Women in the Field

It has been an exciting time for Anthropology over the last week.  The recent discovery of Homo naledi, our new human ancestor, has been cropping up on news outlets all over the Internet.  The focus, of course, mainly being on the importance of this find for understanding the processes of human evolution, but also for the significant conclusion that Homo naledi buried their dead!  I spent a good part of my morning Introduction to Archaeology class highlighting this possibility emphasizing the significance of this evidence–that bodies were likely dropped into the bottom of this cave rather than being brought in through secondary processes (environment, animals, etc.).  My students looked at me with glassy, sleep-deprived faces while I gesticulated wildly talking about the fact that this might be the earliest evidence we have of our human ancestors comprehending and working through the processes of death.  Time will only tell if my students grasped the magnitude of this; one can only hope!  

I then jumped into an excited lecture (maybe I was on a soapbox) about the fact that a team of women scientists were the cavers and excavators of this find.  Let me say that again.  The team who discovered and collected these fossils was comprised by multiple badass women.  The popular Facebook page, A Mighty Girl, posted a thoughtful piece on the bravery and dedication of these scientists reminding the reader that this expedition to recover the fossils at the bottom of this cave was no small thing.  The director of the project, Lee Berger, put out a call on Facebook asking his friends and colleagues for people who fit a very specific criteria: “the person must be skinny and preferably small. They must not be claustrophobic, they must be fit, they should have some caving experience, climbing experience would be a bonus” (taken from A Mighty Girl post September 11, 2015).  Over 60 individuals applied and of that 60, six women were selected.  These women were chosen based on not only their size and abilities as cavers and climbers, but on their well-honed skills as scientists and archaeologists.

While the public media has given lots of positive space to this discovery and to the women who did the dirty work, so to speak, a specter has been looming in the background.  This specter comes in the form of body type and the conversation around the size and shape of the women’s bodies who fit into that cave.  In an interview with Refinery29 Hannah Morris, one of the aforementioned badass women, spoke to this issue recognizing that while body type was important to be able to physically do the work, it has also clouded some discussions of the significance of the all-female crew.  Morris states,

It was more of an issue I felt like, personally, when we were down in South Africa and it was just getting started. That makes a really splashy headline. There were articles that said ‘slinky scientists’ and ‘slender scientists slither through the cave’ — and that’s a little frustrating to deal with.

As a woman scientist, you want people to be talking about your research and the science and your cognitive capabilities as opposed to the size and shape of your body. That’s a huge issue in American society, I feel.”  

When we talk about women scientists making such a significant discovery, and one they did as part of a team selected for their skills as scientists, the focus on their bodies (size and shape) takes away from that discovery.  Morris said it best: “As a woman scientist, you want people to be talking about your research…and your cognitive capabilities” not the size of your physique.   

So with this blog post we honor Morris’s statement. In a moment where attention is being directed away from solid scientific work to the female physique we present here some badass women in archaeology.  We ask that if you are a woman and a scientist post your work in the comments below.  We would love to hear about it and to make a space for you to own your accomplishments.


Cahokia Magnetomtry Survey photo courtesy Liz Watts Malouchos

Cahokia Magnetomtry Survey photo courtesy Liz Watts Malouchos

This past summer was a hectic time for women in the field of Mississippian archaeology.  From field excavations in the corn fields of Illinois to Indiana women were directors, collaborators and designers of rigorous research projects. Following in the footsteps of Harriet Smith, Alice Kehoe, Rinita Dalan and others, the first all-female research team at Cahokia embarked on a magnetometry survey of two possible residential areas adjacent to natural and built watery places.  While the project was directed by P.I.’s Dr. Sarah Baires and Dr. Melissa Baltus in preparation for possible future excavations, the work was truly collaborative.  The magnetometry specialists, Liz Watts Malouchos and Leslie Drane, were part of the design and execution; we discussed best options for survey and worked together in a truly productive way to meet our goals.  The results generated from the survey were significant in their own right and will contribute to our broader understanding of Cahokia’s early and late years (see the upcoming SEAC meetings for our results) but what was, for me, the most significant aspect of this fieldwork was working in an environment that did not question our skill, intelligence, or ability.  Like Morris so eloquently stated, the focus of the project and our working environment was the research and our abilities as scientists.  

Elsewhere in the American Bottom, Dr. Tamira Brennan was promoted to the position of Coordinator of the American Bottom Field Station of the Illinois State Archaeological Survey (ISAS). ISAS is one of five state surveys within the Prairie Research Institute, an institution dedicated to sustaining Illinois’ natural and cultural resources that is known for their outstanding research. In this role, Brennan ensures that the exciting and important research undertaken by the the large staff and crew at the field station reach scientific, amateur, and local communities alike. This work covers the southern portion of Illinois and spans the Paleoindian to historic time periods. Although many capable women have previously and currently worked at the American Bottom field station – historically at least half of the station’s employees have been female – Brennan is the first woman to be appointed as Coordinator.

As a departure from lab work and Mississippian archaeology, Dr. Meghan Buchanan took her magnetometry training to the Indiana University Judson Mead Geologic Field Station near Cardwell, Montana. The field station hosts classes on Introductory Geology Taught in the Field, Field Geology in the Rocky Mountains, and Geology, Hydrology, and Geochemistry in the Rocky Mountains. Meghan joined the Field Geology in the Rocky Mountains class for specialization week, an opportunity for students to learn about and use specialized geologic equipment as well as have one-on-one conversations with specialists (both of whom are women). The Field Station is located in the Tobacco Root Mountains, known for their thrusted and folded sedimentary and volcanic formations; mining (gold) was once a prosperous in the region. Of interest to some of the researchers at the Field Station are highly magnetic formations that outcrop in a few locations, but largely lie hidden beneath the ground surface. During specialization week, Meghan brought a Bartington dual fluxgate gradiometer and other researchers brought a proton precession gradiometer and a portable spectrometer. Students had the opportunity to use all three instruments to record magnetic readings and the mineralogical composition of formations and float rock near data collection points. Following all data collection, students were tasked with creating maps documenting what they recorded and tracing the possible directions and folds of the magnetic formation. This was the first time Meghan had the opportunity to use the gradiometer in a geological setting. The unusual context (geological instead of archaeological), unknown variables (would the gradiometer even work in this setting) and the constraints/needs of the field school required on the fly creativity and research implementation. Most exciting for Meghan were the students – they were warm, welcoming, and very excited to learn how their discipline intersected with archaeology. Many discussions about magnetism and archaeological features turned into mini lessons about the practices and histories of the indigenous peoples of the Americas.   

Dr. Melissa Baltus directed a small field school through the University of Toledo, excavating at an upland mound center east of Cahokia. While many field schools in the past decade or more have followed the trend of having a majority of female students, this one was overwhelmingly female (only one male student). Students typically carry a number of expectations into field school – about what archaeology is as well as about their own personal capabilities. It is probably not very surprising that most students greatly underestimate the rigors of archaeology: long days, hot weather, tedious work, sometimes very physical labor moving dirt. What struck me the most this summer, however, was how much female students underestimate themselves. Comments of some female students at the beginning of the field work centered on inability: “I can’t do math”, “I don’t think I will be able to map that”, “I don’t want to screw that up,” as well as expressions of dislike for getting sweaty and dirty. While you may be asking yourselves: “why would these students sign up for a field school if they don’t like getting dirty,” keep in mind how archaeology is presented to the general public. Archaeological excavations, as presented in the media, are fairly sterile undertakings, with pristine excavators neatly brushing off their latest discovery on camera. Towards the end of the field season, I heard expressions of pride: “look how much dirt we moved”, “look at the muscles I’ve built”, as well as pride in their ability to face not only the physical challenges but their scientific and mathematical accomplishments. This highlights the fact that students learn much more than archaeological research and field methods; students learn about themselves. For female students, the field becomes a place of empowerment.

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