Queering Archaeological Practice

In the close of my last post, I mentioned that queer archaeology is something that we do. Queer is a verb more so than a noun or an adjective; queering is meaningful action – and it is only by doing queer archaeology that we can make significant impact on the present. However, it is the moment when queer stops being an adjective to describe our theory, and starts being a verb that describes our actions, that things are often stalled. It is relatively simple to sit in our offices and wax philosophical about performativity, intersectionality, inclusivity – but its is much more challenging to put queer into practice. In this post, I hope to provide some resources and suggestions about how to queer our work. I have divided these into three steps – Teaching & Training, Field & Laboratory Practices, and Dissemination. I do not intend this to be the “be all, end all”, and I welcome any additional suggestions or comments.

I also would like to note that, as will hopefully soon be clear, I am not advocating for a complete overhaul of archaeological and scientific methods and procedure.  In fact, most of the methodologies archaeologists employ produce important, verifiable data.  These methods have been rigorously tested and reviewed.  What I am arguing is that archaeologists need to change the values they place on certain methods and aspects of archaeological research.  Every step of the research process is a site of power relations and identity politics that impacts the objectivity and accuracy of archaeological data.  Queering archaeology is not about dismantling science, but exposing where inherent normative assumptions diminish the power of science.

For additional information about mentorship and support for queer archaeologists, visit the Queer Archaeology Interest Group of the Society for American Archaeology.

Step #1: Teaching & Training

Queering archaeology starts with how we teach and train new archaeologists. An inclusive, queer archaeology can only be attained if we have a diverse group of people exploring, theorizing, and interpreting the past. Archaeology, as a scholarly discipline, hemorrhages talented students who bring a diversity of experiences and an infinite number of lenses through which to see the archaeological record. Archaeology loses these students because undergraduate archaeology problems often do not create spaces that make queer students feel comfortable and/or value the ideas of queer students. This can happen in the classroom – most undergraduate discussions of gender are of the “add gender and stir” variety and I haven’t sat in a kinship lecture that was not heteronormative – however, there is a more salient site of queer discrimination in archaeological training: the field school.

Peyre Blanque Field School - 2015

Peyre Blanque Field School -2015

Most professors in archaeology, at least in my experience, are attentive to the needs of students in the university setting. They lecture about privilege and oppression; they are feminists and support the LGBTQIA community; they assign readings about the unfair treatment of minority groups. Then these same professors get into the field and everything changes. Put a trowel or shovel in their hands, and they forget everything they teach. Field schools become a breeding ground for normative behavior and expectations, and queer students rapidly fall away. As any kind of career in archaeology requires the successful completion of a field school, it is these field school directors who are selecting who can become an archaeologist, and who cannot – and thus they have much more control of the future direction of the field than we often credit.

TCAP Field School (Mercyhurst University)

TCAP Field School (Mercyhurst Unviersity)

How do we establish queer friendly field schools? Rodriguez (2015) provides some suggestions based on her work at the Fort Davis Archaeological Research Project. I am going to focus on two of her points here. First, Rodriguez addresses the often prohibitive cost of field schools. Field schools can cost in the thousands of dollars, a cost that is often expected to be paid in full up front. This is a deterrent against those of less-affluent economic backgrounds, and because economic background and race/ethnicity are often correlated, it deters students from diverse background to participate. Field schools, and thus archaeology more generally, becomes a very white field of the affluent classes. Rodriguez does not include, but I think is important to note, that queer students are also disproportionately likely to be estranged from their families, or to receive less financial support from families. For a nineteen or twenty year old undergraduate, this can turn a field school into a pipe dream. Directors of inclusive field schools will pay particular attention to the costs of attending their field school, and who is able to pay. The second of Rodrigeuz’s arguments I want to address is gendered housing. Most field schools house students based on a male/female binary, without regard to the student’s gender identity or preferred accommodations. Rodriguez suggests that field directors ask students their preferred gender pronouns and roommate preferences, and offer the option of gender-neutral housing.

Step #2: Field & Laboratory Practices

For queer students who can afford to attend, a five or six week field school may be rough, but probably survivable. Archaeology becomes less survivable when queer students graduate and field or laboratory work becomes their full time job. As it stands, archaeological fieldwork is still a domain for cis-gender, heterosexual white men. There are very real gendered and sexual association and expectations for fieldwork. In the field, archaeologists are expected to be hyper-masculine, hard, rugged, strong (Moser 2007) – and sexual. This can have drastic safety consequences in the field (Clancy et al. 2014). Psychologically, it can make people feel uncomfortable, inferior, and fails to develop a sense of belonging.

It is often correctly noted that women are expected to be “one of the guys” or face career consequences. Queer and trans* men are also affected by the toxic masculinity of the field. Queer men, who may not always subscribe to our modern understanding of masculinity, are also expected to be rugged. They are expected to know to work power tools, to be physically strong, and to be “men”.  Any derivation is unacceptable. The culture of the field is inherently masculine and heteronormative and leaves no openings for inherently and explicitly queer space.

As the field is masculine, the lab is feminine. The lab is the place for women, and increasingly a site for queer archaeologists. However, the lab – especially field labs – is also seen as inferior to the field, and archaeologists who prefer lab work are often an underclass. In many ways, field lab archaeologists are queer by nature of being in the lab. Thus, while those who do not ascribe to the gendered and sexual expectations of the field may have a place in the lab, the lab continues to be a locus of non-normativity and discrimination.

Archaeologists must work to eliminate the gender expectations and values placed onto field and laboratory settings. This starts with being an ally to queer archaeologists, to recognize privilege, to prevent microaggressions in the field, and to help queer archaeologists without drowning out their voices (Dylla, Ketchum and McDavid 2016). See Blackmore et al. (2016:18-23)  for suggestions on how to make the field a more inclusive space for queer archaeologists.

Step #3: Dissemination

Special Queer issue of World Archaeology (2000)

Special Queer Issue of World Archaeology (2000)

I have already discussed making archaeological training and research more amenable to queer identities; but if we do not allow queer archaeologists to disseminate their research, then everything that has come before is useless. Undergraduate and graduate student advisers should allow their students to take on queer analyses for honors and MA theses and PhD dissertations. Journals need to be more willing to publish explicitly queer articles outside of special, segregated “queer archaeology” issues.  Book editors should do more to ensure queer theory and analyses thrive outside of the introduction to their edited volumes, or as after thoughts or footnotes in the text.  Authors have been good about acknowledging the existence of queer archaeology and summarizing its main points, but they have been less successful in publishing actual queer analyses. Its heartening to see more and more queer works being published, but we also must keep monitoring queer censorship.

This, of course, has been a discussion about academic publishing and dissemination – publishing by archaeologists for archaeologists. However, if archaeology is to be queer, meaningful and impactful, the work of queer archaeologists must also make it to the public, which has its own separate challenges. That will be my topic for next week.


This was only a small smattering of ways that the practice of archaeology itself has been un- and even anti-queer.  What else can we do to ensure a safer and more inclusive archaeology?  Comment below!



References Cited

Clancy, Katherine B.H., Robin G. Nelson, Julienne N. Rutherford, and Katie Hinde
2014  Survey of Academic Field Experiences (SAFE): Trainees Report Harassment and Assault. PLOS One 9(7):e102172.

Dylla, Emily, Sheena A. Ketchum, and Carol McDavid
2016  Listening More and Talking Less: On Being a Good Ally. SAA Archaeological Record 16(1):31-36.

Moser, Stephanie
2007  On Disciplinary Culture: Archaeology as Fieldwork and Its Gendered Associations. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 14:235-263.

Rodriguez, Erin C.
2015  A Multiplicity of Voices: Towards a Queer Field School Pedagogy. Paper presented at the Meeting of the Society for Historical Arcaheology, Seattle.

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