Alan Kaiser, Archaeology, Sexism, and Scandal: The Long-Suppressed Story of One Woman’s Discoveries and the Man Who Stole Credit for Them. New York; London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2014. Pp. xx, 251. ISBN9781442230033. RRP $38.00 (USA)
Alan Kaiser’s book-length exploration of Mary Ross Ellingson’s experience of archaeology and academic dishonesty in the interwar period is exactly the kind of story TrowelBlazers is interested in. Kaiser begins with a narrative of discovery, describing coming across old notes and papers while clearing boxes off of a shelf. This rings very true; and as Kaiser goes on to explain his experience of uncovering and sharing the story of what he found inside, it chimed exactly with TrowelBlazer’s own experience. First you start with some handwritten letters, then a bit of ephemeral paperwork… but the moment that captures the imagination is when you can suddenly see the face of a previously hidden life. Recounting his excitement at seeing photographs in this mysterious archive, Kaiser describes very accurately the feeling we here at TB Towers recognise very well – the start of journey to understand a woman’s experience.
Kaiser describes the moment and aftermath of finding the archive of Mary Ross Ellingson in three sections. It is the first section that will appeal most to historians of archaeology, and to those who are interested in the history of excavation. Ellingson writes with charm and wit to her parents in Edmonton about her experiences on the 1931 Olynthos excavations. Perhaps by virtue of being a practicing archaeologist, Kaiser has managed to use her original letters and a great deal of background research to build a vivid picture of excavation life. Interspersed with Ellingson’s timeless discussion of site food, conditions, and colleagues, however, is a fascinating insight into Greece poised between two disastrous wars. The composite picture of Greece with the last of its nomadic people still traveling on seasonally impassable roads, huge numbers of Anatolian Greeks deposited on stony ground, and other reminders of the tumultuous changes of the period sit fascinatingly alongside intrepid photographers hanging over the edge of a biplane to take aerial views of excavation and tea dances on Salonica (Thessaloniki) hotel terraces. The detail of excavation life as Kaiser tells it is happily not stripped of context, but the time and place carefully reconstructed from both Ellingson’s letters and the archives of other excavators and the larger project.
The second section explores the atmosphere of gendered expectations that Ellingson and her contemporaries lived in. Here Kaiser offers a summation of the role of women in academia during Ellingson’s life, a very useful contextualisation. Ellingson (née Ross) was a student at Johns Hopkins University during the strange interwar intermezzo in America, a period when women’s participation in higher education hit a peak not to be matched for decades after. By using Ellingson and her own recorded experiences as a lens to view the larger experience, Kaiser is able to give a little bit of agency back to the women of the Olynthos dig, and describes convincingly how they might have seen their participation in archaeology. This is in contrast to a more objective, universalising history of ‘women in archaeology’, but by focusing on the academic lives and careers of the women who were involved at Olynthos manages to tease out the individual motivations and compromises associated with each woman’s decisions; whether to marry, pursue a career, or both. It is a very useful snapshot of the rarified world of elite, privileged scholars in a time when the academy was unusually accepting of women and religious minorities (in this case, Jewish). What would have potentially improved this section would be a closer look at the interactions between women themselves; Ellingson worked at Olynthos with a handful of women, and her photographs and letters reflect close relationships (if occasionally fractious). Perhaps it is indicative of the women’s later relationships that we do not learn what each made of the others’ careers or choices, or perhaps the discussions they must have had between themselves are simply not topics covered in their surviving archives. A more in depth analysis of how the women supported, collaborated, or interacted with each other – or, indeed, did not support, collaborate or interact – would be very valuable to understanding the role of social networks in the period.
The third and final section offers the ‘action’ of the book, and while it is genuinely interesting to read Kaiser’s account of uncovering the scandal of the book’s title, there is something dishearteningly predictable about the sexism he ultimately reveals. The volume offers a wealth of information on both the experience of archaeological excavation in Greece in the 1930s and on the experience of women entering academia in that period. Ellingson’s letters and observations are enjoyable enough on their own, but Kaiser has brought considerable scholarship to drawing together the context needed to understand her writing. The book is at its most entertaining when going into ethnographic detail of a young woman’s first dig; and most informative when bringing together the stories of many lives to draw a picture of the academic environment Ellingson would have encountered. While I will admit to being less surprised by the tale of sexism and scandal revealed at the end, it may be that we here at TrowelBlazers have a slightly jaded perspective on the subject.
Review by Brenna