Modern Women in Archaeology: Views from 2021

International Women’s Day has been celebrated on the 8th of March each year, since the first gathering was held in 1911. The theme for 2021 is #ChooseToChallenge. The day is used to promote equality and illuminate women’s achievements in many different fields.

Last year ULAS took a look at two pioneering female archaeologists who were active in the early 20th century, Margaret Murray and Harriet Boyd Hawes, illustrating that women have always played an important part in archaeology, even though often over-shadowed by their male colleagues. For 2021, we have moved forward in time to tap into the experiences of several contemporary female archaeologists, who share the highs and lows of their career with us. ULAS Project Officer Jen Browning reports:

Since the 1980’s, archaeological fieldwork in the UK has shifted from ‘rescue’ excavations towards becoming firmly embedded in the planning system. So, effectively archaeology has become a necessity for many projects, increasing the number of working archaeologists dramatically. This has taken place alongside the development of game-changing new techniques (e.g. ancient DNA and isotopic analysis) and technological developments in survey, photography and (not least) communications.

Numerically, the proportion of women in the archaeological workforce has been steadily advancing too. In 1990, 35% of archaeologists were female, by 2012-3 this had risen to 46% and all the indications are that it hasn’t stopped there! It’s been said that the future of archaeology is female.

But has there been a corresponding transformation in attitudes? What has archaeology really been like for women in the last few decades?

To find out, we’ve interviewed a few willing participants, all of whom have witnessed these changes first hand.

Our panellists are (in no particular order):

Vicki Score, Director, University of Leicester Archaeological Services (ULAS)
Alison Telfer, Project Officer, Museum of London Archaeology (MoLA)
Alison Telfer, Project Officer, Museum of London Archaeology (MoLA)
Heather Knight, Senior Archaeologist, Museum of London Archaeology (MoLA)
Heather Knight, Senior Archaeologist, Museum of London Archaeology (MoLA)
Deirdre O’Sullivan, Lecturer in Archaeology, School of Archaeology and Ancient History (SAAH), University of Leicester
Deirdre O’Sullivan, Lecturer in Archaeology, School of Archaeology and Ancient History (SAAH), University of Leicester

We hope you’ll agree that their answers make fascinating reading. They are refreshingly honest about the disagreeable elements of the job, but what really shines out is their dedication and the true pleasure archaeology has brought to their lives.

Read on. Be inspired.  And (to quote Deirdre) Live the Joy!

Happy International Women’s Day to all!

What first attracted you to archaeology and how did you get into it?

Alison: I always enjoyed history when I was at school. My older brother had gone off to university and the guy living next to him in his hall of residence was studying Egyptology – he happened to know of a Glasgow University excavation that was taking place fairly near where I lived in Edinburgh. My Dad (also interested and always supportive) encouraged me to go along, so I volunteered for three weeks in the summer holidays when I was 17.

Vicki: I did some volunteering during the school holidays at Blists Hill Victorian Town, and they had an archaeological dig there.  I asked if I could help out and was instantly hooked – trowelling the soil to find things that I could piece together to recreate stories of the past combined with spending my time outside really appealed to me.  Of course, back then I had no idea that it was something I could do as a career and I went to University with clear intentions of becoming a history teacher.  However, I chose Cardiff University specifically because it allowed me to do archaeology alongside history in my 1st year and in 6 months I had changed to a straight archaeology degree! 

Heather: I can’t remember a time when I didn’t want to be an archaeologist. As a child I would dig random holes in my parent’s garden, and the curiosity of finding pottery as a 6-year-old and that excitement of forming a tangible connection to the past has never left me.   

Deirdre: As a child I quite liked playing in mud in the back garden…

Tell us about your first archaeological job.

Alison: My first proper contract was with Passmore Edwards Museum in East London; that was for three months from the end of 1988. I told my friends in Sheffield I would be back when the contract was up: that was 33 years ago. The two women who ran that unit – Patricia Wilkinson and Pamela Greenwood – interviewed me for the job of ‘site assistant’. The challenges they faced as women working in archaeology in the 1960s and 1970s helped to pave the way for us and we owe them and their peers a great deal.

Vicki: I spent a year hand digging trenches in the Peak District.  We lived in tents and it was mostly very wet and cold and we found next to no archaeology, but I loved it, especially the camaraderie of a small team working together in often challenging conditions.  I remember thinking at the time that I needed to enjoy it as much as I could before I had to get a ‘proper’ job.    

Heather: The first time I properly picked up a trowel was in the summer of 1985 on the banks of the Thames at Runnymede in Surrey. The Runnymede Bridge site had been partially excavated in the 1970s during the construction of a new bridge for the M25 and later the British Museum carried out a research excavation between 1984 and 1989. I joined a team of paid volunteers. I had no idea what I was doing but I knew that this was what I wanted to do and returned during the summers of 1986 and 1987. I then by chance got a job with Trust for Wessex Archaeology, which was my first full time job in archaeology.   

Deirdre: Well, I suppose that depends on what you call a job….

My first ‘paid’ employment was as a volunteer in the dusty basement of Bristol City Museum, cataloguing books.  There was lots of really old stuff – antiquarian works, but also lots of memoirs from organisations like the Egypt Exploration Society. We got fumigated at one point.  I loved Bristol – it was a very happy interlude.

 My first experience of fieldwork was as a volunteer at Chalton Down, then being excavated by Peter Addyman.  It was a bit life-changing – I had never done serious manual labour in my life before and certainly never for a whole day!  But I found I really enjoyed the work once the initial shock to the body had worn away.  Living conditions were a bit austere – slept in a recently vacated cowshed, next to a hay barn that went up in flames in the middle of the night – another kind of shock to the system.   My next excavation outing was into the snow in North Mayo a few months later in search of pre-bog walls, where the wind came in straight from Greenland.  Always memorable experiences for a gal from Dublin 4…

What are the most significant changes you have noticed over the course of your archaeological career?

Alison: I would say we have about half the time on site that we had when I started out, and due to the introduction of PPG16 regulations, we have worked alongside other contractors since the 1990s. As our time has reduced, the challenges of co-ordinating tasks with other workers on building sites have only increased. Images of women wearing hard hats appear regularly on the hoarding around the outside of sites, but there are still very few actually working inside. Occasionally I meet engineers and surveyors and recently I did work with a female project manager. Archaeology teams are quite different, with numerous female supervisors, surveyors, geoarchaeologists, osteologists and project managers (not forgetting our fabulous photographer) and typically about half of the diggers are women too. We normally work on demolition sites, often in the basement as the building above us is being brought down systematically.

Although regulations (and PPE!) have changed to be more inclusive to women, and it’s not unusual to still be allocated a toilet to get changed in. What has changed is my attitude though. Being older doesn’t stop either patronising attitudes or ‘over-familiarity’ from male contractors, but these days I do feel happily unfazed about standing up to any inappropriate behaviour. I have succeeded in getting individuals removed from site before now for hassling female members of my team. If you don’t say anything, nothing happens.

Vicki: While pay is still not great it is a lot better now than when I first started in the 1990s.  I left a low-paid admin job in Nottingham to become an archaeologist on even lower pay!  Health and Safety is a great deal better as well.  When I started, I spent a lot of time in quarries often on my own and of course there were no mobile phones then – that wouldn’t be allowed today.  There is a much greater interest in archaeology in general as well – a lot of that is to do with TV programmes such as Time Team, but also as community archaeology has taken off more and more people are realising that they can be involved in archaeology in their local area.

Heather: I began my career when archaeology wasn’t part of the planning process. The big change came in with the introduction of PPG16. In 1989, the public outcry at the imminent destruction of the Rose playhouse in Southwark was the catalyst for the legitimisation of archaeology in the development process which resulted in government introducing PPG16 in November 1990. Since then, archaeology has become more imbedded within the development process and the construction industry.   

Deirdre: There have been loads, the following spring to mind:

-The shift from volunteer to paid archaeological fieldwork across Europe and North America.

-The impact of digital technologies on the realisation and dissemination of archaeological knowledge

-The huge growth of interest in human osteology by archaeologists, and the interesting results that it is producing.  Not my personal field, but a very interesting one.

-The growth of post-medieval archaeology, which was pretty invisible when I started out. It is still rather poorly represented within the academic establishment on this side of the Atlantic, but there are quite a lot of opportunities in the workplace, and it feeds into ideas about a sense of place that have lots of resonance with a wider public.

Do you think that your career experience has been different to that of your male colleagues, and if so, how?

Alison: Some aspects are the same, some are better, and some are worse. The construction industry is so massively male-dominated and, more often than not, you are treated as though you have never set foot on a building site before (whether you are female or male). Being around for a while means that you work occasionally with the same companies, so some contractors do get to know you. Unfortunately, I have probably experienced some form of sexism on every site I have ever worked on – as recently as 2006 a group of workmen bizarrely put a topless ‘page 3’ photo on the wall of the site canteen after my all-female team started on site, and just a few months ago, a demolition project manager stood, deliberately, between me and the JCB and attempted to direct the driver to remove deposits down to the archaeology. To his credit, the driver ignored him and took my direction instead. The workmen who are welcoming, genuine and funny significantly outnumber those who aren’t, and I have met some exceptional people over the years.

My male peers can also have a hard time being taken seriously, however, and are often viewed as perhaps being a bit less ‘manly’ than other site workers by doing a job viewed as ‘intellectual’ or ineffectual. On the other hand, this attitude can translate into chivalry towards a female archaeologist, and I do wonder if I sometimes have an easier time – some contractors may be more willing to help you out if you’re a woman.

Vicki: When I became a supervisor it was really common for people to walk straight past me on site to talk to my male colleagues and especially on construction and quarry sites, I felt I had to prove myself by working extra hard and in all kinds of weather before those in charge (all men) would actually listen to what I had to say.  It was also very common to get a lot of sexist banter from contractors.  At the time it was just something you had to deal with, and I put up with a lot then that I wouldn’t find acceptable now.  It is much better now and there seem to be a lot more women involved in management of construction and associated disciplines. 

Heather: On site, my experience has been, and continues to be different, for instance welfare facilities for women are still generally not as good as for my male colleagues, especially on smaller projects. However, having caring responsibilities for young children and elderly parents is a challenge for everyone.   

Deirdre: I’m not sure about this – I think I’ve been pretty lucky to have a job that for the most part I have hugely enjoyed.

What is the most useful advice you’ve been given and how has it helped you?

Alison: My excellent colleague, Lesley Dunwoodie, once said ‘what you’ve got to remember is that it’s just archaeology’. She didn’t say that because she doesn’t value it, but because she really values the people digging it. Commercial archaeologists frequently deal with changes to the work programme on site (delays to other areas of the site simply mean that your time is cut), and occasionally areas are machined out when you are not present. What Lesley meant was that problems will always arise that are out of your control and that all you can do is your best. I remember that every time the goal posts change.

Vicki: When I was at University, still doing archaeology as a side-line to becoming a teacher, I was telling one of my lecturers how much I loved digging and he asked me why I would consider giving up something I loved, to do something else for the next 40 years or so.  It really made me think about what I wanted from my career and that enjoying what I did every working day was actually far more important to me than anything else.  It has been very tough at times, but I consider myself very lucky to have been able to do something I love as a career. 

Heather: Way back in the summer of 1986 I was talking with one of the supervisors on the Runnymede Bridge excavation and he gave me advice that unfortunately in part is still relevant 35 years later. He said I had to think very carefully if I wanted to pursue a career in archaeology. He pointed out that the job is badly paid, the sun is not always going to shine, the nature of short-term contracts meant it was unlikely I would be able to settle in one place, it would have enormous effects on my personal life and having a family was going to be virtually impossible – but if I was prepared to take it on, knowing all of that, then I would have the best job in the world.    

Thinking back, I can say that I am fortunate in that some things have changed. I’ve been employed by the same company for the past 25 years, I have made lifelong friends and have a lovely family but on cold wet winter days I remember that conversation, and although we can’t do anything about the weather, surely we can do something about the pay?   

Deirdre: Good question but a bad answer – I’ve probably ignored a lot of good advice! 

What has being an archaeologist brought to your life?

Alison: Being an archaeologist fills me up; it’s actually quite hard to describe how much I care about it. Maybe because, as a commercial digger, your entire career is based around the idea of ‘saving’ something before it is destroyed, which cultivates a strong motivation to record it to the best of your ability. It’s a vocation, so it’s full of fantastic colleagues for whom it means a great deal too. I appreciate – endlessly – being able to see the remains of ancient buildings or waterfronts or burial grounds, landscapes in time. I will never tire of the feeling you get when you find something that belonged to someone in the past.

There is a bigger picture of course, something as a supervisor that I am lucky to experience – alongside dedicated colleagues, I also get to work with a multitude of other people: machine drivers, dumper truck drivers, scaffolders, pilers, crane drivers, traffic marshalls, site managers, clients, local authority monitors, curators, site neighbours and, of course, the public. I can’t think of many professions that have so many avenues of interest AND that let you work outdoors. I have also been incredibly lucky with opportunities that the job has brought, working at various times in India, Romania, central Rome and Sutton Hoo in Suffolk. The physical side to digging is also enormously important – something I miss in a ridiculous way if I’m running a large site. Archaeologists aren’t well paid though of course – the traffic marshalls earns more than I do – which I think is also why we form a pretty tight-knit group.

Vicki: I love problem solving. Every site is different and archaeologists face challenges they have to deal with every day and I think that has translated into having a very positive ‘can do’ attitude in general.  Being involved in community archaeology has also allowed me to share my passion for archaeology with a very diverse group of people.  I love the sense of being part of a wider community – whether professional or amateur if you gather a group of archaeologists together, they will all happily discuss archaeology whatever their differences.

Heather: Lots of interesting people have come into my life as a result of being an archaeologist; the colleagues I work with are brilliant folk, as are people from other disciplines who are so willing to share knowledge. Leading the excavations of the Theatre, the Curtain and the Boar’s Head, three of London’s Elizabethan theatres, continues to open up exciting new avenues of collaborative working and research with generous scholars and practitioners from the world of theatre history.   

Deirdre: Great fun, good company for the most part, a sense of the collective, the joy of discovery, and a huge return on travel to places far and near, where even a little knowledge adds enormously to the experience of being in another place.  Some things I have found particularly rewarding – working on the R3 MOOC for example with a great team of colleagues – on the first run I regularly hopped out of bed before first light to log on to see how it was going down in Australia.

Who has influenced or inspired you the most, and why?

Alison: Aside from Pat and Pamela from Passmore Edwards Museum, there are numerous people who have made a great impression on me over the years and to whom I am grateful for their advice or encouragement. One of them is my friend Shahina Farid, who was the field director at the Neolithic site of Çatalhöyük in Turkey for many years, but with whom I worked in London before that. She is a true all-rounder – an excellent archaeologist, but also clever, patient and funny: the ideal combination for a good supervisor. My friend and colleague Sadie Watson is someone whose opinion I also value greatly and who has helped to make my working life better.

Heather: I have learnt, and continue to learn, from so many people that is an impossible question to answer.  

Deirdre: I was supervised by Rosemary Cramp for my M Phil thesis, which was very inspirational, and she has remained a significant force for me for many years, even though I don’t see her very often.  But many of the people who have inspired me are outside my work.  I have been involved with our trade union, UCU for many years and have particular respect, for example, for the ways in which the core staff in Regional Office manage to keep everyone’s eyes on the prize with clarity and good nature. An interesting contrast with quite a lot of ‘management’ style that I have seen elsewhere along the way.

What do you think the future holds for archaeology?

Alison: To be honest, I feel pretty despondent these days about the future of the profession. It’s the same with many other sectors across Britain though – a move towards a more corporate format, with consultants leading the way. I would like to see much higher wages for the people who actually dig the stuff up. Excavators tend to be viewed as relatively low-skilled labour, while people who carry out off-site jobs are generally known as specialists. I’ve never understood why such a difference exists though. To be any good as a field archaeologist, you really need to understand what you’re looking at in the ground.

Heather: I’m always an optimist and think archaeology has a bright future but I also think more could be made of many of our archaeological and built heritage assets than is at present, and in more creative ways especially through collaborative projects with other disciplines.  Over the last decade I’ve seen first-hand how archaeology can sit within a project, not as a hindrance to be remediated as quickly and cheaply as possible, but something to be valued for its uniqueness and its authenticity and celebrated for its ability to connect communities and shape the places in which we live. More importantly though, I see archaeology as having a bright future because I see lots of young talented archaeologists making their way in the world and I know the future is safe in their hands.  

Deirdre: I think the status games about what is ‘important’ will probably continue, but I would love it if archaeologists became a bit less status conscious and defensive about the ‘importance’ of what they do, and a bit less prone to hype up their interpretations along the lines of ‘this changes everything’ at every opportunity.  Maybe try out some more logical, and less uncritical celebration of their labours…..and live the joy a bit more.

Further Reading

Aitchison, K. 1999 Profiling the Profession: a survey of archaeological jobs in the UK. London and Reading: Council of British Archaeology, English Heritage and Institute of Field Archaeologists

Aitchison, K and Rocks-Macqueen, D 2013 Archaeology Labour Market Intelligence: Profiling the Profession 2012–13. Sheffield: Landward Research

Hamilton, S. 2014 Under-representation in Contemporary Archaeology. Papers from the Institute of Archaeology, 24 (1): 24, pp1-9 24(1): 24, pp. 1-9

Morris, E.  1992 Women in British Archaeology. Institute of Field Archaeologists Occasional Paper 4. Birmingham: Institute of Field Archaeologists

Jen Browning, Project Office, University of Leicester Archaeological Services (ULAS)
Hello!  Jen here. I’m a Project Officer at the University of Leicester Archaeological Services (ULAS). I follow a slightly unusual career path, even for archaeology, as I’ve never been able to choose between my twin interests of excavation and zooarchaeology. I love the simple joy of digging, the feel of the soil and the anticipation of unearthing something lost or discarded by others long ago, as well as trying to find the best way to get the most out of the archaeology you have on a site.  I am equally fascinated by animal bones, their shapes, functions and uses and trying to interpret the actions that have produced a particular group of bones. Archaeology endlessly challenges you to tease out meaning from disparate strands of information, to use enough imagination to create a picture, without straying far beyond the evidence. And the more you learn, the more you realise how little you know… (not necessarily a bad thing!).

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