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.


Colonialism, Collapse, and Floods

by, Sarah Baires, Meghan Buchanan & Melissa Baltus



Cahokia hit the news recently, not because a highway was being constructed through it’s East St. Louis Precinct, but because new data came out regarding a flooding event hypothesized to have caused the collapse of this early city.  You may have seen the headlines or shared one of the articles on Facebook:  “Did a Mega-Flood Doom Ancient American City of Cahokia?” or “Megafloods Spurred Collapse of Ancient City of Cahokia, New Study Finds”. For decades, archaeologists have pondered what led to the abandonment of Cahokia, the largest Native American city north of Mexico.  Theories proposed include population decline due to warfare, drought, the onset of the Little Ice Age, and chiefly cycling (ie. the rise, fall, and reemergence of complex societies), among other things (see examples Anderson 1994; Iseminger 1997; Milner 1998; Woods 2004).  These theories are widely accepted and target topics easily digestible by academics and the general public. And further these theories focus on ideals easily attributed to pre-Columbian Native American peoples perceived as lacking agency: violent behavior in the form of warfare and environmental dependence.

The research that these most recent sensational headlines were based upon was published by Munoz et al. in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (and an earlier publication featured in the journal Geology, vol 42(6), 2014). Munoz et. al’s article was instantly picked up by multiple news outlets and blogs framing their data as the solution to the complex puzzle of Cahokia’s collapse.  Such outlets, and the authors themselves, state that Cahokia’s collapse was attributed to a large scale flood that would have demolished households and farm fields, and that the “disintegration and dissolution of Cahokia may be, in part, societal responses to enhanced hydrological variability in the form of high-magnitude flooding” (Munoz et al. 2015: 1). In the following we address additional points we were unable to tackle in our response to their PNAS article elaborating on several endemic issues related to knowledge production in the discipline of archaeology.  We pose the following questions:

1. How does settler colonialism affect collapse narratives?

2.  How do collapse narratives marginalize Indigenous histories? and finally

3.  What does the archaeological record suggest actually happened at Cahokia?

In posing and addressing these questions we emphasize the political stakes of archaeological research and publication.  In a day and age when funding to social sciences is being drastically cut (see recent proposed cuts to NSF funding for Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences) we often strive to make our work relevant, to make it popularly consumable, and to emphasize the fact that our work matters.  But, we must also consider the broader implications of our work and ask the question ‘at whose expense’?  By perpetuating narratives surrounding collapse of pre-industrial agricultural societies due to environmental disasters we are perpetuating stereotype and dismissing historical narratives.  Whose version of the past should be privileged and further how do we make that judgement?

1. Common (mis)perceptions about Native North American peoples run the gamut from the violent savage to the ecological Indian with archaeologists (intentionally or not) playing a supportive role in perpetuating these stereotypes.  Archaeologists often write Indigenous individuals (intentionally or not) out of the archaeological narrative discussing places, events, materials, and bodies as static and singular, devoid of personhood or humanness.   Complexity and collapse theories often play on these perceptions discussing societal collapse, especially in Native North America, as something with agency that acts upon persons who have none.  The environment, disease, warfare, etc. are attributed with the ability to act collectively to destroy complex societies, while Native American persons are passively acted upon seemingly with little or no control over the outcome of a particular situation. Publications like Jared Diamond’s Collapse have done much to popularize these kinds of accounts, often with little reference to detailed archaeological and anthropological data. In fact, the anthropologists who contributed to the volume Questioning Collapse argued that Diamond’s book(s) gain such popularity in part because they reflect our current concerns with climate change.  Anthropological/archaeological data are shoehorned into those fears by stripping all historical data and human agency/creativity/resilience from case studies. Approximately 10 years ago, the narratives of collapse were concerned with drought (Diamond attributes the collapse of many societies to drought and environmental degradation) – now the fear is flood. Will we see a reemergence of drought in another 10 years?

Such perspectives that cut human agency out of the historical narrative are vectors of settler colonialism. Holdovers from the days of the first explorers who documented and drew Native persons as things and as “other”.  Focusing on Native American persons as objects to be studied (especially from an archaeological perspective) intentionally removes them from the historical narrative and separates person from places and practices.  This strips persons of agency, making the colonial process easier for the colonizer– land devoid of agentic people is ‘easier’ to take, for example.  This is the colonial process in action whereby (predominantly) white academics serve to deconstruct past (and contemporary) historical contexts through categorical analyses that privilege science-based knowledge over relational and animate ontological theories (see Watts 2013).  This practice of privileging one kind of knowledge over another has significant implications for sovereignty, tribal recognition, and legislation that governs Native American tribal rights and access to sacred sites, ancestral remains, and lands (see the recent debates surrounding Kennewick Man for example).

We (archaeologists) often look to things to make meaning out of various contexts.  We often examine materials of depositional practice, monumental construction, burials, and agricultural practices as devoid of the people that populate the past.  We seek meaning in models of behavior (not agency) and organizations of households, while forgetting the actual persons who constructed and lived in those houses.  The relational ontological turn has worked to change this perspective engaging with persons (both human and otherwise) as entangled with multiple places, other persons, and materials moving us beyond a representationalist interpretation of the past.  This turn has brought to the forefront other ways of being in the world that greatly impact current scholarly work in the Indigenous Americas (see Zoe Todd for comments on said ontological turn).

But, there is always more room for improvement.  We still face a discipline that largely ignores Native American histories, which in turn perpetuates the epistemological biases that segregates science from other ‘ways of knowing’.  We struggle with the legacy of a discipline that privileges Euro American narratives of ‘science’ over Indigenous voices (Mann 2003) where separating history from science from economics from politics and from religion create the beginnings of a ‘great’ archaeological analytical system.  What if we put such categories aside?  Opening our minds to engage with a different perspective, one that emphasizes the relational qualities of the many ‘ways of knowing’ that considers politics, religion, economics, the social and the intellectual as ‘simultaneous’; as Vine Deloria Jr. says  “[h]istory is not divided into categories” (Deloria 2003 [1973]).  So, why do we persist to do so in our analyses of the past?

1927 Mississippi River flood, Cairo, Illinois

“1927 Mississippi flood Mounds-Cairo IL highway” by Archival Photography by Steve Nicklas, NOS, NGS – NOAA photo library filename wea00735: originally at [1] (now at [2]). Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

2. Such collapse narratives like those recently publicized about Cahokia, suggest (intentionally or not) that the inhabitants of this agriculturally-based city could not or would not have persisted through a ‘large-scale’ flood event, if such an event happened. Consider the following statement:

In contrast to the large Mississippi River floods of the 19th century that fostered resilience and motivated legislation aimed at preventing damage from flooding, Cahokia’s leaders appear to have been unable to maintain the impression of security and stability following the economic upheaval created by the return of large floods” (Munoz et al. 2015: 4).

This implies that Cahokians could not have met large-scale flooding events with the same resilience of “modern” peoples.  This perpetuates an ethnocentric understanding of technological know-how, social resilience, and political integration of past Native American peoples that harkens back to the outdated Myth of the Moundbuilders.  Ignoring serious data indicating the skill with which Cahokia’s inhabitants modified the natural topography to mitigate the presence of water (see Dalan et. al 2003) disregards Indigenous technological know-how.  Picking when to champion past Native American builders for their earth moving skills ignores agency and the capacity for change!  It relegates Native American persons to a historical narrative that is written by Western academics, for Western academics.  This is a form of colonialism.

Further, we must consider the importance of water to many Indigenous persons in the Americas; removing this aspect from the conversation ignores the ontological significance of water.  Water is a a place of creation, a place of life, and a place of death (see Echo-Hawk 2009).  Water, for some southeastern and plains peoples, is the genesis of the living world (see Baires 2015 for a review).  Water was not only life giving in the form of potable water and water for crops but truly life giving in that it is/was literally the beginning of the world.  Why, then, are we so quick to assume that Native American persons living at Cahokia would vacate their community as a result of a singular flood event? One that there is no archaeological evidence for?  This is a dichotomy of place and practice that separates persons from the land.  This is a colonial and Western conceptualization.  The land was not just something to support agricultural practice but was (and is) a social agent with the capacity for action.

Ramey Vessel

Ramey Pottery Vessel

Ramey Pottery Vessel

Ramey incised vessel, Photo by Michael Fuller http://users.stlcc.edu/mfuller/cahokia.html

Let’s consider an alternate perspective.  An overabundance of water may have been one of the significant reasons as to why Native American people chose to build Cahokia in a foodplain.  Water was presenced not only by the Mississippi River that runs along the western edge of Cahokia but also in marine shell beads and materials buried with the dead, causeways constructed through marshy lowlands connecting mounds and plazas, and in a series of ditches likely constructed to channel water away from neighborhoods (see Baires 2015; Dalan et. al 2003). Ramey Incised pottery, an important religious vessel type, was frequently decorated with symbolic motifs evoking water (Pauketat and Emerson 1991). Recently, excavations at sites in Cahokia’s uplands have documented multiple instances in which structures were left exposed to the elements, infilled with water laid silts, and then re-excavated and reused by the inhabitants of places like Pfeffer and Emerald (Pauketat 2013).

When we consider the functional and relational qualities of water together with the persistence of the Cahokian community beyond the 13th century an entirely new image of this city emerges.  One of resilience and persistence rather than destruction and collapse.

Additionally, the archaeological record at Cahokia does not support the conclusion that a large-scale flood brought about collapse.  We contend that there is no archaeological evidence of a massive flood at Cahokia. Suggestions have been made that there is evidence at Cahokia’s Merrell Tract and that other evidence “…may not preserve well in terrestrial archaeological contexts due to erosion, bioturbation, and pedogenesis…” (Munoz et. al 2015), but these possible data do not align with what we see archaeological on the macroscale.  The in-filling sequences of the later Merrell Tract households reveal evidence of silt deposits likely as the result of periodic rainfall, not catastrophic flooding (similar to those identified at the Pfeffer and Emerald sites) (Salzer 1975).

Flood Radiocarbon Dates, adapted from Munoz et. al 2015 (click to enlarge)

Further, the proposed dates or collapse due to flooding do not align with the archaeological evidence.  Plain and simple.  People remained at Cahokia until the 1400s changing the landscape, re-building neighborhoods and mounds while influencing surrounding Native American communities in Oklahoma and into the deep south.  While populations at Cahokia dropped during the 13th century, people still continued to migrate into the American Bottom, mounds were constructed, large villages persisted, Cahokians were still engaged in wide ranging networks of exchange.  The classic Braden style of the Mississippian Art and Ceremonial Complex was developed at Cahokia. Persistence was the name of the game.

By dismissing this complex civilization with a narrative about a hypothetical flood– with no archaeological basis– stereotypes are perpetuated.

Intentionally or not Cahokia and its population have been relegated to the realm of passivity.  The stereotype of the ecological Indian persists all in the attempt to push forward a narrative that capitalizes on our own contemporary fears: fear of societal collapse, fear of the changing environment, and fear of state-engineered environmental disaster.  Consider the political stakes!  Theories like this have real impacts, they shape narratives and contemporary understandings of who Native American peoples are/were. Even now, the city of St. Louis is planning on constructing a new stadium atop the location of the St. Louis Mound group. It becomes easy for politicians to dismiss the concerns of descendant communities when archaeological narratives paint their ancestors as people who destroyed their environment, or whose societies were destroyed by warfare and/or the environment, or who abandoned their lands only to have them claimed by Europeans later.  When engaging in archaeological work that looks for answers to the reasons behind societal change (especially in the Indigenous Americas) we must be diligent in our practice considering how our theories may impact communities.  We must also incorporate Indigenous ontologies and Indigenous scholars into our work and seriously engage with them.  Only then will we produce research that productively engages with the past and the future.


Anderson, David G. (1994)  Savannah River Chiefdoms: Political Change in the Late Prehistoric Southeast.  University of Alabama Press.

Baires, Sarah E. (2015)  The role of water in the emergence of the pre-Columbian Native American City Cahokia.  WiresWater doi: 10:1002/wat2.1094.

Dalan, Rinita A., William I. Woods, John A. Koepke, George R. Holley Jr., and Harold W. Watters. (2003)  Envisioning Cahokia: A Landscape Perspective.  Northern Illinois University Press.

Deloria Jr., Vine (2003)  God is Red: A Native View of Religion, 30th Anniversary Edition.  Fulcrum Publishing.

Echo-Hawk, Walter R. (2009)  Under Native American Skies.  Ethnography in the National Park Service 26(3): 58-79.

Iseminger, William (1997)  Culture and Environment in the American Bottom: The Rise and Fall of Cahokia Mounds. In Common Fields: An Environmental History of St. Louis, edited by Andrew Hurley, pp. 38-57. Missouri Historical Society Press, St. Louis.

Mann, Barbara A. (2003)  Native Americans, Archaeologists, and the Mounds.  Peter Lang Publishers.

Milner, George R. (1998)  The Cahokia Chiefdom: The Archaeology of a Mississippian Society.  Smithsonian Institution Press.

Munoz, Samuel E., Kristine E. Gruley, Ashtin Massie, David A. Fike, Sissel Schroeder, John W. Williams. (2015)  Cahokia’s emergence and decline coincided with shifts in flood frequency on the Mississippi River.  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 112(20): 1-6.

Pauketat, Timothy R. (2013)  An Archaeology of the Cosmos: Rethinking Agency and Religion in Ancient America.  Routledge.

Pauketat, Timothy R. and Thomas E. Emerson (1991) Ideology of Authority and the Power of the Pot.  American Anthropologist 93(4): 919-941.

Salzer, Robert J. (1975)  Excavations at the Merrell Tract of the Cahokia Site: Summary Field Report, 1973.  Illinois State Museum Research Series: Papers in Anthropology 3: 1-8.

Watts, Vanessa (2013)  Indigenous place-thought & agency amongst humans and non-humans (First Woman and Sky Woman go on a European world tour!).  Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 2(1): 20-34.

Woods, William I. (2004)  Population Nucleation, Intensive Agriculture, and Environmental Degradation: The Cahokia Example. Agriculture and Human Values 21:255-261.