She was Indiana Jones in a miniskirt, a celebrity archaeologist hatched out of old New York aristocracy. Iris Love, art historian, champion dog breeder and the longtime romantic partner of the gossip columnist Liz Smith, was just as comfortable in the ancient world as in the society pages. Ms. Love died of the coronavirus on April 17 at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center in Manhattan, a friend, Carri Lyon, said. She was 86.

Sunburned, leggy and with a mop of cropped blonde hair, Ms. Love was catnip to the press. When, in 1971, The New York Times wrote about her for the third time, she was 38 and several years into what would become an 11-year dig at Knidos, an ancient Greek city that is now part of Turkey. There she discovered a temple to Aphrodite on the same summer day in 1969 that Neil Armstrong walked on the moon.

Ms. Love had already made headlines when she was a graduate student at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, for outing as forgeries a prized group of Etruscan warriors at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She made headlines again when, on a visit to the British Museum’s collection of antiquities, she identified a crumbling marble head stashed in its basement as being a remnant of Praxiteles’ lost statue of Aphrodite.

Maxwell Anderson, a past curator of the department of Greek and Roman Art at the Met said:

“She had a formidable energy and enthusiasm that separated her from the more cautious of her peers. Archaeology relies on facts, and Iris was given to informed and colorful speculation, which added coloratura to the discipline. She was a public intellectual in a way that was not typical of archaeology.”

Iris Cornelia Love was born on Aug. 1, 1933, in New York City. Her father, Cornelius Ruxton Love Jr., was a diplomat, an investment banker employed by his father-in-law, a collector and a descendant of Alexander Hamilton. Her mother, Audrey B. (Josephthal) Love, was an heiress and arts patron, the daughter of Edyth Guggenheim and Louis Josephthal, an admiral and the founder of a brokerage firm.

Her parents were remote figures, as was the custom of the time for her demographic, but luckily she had a British governess, Katie Wray, who happened to be a classicist. Iris learned Latin before first grade and would grow up to be a polylinguist. She spoke Greek, French, German, Italian and Turkish and could make her way in Mandarin, Russian and Arabic. At her death she was studying Portuguese.

She was famously loquacious in English, too. Ms. Smith used to chastise Ms. Love, as she noted in her memoir, “Natural Blonde” (2000): “Don’t begin the story back when they invented language. Get to the bottom line.”

Ms. Love attended the Brearley School in Manhattan and the Madeira School in Virginia, where classmates taunted her for being Jewish, a lineage she had not understood was hers until then.

She graduated from Smith College in 1955; Sylvia Plath was a classmate. She earned a master’s degree from N.Y.U.’s Institute of Fine Arts and had finished Ph.D. classes there, but not her thesis, because as she often said, she was too busy with Knidos, overseeing the dig each summer and fund-raising most winters, to write it. Carlos Picon, an antiquities expert who was curator of Greek and Roman art at the Met for 28 years, said in a phone interview:

“She brought archaeology and ancient art to a whole new strata of society. She popularized it and warmed it up, and it seemed like everybody knew her name. You could go to the middle of the most faraway city and they would have heard of Iris. There are enough Ph.D.s, and whether we gained another book or not doesn’t matter in the long run. More than once Iris helped me secure objects and funding for the museum.”

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