This is the inaugural post for the Archaeology in Tennessee blog, and it is about women. My daughter is one really amazing, talented, and capable person. She graduated from high school only three weeks ago. Then, right in the middle of the second worst economic disaster in American history, she landed her first real job with a well-known national pharmacy chain. She has done amazing things like this all of her life, including catching a good-sized fish the first time she threw a line into a local lake at about eight years of age. She had equally impressive predecessors. On my dad’s side of the family, nearly all of my aunts were “Rosie the Riveter” types who had left the farm to work in factories. These very tough Rosies continued working after World War II, and they helped to raise me. As a result of that experience, I am not sure the ancient concept of “female work” ever crystallized inside of me in any serious way. This got me to thinking about all of the really amazing women I have known in Tennessee archaeology.
My first archaeological field experience came on the Tellico Archaeological Project in 1976. This was in the valley of the Little Tennessee River near Vonore, Tennessee. Our field residence was a church camp complex located next to Carson Island Baptist Church on State Highway 72.
My first walk up the long gravel road to the field camp took a brief detour into the Twilight Zone. Several young women were walking up the road ahead of me to check into the camp. Suddenly, down the long slope to my left, I observed a young man who was holding high between his legs the sawed-off handle of a broom. He began gesturing wildly and crying out in the direction of these young women: “Staff of life!!! Staff of life!!! Come and get it girls!!!” Some of the women ignored him. A couple cracked a horrified half smile with a quick hand to the mouth. All were obviously mortified. The young man’s behavior really shocked me because I thought such inconsideration of women had largely died out by that time.
The summer of 1976 at Tellico was blazing hot, humid as a steam room, and full of sweat bees. It was a three-sting-per-minute affair. The women and men on the field crews worked from 7:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. each day under the direct glare of the sun. Shade was virtually nonexistent on some sites, particularly the archaeological site where I was working. Some days felt like slavery.
I loved and respected the Rosies who helped raise me. However, they were still just a tad theoretical in my mind because, as a kid, I never really got to see them working on the factory floor. In the summer of 1976, I had an opportunity to see the daughters of Rosie the Riveter in action. Those young women who had been insulted on the gravel road to the field camp turned out to be some of the most amazing people I had ever seen. They were tough as steel. These women skim-shoveled as well as the men and quite often better. Sometimes I would glance up and see a short wisp of a person hauling a wheel barrow full of dirt that weighed three times as much as she did, and she did it again, and again, and again, and again—all day long—everyday—all summer. I do not recall any complaints. They troweled as well as the men and often better. They read the soil well and kept excellent field records. More so even than this, they were able to stay squarely focused on their work and keep pushing the envelope to get the job done. In this, I thought they were all decidedly better than the men. Many of these highly intelligent and capable young women went on to put their own personal marks on Tennessee archaeology and the archaeology of other states. Some founded and ran their own CRM consulting firms. Others obtained their Ph.D. in anthropology and did great things. A few followed other career callings. One of these archaeologists became a close life-long friend of mine until her life was cut short by colon cancer at age 45. The Head Cook and part-time Field Laboratory Technician consented to be my wonderful wife of 33 years. All of the Tellico archaeology women of 1976 (and the following field season in 1977) earned my deepest respect and admiration.
The best Christmas card I have ever received was sent to me by my best friend. On the card, the animals in the winter north woods have gathered meekly in the snow around a small campfire to celebrate Christmas. The caption reads, “And they gathered together to tell the stories of those who had gone before—and of those yet to come.” The Archaeology in Tennessee blog begins its journey by saluting and honoring all of the women in Tennessee archaeology—past and present—and those yet to come.