Manifestos and the Manly Future of Archaeological Theory

A few days ago, while browsing through a suite of recent theoretical publications, one particular chapter caught my eye. Actually, it was the author’s introductory hook – a Chuck Palahniuk quote from Fight Club – that really piqued my interest. On any other day, I’d probably just skim through the opening without dwelling on such a small detail. But, in an endless succession of references to self-enlightened men, Chuck Palahniuk felt like the last straw. I suddenly remembered reading this satirical list of nihilistic quotes for young, disaffected white guys penned by the likes of Nietzsche and Palahniuk. Already a bit agitated, I couldn’t help from feeling like that one quote perfectly summed up the current theoretical climate in archaeology. It embodied a philosophical terrain of cis-gendered men citing men writing about other men. It hinted at something troubling hidden in the heroic rhetoric of recent archaeological manifestos.



As a queer feminist collective, the “new materialist” atmosphere in archaeology is starting to feel a bit disenchanting. Don’t get me wrong. In many ways, the ontology-oriented discussions happening in the discipline are refreshing. Over the past several years, archaeologists have been calling for a theoretical revolution of sorts. A number of authors have been advocating a “return to things” to restore an ontological balance thrown off course by anthropocentrism. Relational assemblages of actants, rather than individual agents, are in vogue. An assortment of relational, ontological, posthumanist, realist, and materialist themes accent these innovative theoretical tides. But, when the contributions of Indigenous, feminist, queer, and non-white philosophers are glaringly absent from the conversation, the discussion starts to feel more like a rip current.


If you take a hard look at the names being quoted most prominently in “new materialist” discussions, you’ll find some common sources of inspiration. And, with the exception of a nod here and there to Haraway, Bennett, or Barad, it’s a glaringly masculine genealogy. Archaeological texts that have diverged from these citational trends (e.g. Joyce 2007, Marshall and Alberti 2014, Weismantel 2015, Yusoff 2015) remain exceptions to the rule. This is an issue that’s been brought up by women in archaeology for decades. And while it’s not a novel criticism, it’s still hard to believe that we still haven’t listened. Back when agency was fashionable, Joan Gero (2000) touched upon the cryptic gendering of “social agents”, who, drawn in the image of “action figures”, modeled a “caricature of the not-asking-directions side of males, going it alone, independent and self reliant”. Her feminist reading of agency peels away the morbid comedy underlying a masculine, archaeological expedition into the ontological turn. Now, as we collectively break away from the bondage of agency and set our sights on “immanence”, it’s no surprise that theoretical discoveries are being written by “action figures”. Sarah Ahmed remarked on the irony of citational stream of white men calling for relationality. Her criticism of this “citational relational” alludes to the ironic assemblage of “white men” proselytizing a more relational, intersubjective conception of reality. Similarly, Zoe Todd lamented the absence of indigenous philosophers in ontological discourses. Deeming ontology another word for colonialism, Todd perceptively identified how Western theorists exploit and appropriate indigenous thought only to repackage it as a paradigm shift.

When you look at how the ontological turn has played out within archaeology, these feminist criticisms uncover the privileges underlying seemingly innocuous trends. This masculine sense of being a theoretical pioneer crops up in the somewhat recent fascination with publishing manifestos. They’ve come in different flavors – symmetrical, zooarchaeological, visual, digital, etc. – and they cater to cutting edge appetites. Conceptually, crafting a manifesto is both a call to arms and a blueprint for revolutionary change. It outlines a strategy for making a political vision materialize. A well-crafted manifesto can be a potent catalyst for social transformation. As a genre, the manifesto has been integral to the history of feminist theory. Rhetorically, feminist manifestos appropriated a traditionally masculine genre to articulate a type of political subterfuge focused on liberation. When Donna Haraway (1987) published her cyborg “manifesto”, her ironic gesture to the manifesto was a monstrous fusion of feminist liberation and annihilation. In an interview, Karen Barad commented on this intentional ambivalence and explained why her own writing doesn’t fall into the category of a manifesto (Dolphijn, and van der Tuin 2012: 70):

Well, manifesto is a thing that my friend and colleague Donna Haraway can get into, but I cannot claim that term. [Laughs.] Of course, she means it ironically. Agential realism is not a manifesto, it does not take for granted that all is or will or can be made manifest. On the contrary, it is a call, a plea, a provocation, a cry, a passionate yearning for an appreciation of, attention to the tissue of ethicality that runs through the world. Ethics and justice are at the core of my concerns or rather, it runs through “my” very being, all being. Again, for me, ethics is not a concern we add to the questions of matter, but rather is the very nature of what it means to matter.

Inspired by feminist genealogies, Barad’s “passionate yearning” is an ethical stance. It’s a desire for women to matter. This longing to materialize is deeply embedded in feminist history. For Black feminists like Audre Lourde and Hortense Spillers, hope was born out of a persistent struggle to speak, sing, and feel.

For feminist authors, writing a manifesto might have been blasphemous or liberating, but it was rarely unreflective. This is why I’m apprehensive of recent archaeological manifestos, which often take ethics and authorial agency for granted. They pander to theoretical nuance in a way that becomes detached from ethical responsibilities. Their taken-for-granted authorship is also an act of erasure. Largely penned by male authors, these manifestos wax poetically about rescuing archaeology from theoretical stagnation. Ironically, when the manifesto draws to a close, a stagnant list of recycled references surfaces. One of these manifestos opens by acknowledging 27 influential artists, philosophers, and theorists. Only 2 are women. It seems enlightenment only comes in male form. I guess symmetry and ontological equivalence only apply to artifacts.

These trends go much deeper. In one recent publication on the future of archaeological theory, only 5 of the 46 cited first-authors identified as women. Does that imply that women get to set our sights on an 11% stake in the future of archaeological theory? If so, we might fare better in congress. Archaeological theory makes earning 79 cents on the dollar pretty progressive. Or, take a glance at theoretical dialogues published over the last two years. In some journal geared to the contemporary pulse of archaeological theory, you might find that only 20-30 % of contributors seem to identify as women. And these are primarily white women, who enjoy the privileges denied to women of color and queer colleagues. Is this really what a “new revolution” in archaeology looks like?

In the end, you might be wondering whether this post isn’t just a feminist manifesto. You might chalk this all up to the naïve criticism of junior colleagues. From our perspective, this plea and provocation springs from a theoretical lineage of feminist thought. It’s not a dismissal of any particular author or theoretical standpoint, which is why we’ve chosen not to mention specific names. More importantly, we’re not action figures. The narrators of this post are explicitly nameless, countless authors asking for a place in the future of archaeological theory. We’re disembodied voices asking to matter.


Dolphijn, Rick and Iris van der Tuin
2012 Interview with Karen Barad. In New Materialism: Interviews and Cartographies, edited by R. Dolphijn and I. van der Tuin, pp. 48-70. Open Humanities Press, Ann Arbor.

Gero, Joan M
2000 Troubled travels in agency and feminism. In Agency in Archaeology, edited by M.-A. Dobres and J. E. Robb. Routledge, New York.

Haraway, Donna
1987 A manifesto for cyborgs: Science, technology, and socialist feminism in the 1980s. Australian Feminist Studies 2(4):1-42.

Marshall, Yvonne and Benjamin Alberti
2014 A Matter of Difference: Karen Barad, Ontology and Archaeological Bodies. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 24(1):19-36.

Joyce, Rosemary A
2007 Feminist Theories of Embodiment and Anthropological Imagination: Bodies that Matter. In Feminist Anthropology: Past, Present, and Future, edited by P. L. Geller and M. K. Stockett, pp. 43-54. University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia.

Weismantel, Mary
2015 Seeing like an archaeologist: Viveiros de Castro at Chavín de Huantar. Journal of Social Archaeology 15(2):139-159.

Yusoff, Kathryn
2015 Geologic subjects: nonhuman origins, geomorphic aesthetics and the art of becoming inhuman. Cultural Geographies 22(3):383-407.

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.