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January 31, 2003

Margaret Conkey '65: Painting a New Picture of Ancient Life

Archeologist Margaret W. Conkey '65 is one of Discover
magazine's "Fifty Most Important Women in Science."

Paleolithic 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 ideas—notably feminist theory—to 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 tools?"

"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 on—a 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 Meanings
"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.

"Venus of Willendorf"

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 presumed.

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 technique—filtering water through cloth—that 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, in 1996.

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