Women in Archaeology

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By: Dr. Nancy Serwint, Associate Professor, Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts Arizona State University

I have always thought that the sandbox of archaeology was big enough for lots of us to play in, and I guess, for the most part, I was never that observant to actually see who was doing the playing.  Having grown up with the ethic that hard work paid off, that’s the standard I’ve always adhered to and just assumed others did as well.   I’ve been blessed in that my most important role models in my educational life have been women, and it was they whom I wanted to emulate.  It was my high school Latin teacher, Harriet Ekholm, who was the initial, vital inspiration, and she was followed by the intrepid Ann Perkins at the University of Illinois, who had worked at Dura Europos.  While at the University of Chicago, working on my Master’s degree, I was most fortunate to study with Kathleen Shelton.  The rigors of Princeton for the doctorate were eased by the friendship and camaraderie of smart, strong women who were in the classical archaeology program ahead of me:  Margie Miles, Barbara Tsakirgis, and Laetitia La Follette.  Thinking back over those long years of study, there truly wasn’t any time to do anything but put in extended hours in the library, and the discipline and focus that were required to pass exams and complete the dissertation formed the structure that would be the basis of my professional life in the field of archaeology.

Fellowships allowed me the incredible opportunity of studying at the American School of Classical Studies in Athens, first as a regular member and then as an associate member for two additional years.  It was there that I encountered what I now consider rather trivial sexism, the memory of which is both endearing and warm.  The Mellon Professor my year was the indomitable Fred Cooper, and Fred just didn’t believe in wasting time on field trips taking bathroom breaks.  Easy enough for the men in our group who could relieve themselves on the fly.  My fellow female troopers and I had to look for rocks or trees or shrubs – not readily available when visiting quarries or archaeological sites – and then scramble to catch up with the group.  To this day, I curtail liquid intake before any trip I take.

I remember distinctly a conversation I had once with Betsy Gebhard from the University of Chicago who was serving as the Annual Professor at the American School in Athens during one of the years I was in residence.  We were having a frank heart-to-heart, and I suspect I was feeling a little bit down because of the usual graduate student insecurities made worse, at the time, because of the favoritism that was given to men in the classical archaeology program at Princeton.  Betsy gave me the best advice I could have ever received, and I took it to heart, so much so that I offer it on occasion to my own students:  “Don’t waste your time getting angry about something you can’t change.  Use your time productively and be very good at what you do.”  That advice put me in good stead many times since, and I have always wanted to be competent rather than strident.

Cyprus American Archaeological Research Institute.

Excavation opportunities came my way and the experience of working at Morgantina in Sicily, several seasons in the Athenian Agora, and a season at ancient Corinth were incredibly formative.  In 1983 when Princeton University began working in Cyprus at Polis Chrysochous, I was part of the initial team and continued on with the project throughout its 31-year duration exploring the ancient cities of Marion and Arsinoe.  As assistant director working with William Childs who directed the project, the responsibilities of helping supervise a major excavation and keep everything on track were ones that I reveled in, and ten-week long seasons always ended too early for me.

A healthy ambition is a very good thing, and when the opportunity arose to apply for the position of director of the Cyprus American Archaeological Research Institute (CAARI) upon the retirement of Stuart Swiny, I jumped at the chance.  By then I had already been working in Cyprus for twelve years and had made firm friendships with other archaeologists on the island, was well acquainted with personnel within the Department of Antiquities, and was considered a member of the family of our excavation foreman, Alexandros Koupparis.  Taking an extended leave from my teaching position at Arizona State University, it was an easy transition to move to Nicosia and assume residence on the island I knew and loved so well.  Not so easy was filling the shoes of Stuart Swiny who had ably directed CAARI for fifteen years, and my own knowledge of and respect for the institute was due to Stuart’s very capable leadership.  Most fortunate for me, Vathoulla Moustoukki, CAARI’s phenomenal executive assistant, and Diana Constantinides, the institute’s librarian, and I forged exceptionally close working relationships that deepened into cherished friendships, so administering CAARI was greatly eased by working with women whom I admired and trusted.

It never occurred to me that when assuming responsibility of CAARI in Cyprus that I might have a harder time of it because I was a woman.  Again, the old adage kicked in, “Just work hard,“ and I must say that this was a job that I tackled head on, never having worked harder on anything previously, including getting tenure.  The learning curve wasn’t necessarily steep, but it kept me busy, and immersing myself into the world of accounting, the Nicosia business sphere, and the political realities of a divided island were all very much required for me to do my job well.  Interactions with the Department of Antiquities were exceptionally cordial, and although the tenure of a female director of the Department was still in the future, my collaborations with the well-established men in the antiquities service were based on mutual respect, and that counted for much.  CAARI benefited enormously from all sorts of assistance from the United States Embassy and the American Center in Nicosia, and joint programming with the Fulbright Office was a boon.  More immediate challenges reared in the form of necessary upgrades to the building, and I learned quickly about the difficulties of negotiating rewiring electrical current.  The severe drought that struck Cyprus meant extensive water rationing, and rather than limping along on austere water cuts, I purchased industrial-sized water storage tanks for the institute.  All well and good, but the tanks could only be replenished when the water was available, which meant that I would fill the tanks by hose at 4:30 am on the three days a week when we had water.  There was a certain loveliness to being up at that time, and I was determined not to let the beautiful garden suffer and took advantage of the water availability to give the trees and plants a good soaking in the pre-dawn darkness.   Many times I was not the only creature up at that hour, and I remember none too happily the time when the CAARI attic was inhabited by rats.  Screaming rats in traps tend to wake up residents and neighbors….so, immersing occupied traps in barrels of water was not outside my job description.

By now, we’ve all become so used to the Internet that it’s hard to imagine life without it.  But when I arrived at CAARI, my first priority was to make sure that the institute had Internet capabilities, and from 1995 onwards, our services changed dramatically.  Now scholars could conduct research online; a new CAARI website was launched; there were plans to make our library holdings available on the web; and communications with our Nicosia home and trustees and colleagues around the world was considerably eased.   Seriously following the charge to have a balanced budget for the institute, I took the advice of CAARI’s treasurer, Jerry Vincent, to heart who told me, “If you want to raise money, just ask people.”  So ask people I did.  Perhaps, in retrospect I was a little naïve about whom I should appropriately ask, but I did shake the trees high and low, and I am proud to say that CAARI stayed in the black during my time as director.  We launched a line of CAARI-themed goods that visitors and students could easily afford, and supporting the institute financially became a rallying cry for many CAARI users.  The institute was fortunate to be in near proximity to important educational and cultural entities, and it was a pleasure to forge even closer links to solidify joint programming and common aims with the Archaeological Research Unit of the University of Cyprus, the Bank of Cyprus Cultural Foundation, and the Center for Cultural Heritage.  Intent on reaching a broader community interest base, fieldtrips included archaeological sites but also potteries and cultural excursions like a night at the Kourion theater and a picrolite hunt in the Kouris river valley.

Engendering Aphrodite: Women and Society in Ancient Cyprus.

One of the more ambitious undertakings that CAARI embarked on was the international conference “Engendering Aphrodite:  Women and Society in Ancient Cyprus,” which I co-organized with colleague and friend Diane Bolger.  The conference focused on issues of gender, not only as manifested in the archaeological record in Cyprus but also in archaeological practice.  With a chronological sweep that extended from the Neolithic period to the modern, the conference was groundbreaking in that this was the first time that scholars had ever been invited to come together and collaborate on topics that concerned the roles that women had played within the gamut of Cypriot culture.  The response to the call for papers was exceptional with an international cadre of scholars offering unique perspectives throughout the five-day duration of the conference in March of 1998.  The conference papers, edited by Diane and myself, were published by ASOR in the American Schools of Oriental Research Archaeological Reports Series, and Engendering Aphrodite is regularly cited for its scholarly contributions.

It was with a great deal of sadness that I returned back to the States in 1999 and left my position at CAARI.  If circumstances had allowed, I would have happily stayed on, but universities don’t hold open tenured faculty posts forever.  Acclimating to classroom teaching took some time as did getting used to the American perspective of the world, and I sorely missed the life I had carved out for myself in Nicosia and the personal ties in the village of Polis that were both tender and strong as steel.  Looking back on those years as CAARI director – well, they were some of the best years of my life.  And the gift of it all is that it hasn’t ended.  I remain on the CAARI Board of Trustees, and I return to Cyprus every summer to continue work on the publication of excavated material from ancient Marion.  Yes….hard work does pay off.


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1 Comments for : Women in Archaeology
    • April 15

    Thank you, Nancy, for your thoughtful and insightful article. Of course, I most enjoyed your reflections on CAARI and Cyprus. I much appreciate all you have done and are doing for CAARI and archaeology in Cyprus.