‘I’m not here to cook – I’m here to dig!’ Part One

Said by Sally Binford. This phrase, now on a T-shirt by the wonderful TrowelBlazers! and available to purchase here (https://www.redbubble.com/people/trowelblazers/portfolio/recent) really resonates the female experience for me on digs directly, obliquely and in a rather uncomfortable way too.

Despite close to twenty years of excavation experience, of which I have only missed two years entirely in the field and have had a sequence of rising roles, I am, almost annually, mistaken for the site director’s wife. Basically, there’s only a few senior archaeologists who excavate the British Neolithic, that visitors haven’t assumed I’ve been conjugal with. When asked ‘Are you married to X?’, one needs to have an armoury of phrases to hand. A first instinct might be ‘NO!’, or ‘Are you joking?!’ but clearly, one cannot say that if it’s in front of said man. This is never easy to negotiate as it’s often made in genuine curiosity that stems, I think, from a romantic view of archaeologists.

This romantic view of archaeologists is that they excavate in loving marital teams, like the Binfords or the Leakeys. That the love of the past and the marital love for each other transcends into something bigger in the field. That the chase and imminent pleasure of discovery is part of an archaeological marriage. It makes it exciting and different to the outsider who, when visiting a site, puts together the senior male with the nearest, fairly age appropriate, senior-looking female. I don’t know if any of the men have ever been asked if I am their wife, although I suspect not, because that’s not usually the kind of question men are asked. But having just written that it does make me wonder, and I might ask a few of the ones I know better.

However, in the not too distant past I had cause to visit a senior academic male to pick up some archaeological material. As he was due to be away, he had arranged for someone to give me the key to his office so I could collect it. The key provider (male), on both giving and receiving the key back, was clearly under the impression that I was having some sort of personal relationship with the academic, that again was rather uncomfortable (and quite funny – one would hope that if that were the case he’d have made the effort to be there!).

And of course this continual assumption of my loving nature smacks of the general structural misogyny in archaeology – that both from outside and inside the profession, certainly on research excavations and the academy – the automatic assumption of seeing women is that they’re in the process of fulfilling a domestic and nurturing, rather than intellectual, role.

Due to family commitments, I have retained a peripheral place in archaeology for years but we have some interesting data from our BWA surveys of 2008 and 2016. Women under 40 report instances of sexist behaviour and assumptions in the workplace, but this tails off dramatically as women get older. So women in their 50s and 60s are more likely to report ‘well, that used to happen in the 70s/80s/90s but not any longer’. The truth is, it doesn’t happen when you’re senior. Therefore younger women tend to hear it, and either you keep ploughing through, ignoring it and it eventually ends when you have a senior enough job, or you get tired of it/archaeology/want something different out of your life/more security and consequently leave the profession. So we have fewer senior women in archaeology than we should, given undergraduate numbers have been equal male:female for at least two decades.

So, the good news is, this does stop when you gain enough kudos and everyone knows who you are.

In the meantime, as I prepare for the field again, I’ll review my stock phrases – practice the ‘No – this is MY trench’ emphasis when someone assumes my male assistant supervisor is in charge; and my cold stare for particularly offensive comments. I have been know for the odd expletive too.

Yet – this isn’t the whole story of Sally’s phrase for me……


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