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  • Writer's pictureMatilda Siebrecht

Archaeology: Women and Girls in Science

Today is the International Day for Women and Girls in Science. Which inevitably led me to ponder two questions:

  1. Is archaeology a science?

  2. What is the current status of women and girls in archaeology?

Archaeology as a Science

For many people, archaeology is not a science, especially as it is often classified under the overarching description of "humanities" subjects. However, although it shares many of its theoretical frameworks and interpretative approaches with subjects such as history, social anthropology, and art history, it also shares many analytical techniques and physical methodologies with subjects such as a chemistry and geology.

What do I know?

For me, archaeology has always been a science. During my undergraduate degree at the University of Aberdeen, the archaeology department was structured within the faculty of geosciences, and many of my courses focused on scientific analysis and techniques. During my postgraduate degree at Leiden University, my masters was literally in "Archaeological Science", and we had to demonstrate how to apply analytical techniques and methodologies from chemistry and physics to our archaeological research. During my PhD, I used microscopic analysis and scientific experimentation as the core of my research methodology. For me then, there is no question that archaeology is most definitely a science.

However, one of the great strengths of archaeology is the variety of research approaches you can use, and the wide overlap within it of both humanities and science: Combining objective, forensic evidence iwith subjective, theoretical interpretation. Interdisciplinarity has always been a key part of archaeological research, even since the very start of the discipline, and has led to a lot of interesting developments in just how much we can investigate into and say about past human cultures. For example, I am currently reading Kindred by Rebecca Wragg Sykes as part of the Archaeo Book Club February theme of "Human Origins", which details our current understanding of how Neanderthals lived in the past. So much of this understanding relates to scientific analytical techniques, but equally to ethnographic histories and social observations of historic and modern hunter-gatherer societies. It is only by combining both of these theoretical and methodological branches of archaeology that research projects can reach their true potential.

What does everyone else say?

Of course, not everyone agrees. Many in the hard sciences claim that those projects professing to be based in archaeological science show a limited understanding of the true complexity of the methods used and data obtained. It is true that archaeologists have often misinterpreted - either accidentally or on purpose - the scientific data that it is presented in their research, leading to inaccurate and potentially misleading understandings of the past. There is also prejudice within the discipline of archaeology itself. Some researchers who are situated further towards the humanities end of the spectrum claim that those projects presenting scientific evidence are too confusing, and so refuse to try and understand or else simply ignore the research results. On the other hand, those situated further towards the scientific end of the scale claim that more theoretical studies are not based in objective fact and can therefore not be taken seriously. (An interesting discussion on this point is presented in a paper from Kerstin Lidén and Guilla Eriksson, especially as the authors are both from the department of archaeology and classical studies, which suggests that there must be some conflicts and discussions related to this topic within the department itself to lend experience to their discussion!)

Archaeologists who are reading this are probably thinking that many of these issues relate to that renowned divide in archaeological theory - processual versus post-processual archaeology. For those of you who have no idea what I'm talking about, there are plenty of overviews of these terms in textbooks and papers (see the references section at the end of this post for some examples) but I do happen to have created some handy videos explaining each in one minute:

Of course these are very simple overviews (and I mean very simplified!) so if you're interested in learning more about this please do check out the further readings. But basically, there was a wave of processual archaeological research which were more science-based, followed by a wave that was a lot more humanities-based. And the problem is that it's quite difficult to combine those two approaches together in a single research project.

So how does this answer the original question? I would say still that yes, archaeology as a whole is a science, but there is a definite scale of science-ness within the discipline. It is therefore extremely variable, and you may have to separate papers written by two researchers who describe themselves as archaeologists, yet may approach how they interpret the past in completely different ways.

Women and Girls in Archaeology

To do it full justice, I would have to dedicate a whole other blog post to the subject of women in archaeology, but I still want to mention it here because after all it does fit with today's international theme.

How was it in the past?

As with most research fields, the early decades of archaeology were dominated by men, and this definitely had an impact on how certain cultures and finds from the past were viewed and interpreted. (For example, the assumption that any Bronze Age burial from Europe that included a sword or other kind of weapon had to be a "chieftain" or "warrior" and was definitely male - an assumption which has since been proved wrong in multiple counts thanks to the use of DNA studies to ascertain biological sex some of these individuals.) Concepts like childhood and gender were rarely considered, and the focus was instead often on empires and great battles.

However, there were in fact many pioneering female archaeologists. They have simply been overlooked in the history of the subject, again as in so many other research areas. The Trowel Blazers project does a great job of highlighting these forgotten names, and the essential research that they conducted.

How is it now?

In several different studies conducted in relation to published archaeological papers, as well as to commercial archaeology in both the US and the UK, the field of archaeology in the modern day actually has a higher percentage of those identifying as female. However, if you look at higher level positions, like academic professors or excavation leaders, the percentage is significantly lower. As with many other areas of life, this probably has to do with the general influence of social pressures regarding family life. Especially in a topic like archaeology, where fieldwork is an important part of progression in the field (pun intended), those women who chose to have children often find themselves with an ultimatum.

I hope that this is improving. I have taken both of my daughters on fieldwork and to academic conferences, and in all cases was only ever met with approval and positive responses. I also had extremely understanding colleagues, which definitely made my decisions much less polarising. Hopefully then, as the archaeological community become more progressive in their ideas concerning family presence in a professional setting, women will feel less pressure to choose over the other, and the equality percentage will improve higher up too. For now, I still try to encourage as many girls as possible to pursue their dreams of archaeology, and especially archaeological science.

What do you think about the role of science in archaeology, or the current situation in relation to women and girls in archaeology? Feel free to write in the comments below, write your thoughts in the discord server, or send me a message through the contact form. I'd love to hear from you!

References and Further Reading

Paper on "Archaeology vs Archaeological Science: Do we have a case?" (2013) by Kerstin Lidén and Gunilla Eriksson.

Paper on "Processual, Post-processual, and Interpretive archaeology" (2013) by Michael Shanks and Ian Hodder.

Paper on "Women in Antiquity: An Analysis of Gender and Publishing in a Global Archaeology

Journal" (2023) by E. Hanscam and R. Witcher.

Page on "Archaeologist demographics in the United States"

Page on "Genders of Archaeologists [in the UK]"

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