January 31, 2003
Conkey '65: Painting a New Picture of Ancient Life
Margaret W. Conkey '65 is one of Discover
magazine's "Fifty Most Important Women in Science."
archaeology is rarely a media magnet, but the work of Margaret
W. ("Meg") Conkey '65, Class of 1960 Professor of Anthropology
and director of the Archaeological Research Facility at the University
of California at Berkeley, recently prompted Discover magazine
to include her among its "Fifty Most Important Women in Science."
Conkey was pleased to see her field taken seriously, noting, "Archaeology
is not often considered a real' science, though we use scientific
techniques and have long considered ourselves scientists."
Conkey's work uses modern ideasnotably feminist theoryto
interpret images and objects from what she calls "deep time"the
Paleolithic era or late Ice Age. That's when humans made
the first known images we consider art: bison and horses painted
with ochres on cave walls, antler and bone carvings. The most
famous, from the Lascaux caves in France, have long had a home
in art history texts.
The paintings have been traditionally explained as an attempt,
by people believed to have a special connection to the spirit
world, to symbolically subdue the animals everyone counted on
for food. But as Conkey sees it, "the images aren't
about people with magical powers staggering in [to a cave], painting
something, and leaving." In fact, she has spent decades trying
to get archaeologists to rethink the possible meanings of Paleolithic
images. "We think this was not just an artistic revolution,
but also a social revolution, that making these images became
a critical part of sustaining [Paleolithic] communities. It was
part of social memory and other broad issues most people haven't
thought much about before."
Asking different questions, she believes, may lead to new conclusions.
The new questions grew from Conkey's background in feminist theory
and the anthropology of gender. She is coauthor of two pioneering
works that put gender and feminist issues onto the radar screen
of contemporary archaeology. Looking for gender in the deep past
isn't easy. A skeleton's sex is detectable, but no one can know
whether men, women, or both held the brushes and knives to create
cave art. So why, she asks, do all textbook illustrations of cave
painters show men as the artists? Realizing that incontrovertible
proof is unlikely ("If you ever hear an archaeologist say
they know exactly what happened, say, I doubt it.' "),
she urges considering that women might have been involved
in more aspects of early life than previously thought. For example,
"It may be that men killed most of the animals in hunting/gathering
societies, but women may have done most of the butchering. So
why does the literature says men made and repaired the
"My concern is that others have interpreted cave art primarily
as what Australian aboriginals would call men's business.'
We can't explain 25,000 years of material by saying it was all
related to hunting." For one thing, she notes that the animals
on the walls and the animal remains in food refuse pits nearby
are largely different species. "So what's on the wall is
probably more about what was on their minds for some cultural
or social reason than about what was in their stomachs."
People tend to interpret artifacts from the deep past very functionally"It's
basically sex, food, and tools," Conkey says. She suggests
that "Maybe all of human history hasn't been those
with the best tools win.' " People painted caves from southwest
Europe to Russia for some 25,000 years. "It's very unlikely
that there was only one meaning for all that image making,"
she argues. Attempts to magically protect hunters' success may
be one meaning, but she believes early images also served social
purposes. People may have associated an animal with a particular
family or clan group, or admired the attributes of a particular
beast (as we might say "strong as an ox," for example).
Carved items could have marked personal identity (much as tattoos
do today) or commemorated stages in a life cycle. For example,
she can easily imagine the famous "Venus of Willendorf"(at
right) figurine as part of a female life cycle ritual.
Also, since Paleolithic people coexisted with Neanderthals, Conkey
argues that image making may have been a way of marking difference.
"We still do this to set ourselves off from others, and to
incorporate our [group] in the face of difference," she says.
"There's a whole lot going ona culturally rich use
of a visual world to symbolically maintain all sorts of cultural
meanings they wanted and needed to make sense of life, the way
the rest of us do. The culture had a range of symbolic meanings
that shifted depending on the users, makers, and viewers."
Prospecting for Social
"Feminist critics of science have done a wonderful job of
reminding us that there is a social and political dimension to
science," Conkey says. "As I always say, all science
is social." Conkey's own fieldwork involves finding
the social in the scientific. For the past decade, she has run
a summer field project in the foothills of the French Pyrénées.
Her team "prospects" in farmers' plowed fields
near known cave art sites and has been amply rewarded with thousands
of Paleolithic objects.
She wants to know more about some of what appear to be "aggregation
sites," where a proliferation of material indicates that
large groups of people gathered. "A lot of social and cultural
stuff was going on at these sites that's different from what
went on elsewhere." Engendering archaeology opens the door
to questions archaeologists haven't asked before." For
example, "How did they organize themselves? How did they
divide tasks? How did they relate to one another? How would people
have gone beyond the family to negotiate in order to get 400 people
together in the same place 20,000 years ago?" Rather than
talking about the past in terms of grand processes, she says,
"asking questions about individuals' daily practices
puts faces on the past." And Conkey's work suggests
that more of those were female faces than previous archaeologists
Although Margaret W. Conkey '65 was the only MHC alumna in Discover's
"top fifty," two others also have MHC ties. National
Science Foundation director Rita Colwell and MIT Professor of
Aeronautics and Astronautics Sheila Widnall each received an honorary
MHC doctorate (in 2001 and 1991 respectively). Colwell, in addition
to leading the NSF, has researched cholera for a quarter-century.
Her research group developed a simple techniquefiltering
water through cloththat reduced the incidence of disease
by some 50 percent. Widnall "rewrote the book on fluid dynamics"
by noticing instability where others saw nothing. To view the
phenomenon, Discover wrote, "Blow a smoke ring and
notice that in calm air, it undulates gently. Those wiggles are
termed the Widnall instability.' " And Conkey's MHC
ties run deeper than most, stretching from her great-great-grandmother
Mary Ballantine Fairbank (class of 1855) through mother Alice
Wright Conkey '41 to daughter Alicechandra Ballantine Fritz '92.
Conkey, too, was awarded an honorary degree from the College,