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INDIANA JONES AND THE COWBOYS OF SCIENCE: WHO DOES ARCHAEOLOGY?

by Laura

 

 

I’d like you to do a Google Image search for the word “archaeologist.” Go ahead. I’ll wait. Take a look at what you find and then come back.

 

I can guess what you just saw. There were a lot of people in square holes, paintbrushes and trowels in hand to meticulously reveal ancient relics, wearing khakis and boots and broad-brimmed hats, the occasional fedora. Maybe somewhere in there was Harrison Ford with his bullwhip. Perhaps even Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, my fictional arch-nemesis (when you’re an archaeologist and your first name is just one letter away from hers, you hear about Lara Croft a lot). You may have even seen a dinosaur or two.

 

Did you notice anything else about the people? If you are used to living in a patriarchal, white-dominated society, (the United States, for example) you might not have caught this, but I’ll bet my Marshalltown trowel that most of the people you saw were white men. Sure, there were a few women in there too, the occasional racially ambiguous or clearly non-white person. But how many Black women did you see? When I google “archaeologist” I see more pictures of white dudes digging up the skeletons of women of color than pictures of women of color actually doing archaeology.

 

Alfred Kidder, one of the founding fathers of American archaeology from the early 20th century, once quipped that there were two types of archaeologists: the “hairy-chested” archaeologists who went out on adventures, discovering and excavating new sites, and the “hairy-chinned” who sat in their Ivory Tower offices and synthesized data into grand theories. Yes, both of the two types of archaeologists were white dudes.

 

In the United States, according to the 2015 U.S. Census projections, just over half of people are women and about 40% are non-white. So, what about archaeologists in real life? Who are we? I’m an archaeologist, and neither my chest nor my chin is hairy. Where do I fit into this discipline? Where do all the women, the queers, the people of color fit into the field we’ve chosen to pursue?

 

I’ve been turning these questions over in my head for the past decade, as I have studied archaeology as a college and graduate school student. I decided to dig in. First, I looked through the research that has already been done and found a wealth of articles and books on gender issues in archaeology. They all grew out of a 1985 article by one of the founding mothers of feminist archaeology, Joan Gero. She combed through several decades of archaeology dissertations, grant proposals, and journal articles, and figured out that not only were men overrepresented, but that there were differences in what kinds of archaeology men and women tended to do. Kidder’s “hairy-chested,” adventuring field archaeologist was, indeed, likely to be a man. Women tended to do the research tasks that are more like housework: cleaning and counting and analyzing artifacts in the lab. After Gero’s article, there was an outpouring of other studies, showing that most subfields of archaeology were male-dominated, with men getting more grants, publishing more articles, citing each other more, and finding the holy grail. (I am referring, of course, to tenure: only fictional archaeologists go searching for legendary artifacts with magical powers!) Men did more archaeology, did more prestigious archaeology, and got more recognition than women did.

 

So, others had already answered my questions, right? Well, not exactly: almost all of the books and articles I could find were from the mid-1990s, and it’s high time for an update, 20 years later. But more importantly, none of these studies were intersectional.

 

You’ve probably heard of intersectionality or intersectional feminism. The word’s been floating around a lot lately, especially in the furor around Donald Trump’s election and the Women’s Marches the day after his inauguration. But it’s not a new idea: in fact, the term was coined in 1989 by Black feminist legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw. Crenshaw pointed out that when we talk about “women” as a category, we tend to mean “white women” and when we talk about Black people as a category, we tend to mean “Black men.” There’s no space for Black women unless we think about race and gender together, and the ways they interact.

 

What does this have to do with archaeology’s diversity problem? Well, all those gender equity publications from the 1990s did exactly what Crenshaw warned against: they looked at gender as something separate from race. They divided archaeologists neatly into men and women, ignoring people of other genders and conflating the experiences of all women, even though women aren’t all the same. As feminist writer Flavia Dzodan declared to the internet in 2011, “my feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit.” It isn’t enough to study women and men: in order to understand how oppression actually works, we must look holistically at its many forms and their interactions.

 

So, who does archaeology now? Are our gender numbers getting better over recent decades? And what happens when we look at how race and sexuality intersect with gender? I launched my dissertation research with a survey. I created a database of every article published in three journals (American Antiquity, Latin American Antiquity, and Advances in Archaeological Practice) over the past ten years. I went looking for email addresses for all those people and sent out my survey to 1336 archaeologists. The survey was simple. It asked for respondents’ names, genders, races, sexual orientations, and nationalities. Each question had many possible responses, and the archaeologists could check off multiple options or write in their own answers. Within a week, 25% had responded (a very high response rate for a survey!).

           

The gender numbers did look better than Joan Gero’s from the 1980s. She had found that in 1979-1980, 26% of American Antiquity authors were women. I found that in 2007-2016, 38% of the journal authors were women, a definite improvement. But when I looked at the intersection between race and gender, the picture was less happy. You see, the vast majority of those women were white. The majority of authors were white men, followed by white women. Men of color trailed behind, and women of color even further behind them. Archaeology had improved its gender balance by helping white women, not by welcoming all kinds of women into the discipline.

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When I weighted the data by number of publications by each author, the picture got even more dire. 55% of the publications were by straight white men. 26% were by straight white women. That left only 19% for all the queer people, people of color, and queer people of color combined. Non-straight people and/or non-white people make up much more than 19% of America, so why do we only create 19% of the archaeology publications of the last decade?

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I’m still working on the whys and hows. What I do know is that archaeology has a big problem with gender, and race, and sexuality. And it’s especially bad for people who are marginalized in more than one of these ways. It’s hardly surprising: just look back at your google image search results.

 

Next time you see some headline about a new hominid fossil, or evidence for extremely early people living in the Americas, or a new discovery about an Egyptian Pharaoh, I want you to ask yourself some questions. Who did this archaeology? Did they have a hairy chest or a hairy chin? Or were they one of the many marginalized people doing archaeology despite harassment and oppression and lack of opportunities? I hope that will help you appreciate their contribution to our knowledge of the human past even more.

DRAFT: This module has unpublished changes.