Elizabeth Wayland Barber is an archaeologist, linguist, and folk-dancing expert whose career has been as vibrant and storied as the textiles she studies. Born in 1940 in Pasadena, California, she received a BA in archaeology in 1963, and received her doctorate in linguistics from Yale University in 1968. Her career has focused mainly on the study of textiles and linguistics throughout human evolution, and her website “the Dancing Goddess” (also the title of one of her books) highlights her lifelong fascination with folk music and dance. She is a Professor of Linguistics and Archaeology Emerita at Occidental College, where she has also led the “Oxy Folk and Historical Dance Troupe” since 1971.
She became interested in archaeology at a young age, claiming that she fell in love with it because it allowed her to use information gleaned from various other sciences in an interdisciplinary manner. Her father was a polymath who passed on to her an itch for academic exploration and discovery. When her family moved to France, she was quick to pick up French, sparking another one of her lifelong passions: linguistics. Young Elizabeth was able to explore the many archaeological exhibits on display in museums across Europe, and made a point to always learn at least one or two basic conversational phrases in the countries she visited with her family. It was also during her time in France that she discovered folk costumes, which would inspire her research of textiles. Barber humorously notes that her collection of folk costumes continues to grow at the age of 75.
She combined her love of archaeology and language in her thesis, which was entitled “Computer-aided analysis of undeciphered ancient texts”. After finishing her PhD in 1968, Barber applied for a job at Princeton, where her husband was teaching at the time, and was told she was perfectly qualified for the position – but Princeton would not begin hiring women for another two years.
Rejected by her male colleagues despite her sharp intellect and promising skill, Barber remained determined to further her research in archaeology and linguistics. When asked via email how she navigated such a male-dominated environment, Barber recalled, “at Bryn Mawr… I had absorbed the attitude that to change the male-oriented world, we needed to play by the established rules and show that we can do things that way as well as, or better than, men.” Barber went to great lengths to make sure her work would be disseminated among the academic community and treated seriously by her male colleagues. She published her first several books under the name “E.J.W. Barber” to masculinize her name, and worked with women copy-editors at the Princeton Press to make sure the dust jacket did not contain any pronouns revealing the author’s true gender.
Barber’s most well-renowned work is her seminal text Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years – Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times, an in-depth research project that focuses on the oft hypothesized gendered division of labor. In particular, Barber provides insight on the archaeological and linguistic evidence that provides a framework for scientific inquiry on labor division. The story-telling and analyses contained within Women’s Work illustrate Barber’s experiences with archaeology, and her discovery of fibrous ropes and string juxtaposed with her knowledge of linguistic trends allows Barber to create a map for the reader to develop informed opinions on the importance of so-called “women’s work” in a paleolithic society.
Barber’s mother introduced the art of textiles to her at a young age. She would watch as her mother would weave and sew, entranced by the form, color, and texture of the cloth. In college, she was able to apply her knowledge of textiles to her studies in classical/Bronze age archaeology by examining more durable materials, such as clay pots, that appeared to have styles copied from typical weaving patterns. This was striking to her; could ancient peoples weave as intricate and ornate patterns as we have today? Not only that, but was labor divided in such a way that textile weaving came to be considered inherently female? And how did that occur?
Barber began by imitating the forms she studied. Of particular interest were the weaving shreds and scraps left behind by the Hallstatt mining peoples of ancient times. Considered the progenitors to many European groups, most notably the Celts, the Hallstatt people left a variety of woven objects behind. These objects included twill shreds of fabric, torn on each of the four sides. This tearing made the determination of the direction of the weave nearly impossible. Not to be beaten, Barber used string of the same color and thickness as the ancient patterns. Her attempts were not in vain; she was able to adequately replicate the patterns found in archaeological remnants of the Hallstatt. Moreover, the discovery of their particular weaving style had larger implications: by recovering ancient weaving techniques, Barber was recovering the reality of how women worked in ancient times. She found that women often worked together on weaving, that they would often weave by eye rather than precise measures, and that weaving was heavily associated with childbirth. It is perhaps for this reason, Barber conjectures, that weaving is often relegated to “women’s work”.
Elizabeth Wayland Barber’s multidisciplinary approach to archaeology has expanded the view of ancient women’s roles in society, offering detailed explanations of what made “women’s work” gendered, transliterating folklore and ancient modes of dance, and fighting institutional sexism on a daily basis.
Written by: Beni Benish, Brian Edwards, Kayla Hui, and Jordyn Schara for the course “Gender and Human Evolution”, taught by Caroline VanSickle and published as part of the Women in Paleoanthropology special collection.
Image provided by Elizabeth Wayland Barber and used with permission.