infuriated Hitler by winning the 100-metre dash. "Yes, I was in the stadium and saw that," recalled Çambel, who did not take home any medals.

Already politically aware, her moment to defy Hitler came when a female German official asked her to meet the Führer. "I said, 'No'," Çambel says.

A few years later, back in Istanbul, she began her association with Nail Çakirhan, a Communist poet who became a renowned architect. They were married for 70 years until his death in October 2008. They had no children — a personal choice made to devote their lives to their careers.

Her research career began in earnest at Karatepe after the Second World War. In the early 1950s, when the government sought to move artefacts from Karatepe to a museum, Çambel fought the attempt.

"How could you move a house? And a two-tonne monument where there were no roads?", she says. She argued the importance of keeping the objects on the site, overlooking the Ceyhan River flowing toward the Mediterranean. In 1957, her wish was granted, and an outdoor museum — with some shelters designed by her husband — was completed in 1960.

She fought again when the government wanted to dam the Ceyhan River, which would have flooded many archaeological sites. "It was very difficult; they wanted a huge dam," says Çambel, who managed to get the water level in the reservoir reduced, thus saving the sites.

Then she campaigned to get mountain villagers to switch from grazing goats to sheep, as she saw that the goats were destroying the pine forests.

"In the beginning, the villagers wanted to kill us," says Çambel, who had studied the origin of village farming in Turkey2. "But they ended up thanking us." The goats would make a ruckus at night, but sheep are quiet. "We sleep in peace now," she recalled the villagers saying.

Çambel met less resistance when she encouraged village weavers to switch from artificial to natural dyes in the production of their woollen carpets and kilims, after noticing that the artificial dyes were fading. Consulting with village elders, she helped identify the proper plant roots for natural dyes, which improved the weavers' business.

"That was very easy," she says. "We showed them they could make more money."

Today, traditional weaving industries are widespread in Turkey. It is one of the many benefits Çambel has helped her country achieve, including schools, clinics and utilities for rural communities.

"She is an exemplary citizen," says Kanpolat.