Despite the growth and success of feminist archaeology, women in archaeology still face issues not necessarily encountered by their male counterparts in the 21st Century. Legacies of past discrimination, particularly the perceived and/or actual demands of family life, have resulted in disproportionate fewer women working at research institutions in many disciplines, including archaeology. This disturbing trend has profound implications for not only the direction of current archaeological research, but also the training of future scholars.

This blog is a forum for advocating for women archaeologists so that we can move beyond legacies of inequity to a future that strengthens a feminine voice in archaeology and a feminist perspective. We contend that the very practice of archaeology is skewed towards a masculine and hierarchical perspective that excludes consensus building and “minority opinions” when interpreting the past. We argue that the feminine voice brings unique and necessary elements to the discipline of archaeology, through values such as mentoring and collaboration. We also clarify that a feminist perspective is not limited to any one gender, class, race, ethnicity or sexuality. Rather a feminist perspective is a radical point of view; one that recognizes that women’s success professionally and personally is integrally tied to larger socio-political movements dedicated to the eradication of homophobia, racism, and androcentrism.

Our hope is to solicit advice, perspectives, and experiences from all realms of the archaeological profession- including tenure-track and adjunct faculty, CRM professionals, and those not currently employed or underemployed. The ultimate goal of the blog is to shift the realities of power experienced in the daily lives of women archaeologists by discussing, inventing and offering solutions to the challenges of professional life.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Reflecting on Fieldwork

Inspired by Kisha Supernant's excellent post "What Would Feminine Archaeology Look Like?" I consciously thought about how I wanted to conduct fieldwork this summer and reflected on ways to promote "feminine" approaches. I am fortunate to have organized two different field projects this summer. Both projects epitomize what feminine archaeology means to me, although in different ways.

The first project was conducted in cooperation with a descendant community. I spent the last year forging relationships and gaining trust in order to assist the community with their goals: 1) to learn more about a piece of property that they recently acquired (the former Michigan Indian Industrial Boarding School) and 2) to use this knowledge to nominate the property to the National Register of Historic Places. This research was carried out as an archaeological field school for Central Michigan University. Students were not only taught archaeological field and laboratory methods, but also learned a great deal about the culture and traditions of the descendant community we were working with and about how the past can be sensitive and emotionally charged. Even more importantly, several of my students were from the community and had family members who had died at the Boarding School. Their participation was an act of healing in addition to education. I feel very honored and fortunate to be able to take part in such an important project.

What makes this feminine archaeology? For me it is several things:
1) The notion that one's research should be done collaboratively & cooperatively.
2) The idea that descendant communities should be involved in and even direct the nature of research.
3) That archaeological education also involves cultural education.
4) That a field school should be a place where students feel comfortable speaking about what they are finding and their interpretations.
5) That members of descendant communities participate in the research and feel comfortable visiting in the field.

While these things are not new to archaeology and may not be distinctly "feminine", this type of collaborative approach tends to be much more common among female or indigenous researchers. Collaborating with descendant communities is still far from mainstream practice in archaeology and is not generally regarded as highly within academic circles as solitary research. However, our discipline is greatly enhanced by collaboration and inclusion of minority voices in examining the past.

CMU students & staff and tribal members participating in a smudging ceremony.

The second project that I conducted was also a cooperative venture in which my students and I volunteered our time to help several public organizations develop better heritage management plans. In the spirit of public service, we conducted investigations at the McGulpin Lighthouse and Heritage Village Park in the Straits region of northern Michigan for the Great Lakes Lighthouse Keepers Association, the Mackinaw Area Historical Society, the Village of Mackinaw and Emmet County Parks.

At the lighthouse, there were plans to reconstruct a former barn structure, however, they were unsure where the barn once stood or whether there were any significant archaeological deposits associated with the former barn. Our investigations identified where the barn once stood and determined that there were significant materials in the vacinity of the barn. Through our work, I was able to help the county make plans for reconstruction that would not impact the archaeological integrity of the site. During our work at the site, we had hundreds of visitors, vacationers and locals alike. This project gave us an excellent opportunity to reach out to the public and share the importance of archaeology and preservation.

CMU student, Megan Bauerle, interacting with a family visiting the MGulpin Lighthouse.

We did similar outreach work for the Heritage Village Park. At this site, a French Era site was being looted. We came to assess how badly the site had been damaged and to develop a plan for protecting the site. We also surveyed other portions of the property to help the park plan future development projects without damaging other archaeological sites on the property. Like the McGulpin lighthouse, we had ample opportunities to interact with the public and school children who volunteered at the park.

CMU student, Patrick Lawton, teaching local elementary students how to screen dirt and look for artifacts.

Neither of the Straits projects were particularly deep theoretical or intellectual ventures. While some might see this as a deficit, I feel that such projects are significant and DO increase our knowledge of a region. In fact, these projects were extremely important to helping this community make preservation-conscious decisions, to raising public awareness of archaeology, and to making archaeology something that matters to everyday people. We, as a discipline have been miserable at communicating to the public about what we do and why. I consider these projects "feminine archaeology" because they promoted education, outreach, and heritage planning. These aspects of public archaeology should be appreciated and rewarded more within the academia. If our discipline is to survive and thrive, we need to make our research relevant and important to the public.

~Sarah Surface-Evans

What projects (in the field, lab, or elsewhere) have you done lately? How do they embody aspects of a "feminine archaeology"? Please share.


  1. I really appreciate this entry, Sarah. Collaborating with community members is so important especially when working through a painful moment in history. I've done a lot of research on historical trauma in Native American communities lately and this is a beautiful example of how a community can experience a catharsis of sorts long after the event took place. If you haven't already, you should consider writing an article on this. :)

  2. Thank you for the feedback, Melissa. I would like to write an article and hope to share my experiences and the results of this work the future. Part of what makes the work I'm doing more complex than typical archaeological research is that absolutely every aspect of what I do is vetted and approved by the tribe. I hesitated about even writing about the project on this blog, because my first concern is protecting the community I am working for.

    That said, we are currently collaborating on several aspects of the research and eventually this will become a session at the American Anthropological Association and possibly an edited volume.

    I encourage you to share some of your work, Melissa. Please email me ( if you want to contribute to the blog.

  3. Maybe hesitating is both an essential component of feminine archaeology and something that is keeping some women out of tenure-track jobs. Anything that slows down the publications can slow down a career.

  4. The stories and discussions emphasizing collaboration, often including collaboration with First Nations and other descendant and local communities, fit in with a blatant difference between women archaeologists of previous generations, and the men. These collaborations were common and characteristic of women archaeologists of the 20th century, including Florence Hawley Ellis, Bertha Dutton, Dorothy Cross Jensen of the earlier generation then, and Jane Holden Kelley, Ruth Gruhn (Bryan), and myself of the middle generation. Kelley published Yaqui Women, a powerful account by Yaqui women who had suffered the genocidal campaign by Mexico against their nation. Gruhn did an ethnograpy of Chichicastenango, and I have worked with Plains Cree and especially Montana Blackfeet (Pikuni) since I graduated college. Most recently, this summer SUNY Press published Amskapi Pikuni: The Blackfeet People, which I wrote in collaboration with tribal educators and historians. Janet Spector's What This Awl Means is a example of a woman archaeologist being open to, and welcoming, ethnographic experience.

    Ethnography is not the same as ethnoarchaeology, which is focused on the archaeological record and seeks more narrow and direct identifications. The late Robert Hall, a Mahican, was discouraged, as he put it, by “a growing trend for archaeologists to be more concerned about how Indians made their livings than about what Indians thought it was worthwhile to live for."

    In the 1980s, when my youngest was finishing high school, I applied to a number of advertised positions in universities that had graduate programs in anthropology/archaeology. Several times I was seriously advised not to send my complete c.v., but only the portion listing work and publications in EITHER archaeology OR cultural anthropology. I was warned that faculty positions are in one or another subfield, and experience in both would be rejected. Sure enough, I was never even invited for an interview. A colleague at a major school where she interviewed told me that this kind of boundary-crossing work, like mine looking at the protohistoric period, was held against Susie Kus when she was seeking a position. Like me, she has been teaching in a small undergrad program.

    "Femininzation" of archaeology? Rather, we're talking about humanization. And most importantly, we're talking about seeing context, significant nuances, being open to points of view novel to the standard-issue Western career-oriented man. In a nutshell, about being truly EMPIRICAL not stuck within the orthodox box. When Binford's H-D "method" was evangelized by him and his followers, I asked where the H, the hypotheses, came from, and always got a blank stare. Thank goodness the pendulum is swinging back to letting the field data speak first, and in a dialog.
    --Alice Kehoe,

  5. The "boundary crossing" issue is alive and well today. When I was on the job market I was constantly asked to decide what box I fit in. While we stress training in 4-field (or 3 of 4 in most cases), why do we insist on defining ourselves as archaeologists OR cultural anthropologists OR physical anthropologists?