Nerds (& Their Student) Review Things: Black Panther

Editor: I’ve invited back Dali, MacEwan University undergrad, to co-author a post about the wildly successful, critically and fan acclaimed Black Panther with Dr. Biittner. Both have very personal and different connections to Africa. Warning: some minor spoilers follow so if you haven’t seen the film yet then stop reading this and go see it already.

Dr. Biittner: I have many thoughts about Black Panther: as a fan, as an Africanist archaeologist, as an anthropologist, as a feminist. I want to start by making explicit my connection to this film as an Africanist archaeologist. Since 2006 my research has focused on studying the origins of our species as evidenced in the archaeological Iringa Region, southern Tanzania. I spent four field seasons in Tanzania – this includes three years of archaeological survey and excavations in Iringa Region and one trip to Arusha (northern Tanzania) where I was invited to participate in a conference celebrating the 50th anniversary of the discovery of “Zinj” as well as the biannual meeting of the Society of Africanist Archaeologists (SAfA). In 2010 I attended SAfA in Dakar, Senegal, where I experienced culture shock as I found myself back in Africa but not the Africa I knew and loved. I consider myself an active member of the Africanist archaeology community through regular participation in SAfA meetings and a PANAF congress. My time in Tanzania has cultivated a deep love for the place and its peoples. But I’m not African, even as someone who acknowledges that our shared ancestry as a species can be traced there. In Canada I’m a white settler, in Tanzania I’m mzungu (someone with white skin). Both terms acknowledge the privilege I have and my outsider status.

So when I watched Black Panther I was situated in myself as someone who appreciates and acknowledges the diversity of African cultures. This is captured in such a dynamic visual way in the clothing, hairstyles, jewelry, and other body modifications (including scarification) of the characters, which many others more knowledgeable about design and African textiles have already commented on. National and Panafrican identities reflected on the purple carpet premiere of the film; for example, here’s an excellent thread breaking down the traditional clothing worn by the stars of the film:

These personal identities and connections to Africa were also represented in theatres across North America.

And have also created dialogues outside of the theatre as pride in identity, in knowledge has led to exchanges such as:


Now even as mzungu, I can “read” some of the designs, styles, textures, and motifs. I saw inspirations of East Africa broadly and felt joy because it spoke of a place I think of as another home. In the streets of Birnin Zana, the capital city of Wakanda, I saw baskets that reminded me of those from Iringa. The bright red cloth, shaved heads, armbands, and spears of the Dora Milaje, the all female royal bodyguard, reminded me of the Maasai. Importantly these various elements of real-world culture reimagined and writ large on the big screen come together to create a panafrican-ness – a nation that can be owned and shared by all Africans. And this is important because representation matters but also because of the social issues embedded in the film.

Black Panther captures some very important points about the ongoing consequences of colonialism and slavery for people of colour. Most of the critical plot points and character development revolve around the legacies of colonialism and slavery and what is means for Wakanda to be a nation that was never colonized, what it means to have Africans who have never known colonization. Now in this post I clearly don’t have the time to go over these in depth but Black Panther nails it. The explicit and repeated use of the term “Colonizer” was powerful and had echos for the current use of settler here in Canada. The reminder of the shared history of colonialism in Africa also contributes to the creation of a Panafrican identity as does the legitimization of anger. Anger against the Colonizers and those who are complicit in the act of colonization (by, like Wakanda, removing oneself from the discourse, by not helping nor aiding those impacted) is central to the film as it is in the real world. However , the anger of women and people of colour (and now of children as seen in response to the Parkland school shooting) is something that is generally seen as something that not ok; only white males are allowed to be angry and to display it publicly and privately. However in Black Panther, anger and rage is legitimized; it is validated as a necessary response to the intergenerational trauma, poverty, disenfranchisement, criminalization of Black people in the United States and elsewhere. It is framed not just as a result of colonialism, slavery, and racism but also in juxtaposition to masculinity. Toxic masculinity is challenged consistently throughout the film through the relationships the characters have with each other (I can’t go into this so much because massive spoilers). Note: all of this also serves to create the BEST Marvel villain to ever appear in the MCU – Michael B. Jordan’s N’Jadaka/Erik “Killmonger” – whose storyline is probably the MOST important part of the film as well.


Dali: Black Panther was first introduced to me in my first year at Macewan (2013), which feels like such a long time ago because of the growth I’ve experienced in becoming a proud African man. The Black Panther movie is a culturally important moment for the movement of Panafricanism and I just want to explain its relevance. My heritage is much deeper than just Zambia, in fact my tribe’s (Ngoni people) history has long roots back to KwaZulu-Natal. As a result of the Zulu Wars my ancestors were dispersed as far north as Tanzania, where you can find the town/gulf Mwanza (my last name). But this knowledge and pride was something I never really had in my earlier 19 years of living. My identity has never been very clear to me since I was born South African, but was never seen as such by my peers. Instead I was seen as a “Qwereqwere” (Derogatory term for foreigner) in South Africa, and somehow Chizungu (white/English speaker) back in Zambia. So I just fell back into the category “Black” for the most part, as it felt safer than constantly feeling like no one wanted me to be apart of their national identity.

How I experienced Black Panther was sort of on two different levels. The first was how I saw myself in both the hero (T’Challa) and Villain ( Erik Killmonger), and secondly the pride of African heritage that the movie offered. In my opinion, Killmonger was not a villain but rather the voice of many black folk that have lost connection to their African heritage. He is seen to be bad, but if you really break his character down he is like most black people who are living outside of the African continent. The feelings of not being wanted by your kinsmen, not having a place to be who you are, and more importantly being created to be a demon by those who colonized and oppressed you. His fight was for all Africans who have been oppressed by colonizers all over the global and called to empowerment of these people, which quite frankly is a ideology of the “Black Panther Movement”. So watching him brought me a bit of stress because his plight was juxtaposed with a somewhat passive approach to dealing with the colonizers (Wakanda’s). Seeing T’Challa and the respect he received and power he held was more than necessary to me. The pride I felt watching an African character played in such a unshakeable light brought tears to the little child inside of me. He represented the need to be responsible for all your people, along with the fact that a black man is nothing without the black women that form and strengthen him. These images and lessons are extremely important things that I’m only now learning at the age of 22, so could you imagine what these lessons will do for young black children today? The pride they will hold in regards to their extravagant clothing and history/tradition that comes along with it. The pride in the sound of Bantu languages on a big screen and the accents we have for too long tried to remove! The understanding that yes in fact, our people have been colonized and all our knowledge and traditions were stripped away as well. These lessons the movie offer are things I struggled with for many years and many others have too, but that’s changed now. The stigma behind Africanness has been removed! Clothing is being shared across oceans (people dressing up in regalia to the movie), African hip hop artists are being featured in big named American artists albums, and the bridge between Africa and removed Africans has been rebuilt. Phew… So yeah, this movie is more than just a film to go see, it has relevance to millions of people. People that felt like they never had a identity to call theirs, people who were ashamed of their skin color and heritage, and people who desired the images of a thriving continent. Wakanda forever a reminder that black is forever. That the so called “black magic” and “deserted land” is beautiful and more advanced than we are told to believe. And as I sat through that film with my father and caught him smiling with pure joy, I knew that the lessons being taught were exactly what our world needed right now.

Editor: I love how this discussion opens up about what this movie meant to you both emotionally and intellectually – and how it shows how your identities and your anthropological perspective on them have influenced your experience of the film. Storytelling as a way of reifying and recognizing our forms of humanity and cultural experience is a big deal, and a big budget, major studio, widely seen superhero film are pretty much our most manifest forms of this. Thanks for the review, nerds (and nerds in training)! Now go see Black Panther. Again.  


(Re)considering the Genus Homo: Reflection on What was Reported in 2017

So it’s less than a month into 2018 and there’s already controversy over a femur. I started writing this post back in 2017…I’m sorry but I just can’t keep up everyone. I really wish I could and I have so much respect for those bloggers that are cranking out responses to all of the <<startling new discoveries that are shaking the foundation of everything we thought we knew about human evolution>>. So mad props y’all.

I say this because 2017 was jam packed with new articles regarding two of the most controversial members of our genus, Homo floresiensis and Homo naledi, and some new dates for the earliest members of our species Homo sapiens. These announcements have been sensationalized in the media (as I attempted to capture above with my statement italicized and bracketed above) so it can be hard to understand what these discoveries actually mean.  Spoiler alert: no foundations shook, just more confirmation that human evolution is complicated! Here’s a very concise summary of the debates/issues as I understand them followed by some of the thoughts I have regarding the most recent findings. Also I’m not going to comment on the Sahelanthropus debate I started off linking to (at least in this post) as that species is clearly not part of the genus Homo but it does serve as good reminder that even the question of who gets to be a hominin can be contentious.


The Hobbits

Thanks to some new publications/articles/blog posts in 2017 (like this one or this one or this one) discussion about interpreting the fossil and archaeological record Homo floresiensis was pretty hot. Homo floresiensis captured everyone’s attention when first announced because of their resemblance to Homo erectus (physically and culturally…well depending on who you ask) yet australopith-like size. Quickly dubbed “the Hobbits” because of their small or “dwarf” size, the debate was on as to how to interpret their unique morphology. Most pathological conditions were ruled out and with the recovery of more remains from a second site in 2016 the general consensus seemed to be that they did indeed represent a separate species from all previously recorded ones. The dates for the material culture from the same sites were interesting but seem to be “good” dates; initially the archaeological record indicated that these small hominins were contemporaries of anatomically modern Homo sapiens meaning that oral histories in the region talking about the little people of the forest are supported by these fossils but the lack of fossils providing an overlap means this is debated too.



So this species seems to have had Kardashian-level publicity even before it was fully recovered and reported. Let me start by saying I think the whole Rising Star Expedition is very cool; I LOVE and RESPECT how open access, public this research project has been and continues to be. I loved following the excavations on social media. I really respect many of the people involved in this project (note I’ve actually never met them but through their public outreach I feel like they are “my” type of people – researchers who are really trying to do good, accessible work), but this also makes it tougher as there are a lot of personalities and public personas involved and the “dark side” of public outreach is that some academics argue it impacts the quality of the work being conducted. So let’s focus on the data because that should be easy especially considering so much is open access right!?

This is where it continues to be tough. The site, while extremely cool (a cave system with a passage called “Superman’s Crawl” – doesn’t get much cooler than that) is very complicated in terms of both recovery of the fossils and of their interpretation. As I tell my students, context is everything. The context of the finds is complicated. The primary researchers doing the excavation and analyses argue that there was intentional, deliberate, disposal of the remains but this is hotly contested.

2017 brought us the announcement of “Neo” (that the nearly complete remains of one individual had been recovered from the assemblage representing at least three individuals) and dates for the finds. The dates are particularly interesting because they are much younger than the morphology of Homo naledi would suggest, and that they overlap with the earliest dates for the members of our species, anatomically modern humans. So we have a really small brained member of our species running around at the same time as us in Africa.


Anatomically Modern Humans from Morocco

Up until this article came out, the oldest known anatomically modern human (AMH) remains dated to 180 thousand years ago (or kya) from East Africa, which is supported by genetic evidence that also places the origin of our species to East Africa. Now the oldest specimens of our species are directly dated to 290 kya from a site called Jebel Irhoud. They are associated with lovely stone tools dating to between 280 and 350 kya. So while this does not blow up everything we know about the origins of our species, it does demonstrate that we need to focus on Africa as a continent.


Summary Thoughts on the genus Homo

What links these recent discussions on H. naledi and H. floresiensis is that they both challenge what a “late” member of the genus “should” look like. Importantly both have small crania and it has been long held that we should see an increase in cranial size over time leading to us big brained humans. The Moroccan evidence simply requires us to consider a much broader region for our origins.

Now I’m sure someone has remarked this before, and remember I’m not a geneticist, but what if the reason why humans are the only hominins left is because we were the only ones who could successfully interbreed with other hominins? That successfully incorporating and retaining the genes of other hominins into our genome increased our genetic diversity making us better adapted to life on this planet, period. Further what if evidence for interbreeding really is what we are seeing, that shared genes are not simply just remnants of a shared common ancestor?

Genes are a critical piece of the puzzle because as with the new dates and location for the anatomically modern humans, they are suggesting a different origin and one that is slightly later.

As always more data (fossils, dates, etc.) clearly does not mean more answers, just more questions. What is clear to me is that we need to reconsider how we define the genus Homo and how we assign species to this genus. Maybe the genus Homo is the problem; it is honestly poorly defined so I say let us start there. Part of this new definition means that we need to decouple the fossil record from the archaeological record; I know how problematic this sounds (humans are humans because of how we think and behave and this is reflected in our material culture) but direct and clear associations between specific types of material culture and specific species are few AND fail to account for other equally plausible explanations. We assume X species were responsible for Y tools because they are found in the same sites and date to the same time periods but there are so many contemporaneous species why do we continue to insist it’s only the largest brain variants that had the culture. This seems so outdated to me and poorly supported by the very large body of evidence we have. What if some of the variations we see in the so-called tool traditions are because differences in WHO was making them?

As a colleague on twitter posted “I’d love to see a fossil discovery that makes things simpler instead of more complicated” because right now the story of human evolution seems already complicated enough.

Do Better CBC! Thoughts on “Ice Bridge”


Dammit CBC! You are better than this ffs.

Ok so I’m not the first anthropologist/archaeologist/geneticist/scientist to write about this extremely problematic episode of The Nature of Things but I do want to use this platform to reinforce some key critiques, elevate some important voices, and to SHAME CBC (and all media outlets producing pseudoscience especially pseudoarchaeology) into doing better.

A disclaimer: I didn’t watch it. I probably won’t. I can forgive shows that are meant to be entertaining (though this previous post demonstrates that my leniency towards misrepresentation of science is limited) but I cannot forgive shows that intentionally disregard critiques and concerns of the scientists they are engaging as experts and distort evidence to fit failed, problematic, racist, colonial ideas, and theories.

Here is a brief summary of some excellent critiques and discussions:

  • This excellent article captures not just the problem of poor representation of Indigenous perspectives, which are diverse and not singular, but also how this model and narrative of the past is used to “de-legitimize Native Americans’ connections to their own history”.

  • This twitter thread by one of the experts CBC used for this documentary, Dr. Jennifer Raff, and this blog post outline the evidence (archaeological, genetic) that overwhelmingly disproves the main arguments used to support the model.

  • Other archaeologists tweeted about issues relating to problems with giving outdated, pseudoscientific theories authority, and highlighted the colonial history and contemporary racist uses of this model:

During my first year at MacEwan I did have a student who did an independent research project on the Solutrean Hypothesis. They were very interested in why this hypothesis was usually only briefly mentioned as a disproved hypothesis and glossed over, so they approached me about looking more in-depth at the theory and the data used in support and against it. I said sure and they produced a solid poster about it with columns showing the evidence and arguments used in support and against it, and in which they rightfully concluded that it is not a well supported theory. But in retrospect I failed this student. I didn’t engage them in the broader historic and contemporary context of this theory; I didn’t challenge them to consider how it is used to reinforce colonial, racist narratives of the past. So assisting them in seeking out and critically examine evidence and arguments, and to come to a conclusion on their own is not a failure but I could have done better too.

So if I can see the need, the importance, the requirement to do better, surely the CBC can too.

Student Guest Post: Archaeogaming In An Academic Sandbox

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Brieal M-T, a student in an Independent Study Course with Dr. Biittner. They are also in Dr. Shulist’s seminar class on Language and Power so they are tapped into the whole “Anthropology As” ethos. This post has been submitted as part of their course requirements; it is a reflexive piece representing the journey traveled so far. Need an archaeogaming primer? Check out #Archaeogaming101! Wanna check out these Tweets as they were discussed “in-class”? Check out #ANTH498!

The first time I ever held a controller I was probably about 3, and my parents were (trying) to teach me how to play Super Mario Bros.

My hand-eye coordination doesn’t work well with platformers (at least I learned young), but it’s perfect for puzzle games so I quickly moved on to games like Tetris/Dr. Mario and Goof Troop. By the time my younger brother caught up with my skills he had frankly already surpassed me, and between about age 5-14 we either played games cooperatively or separately. As someone who requires there to be an element of risk in order to find a game interesting always knowing who’s going to win in a competition isn’t very fun, and whenever my brother and I would play competitively we pretty well knew I’d win at a puzzle game and he’d win at [basically every other game].

Cooperation worked for us, though!

Because I was learning to read when Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time found its way into our N64 I’d work to read the text and make maps/generally keep notes while my little bro adventured his way through Hyrule. This schema of me keeping notes while he played continued well into my own exploration into Games I Could Play Alone (ex. when Dead Space was released he handle the silence, and would have me narrate him through the area while he stared at his controller).

Besides being an opportunity for me to reminisce about one of my favourite parts of my relationship with my brother this story has a point, I promise.

Dr. Biittner and I started this independent study with the intent of following a punk archaeology ethos. I will wholeheartedly admit that when we agreed to use that descriptor I had no real idea of what that would entail, despite having read Punk Archaeology a couple semesters ago. Looking back, though, I’m very comfortable describing the past 3 months (and change) as encompassing a bit of everything: “bits” of stuff (101).

That said: so many of these “bits” have been grinding slowly away at me.

One thing I did expect to encounter at the beginning of the course was archaeological theory, concepts of archaeological ethics, and the practice of specific archaeological tools. As an anthropology major with some previous experience in ethnographic practice, however, I totally turned learning of these Things into a pseudo-autoethnographic analysis.

As an undergraduate proto-/non-academic with little archaeological training I’m definitively classed as “other” in interactions with many (most?) archaeogaming folx on Twitter (the primary site or field by which I have gained introduction and access into archaeogaming).

This is totally understandable, and a position which I’m somewhat appreciative of as it allows me to learn skills which are arguably necessary to archaeogaming with a low-risk factor, and I am incredibly appreciative of the labour so many in the archaeogaming ~community have expended for my education.

The thing that grinds away at me is the disconnect between what archaeogaming (presently) is and what it is presented as.

In my introduction to archaeogaming I initially assumed that it was something which both archaeologists and non-archaeologists could and would take part in.

While I still believe this to be true, the “punk” open-access ethos of archaeogaming seems to have shifted over time into becoming something which is primarily for academic archaeologists who are interested in studying games as part of their practice.

Now at this point I cannot stress enough: I don’t believe this is an intentional shift. Rather, I believe it is an aspect of the practice which is being influenced by the subject positions of the archaeogaming ~inner circle, which just so happens to presently consist of people who are either already academics, or are otherwise proto-/non-academic with previous professional archaeological experience.

While there’s nothing inherently wrong with this type of “‘secret writing and assumed norms”, the fact that archaeogaming can be (and rightfully is) presented as something which can be practiced by non-academics and non-archaeologists does grind away at me, by virtue of the gatekeeping which is thus inherent.

I won’t even pretend to say I have a ~solution or something for what I’m perceiving to be a problem of intent vs. actuality here. What I will say, however, is that I’m very (very) interested in mapping out what I’m perceiving to be a part of the problem. In that spirit my final project planned for ANTH 498 is a mapping of specific terms and concepts as they are described within different communities. My aspirations for my own degree include further archaeogaming studies, and I don’t think that will be possible or useful if I’m only speaking with academics. Thus I see this map I’m planning as personally necessary to translating thoughts and concepts between my communities (gaming and anthropology/archaeology).

If my linguistic anthropology (and, honestly, psychoanalytic theory) schooling has given me nothing else I have been given the ability to respect naming and titles as important to communities. Recognition is important to inter-community respect and cooperation (see? It came up again after all), and without it I don’t see archaeogaming becoming the cooperative field I think everyone (?) wants it to be.

Archaeological Field Methods (Anth396): Weeks 6 & 7 in Review

Okay so I think we can agree that I have fallen epically behind on posting about the field school, but I’m going to insist that it is valuable for me, and for you dear reader, to wrap things up. Good news is I have only this last post for you. The bad news is here are my notes for what I should cover (Good work, Past Katie btw! Also I really wish there was a dedicated sarcasm font.):

On looting…fuckers…

On the mad rush at the end to back fill, re-seed, etc…

On the last push of lab work and final research papers…

On the importance of a feast…

So yeah, the site was looted. After spending weeks carefully revealing the bones and contents of the midden/garbage pit, our students excavating in Unit 3 arrived one morning to find it had been disturbed. It was immediately clear that several bones (mostly cow skulls) had been stolen from the unit (this was confirmed through consulting the maps precisely drawn at each level and through reviewing notes and photographs), Haeden reported the looting to the Archaeological Survey, while several students, and myself, took to social media to express our anger and our outrage. Honestly I tweeted without thinking – something I usually am better about when it comes to ethical and legal issues like this – and while I didn’t say anything horrible I wasn’t thinking about appropriate procedure nor ethical or legal implications and consequences. Luckily it wasn’t illegal to publicly discuss the looting, instead I will argue that the media coverage and public attention we received about the site and our work goes a long way towards informing the public regarding the importance of protecting, preserving, and not-looting archaeological and other heritage sites. So several media sources, who had covered and were continuing to follow the project, saw our tweets, instaposts, and Reddit forum comments, and contacted us for follow up interviews. I was particularly proud of the thoughtful comments made by my students on Reddit who had been patient science communicators and represented our work, our course, the site, and our discipline articulately throughout the field season. I think these personal accounts by the students – how they were angry and hurt that someone could so thoughtlessly destroy the careful work they’d done over weeks, that questions would go unanswered because of the loss of critical information we could have obtained from those bones – really resonated with the public. Further we had several community members stop by the site or contact us to let us know how upset they were by the looting as well. See that’s the lovely thing about projects that welcome community members, they too become interested and invested. While we never recovered those bones (and likely never will), the students also learned one of the harsh realities of archaeology – looting is a common part of the experience of field work.

Here you can see holes in the unit wall (look for the “fresh” or darker coloured sediment that was exposed) and the dirt on the floor from the looting of Unit 3. 

Following the looting, work at the site was simply a blur. We had more rain to deal with (meaning we were yet again bailing out units) followed by some really hot days. There is so much that needs to be done to wrap up work at a site. First we needed to finish excavating all of the units we started. Units 4 and 5 were already close to completion leading into the week so we weren’t too worried about them and we did finish them by the Thursday. However, Units 3 and 6 were our biggest concerns. The profiles for Unit 3 were taking quite a bit of time simply because there was so much left in the walls; we typically leave objects in the wall unless they are at risk of damaging the wall (i.e., are too loose and may fall out). We continued expanding and excavating Unit 6 until the Friday (technically our last day on site). We’d encountered some more cement and a few pipes and needed to determine their relationship to the cement feature in Unit 1. While we finished excavating it, Haeden and JP decided they would come back over the next few days to finish up the profiles and requested that we all return to the site on the following Tuesday to backfill the units.

Revealing a pipe feature in Units 1 and 6, and preparing wall profiles for Units 3 and 4. 

Why Tuesday? Because on the Monday we went on a field trip. I really wanted to make sure the students visited another archaeological site at some point over the term. It’s valuable to see how other research questions are approached, what other strategies are used in different contexts, and to examine different kinds of material culture. I’d originally hoped to visit another field school, and possibly do an exchange of sorts, but the other ones occurring in the province were Spring Term courses so it didn’t work out with our Summer Term schedule. I decided then we’d drive out to the Bodo Archaeological Site and Center, where one of our former students was working and where I’d previously excavated, then swing by the Viking Ribstones. I love the Viking Ribstones; they are situated in the most beautiful spot and I always feel so calm and peaceful after visiting and making an offering there.  All the driving and the multiple stops made for a long day but we all agreed it was well worth the trip.


Field trip to the Bodo Archaeological Site and Center. Note I’m talking in the photo because of course I am.

So the following Tuesday we returned to the site to backfill. Backfilling involves replacing all of the sediment excavated from the units back into place and we also had other site reclamation we were required to perform (in this case we had to re-seed the surface of the units where sod had been removed). We also had a bunch of housekeeping to do: all of the gear must be cleaned and repaired (as needed) then returned to storage (or to those individuals we begged and borrowed from).

For the rest of that last week (technically week 7), the students were also busy wrapping up their final “research projects” and trying to complete any remaining lab work. They really accomplished a lot in the lab; we had very little left to clean and catalog once the course was finished, which Haeden and JP completed in just over a week. The students’ final “research reports” varied in content and form. Most wrote a paper either looking into the history of the site/ravine or a particular category of raw material in more detail. One student wrote a wonderful reflection on how prepared (or not!) our current Introduction to Archaeology (Anth206) course made them for field school. Another prepared an “unessay” of sorts; they designed a poster and exhibit proposal for a space in our Centre for Advancement of Faculty Excellence (CAFE); paired with my personal photos, this student’s work is currently on display in CAFE as a curated art exhibit called “One Site, Two Histories”.

Finally we had a feast…of sorts. It’s tradition to have a wrap-up party so I hosted all of the students, their guests, and our volunteers at my home. We did a simple BBQ, where we ate, chatted, and decompressed. During the party I presented them each with a Certificate of Excellence “for digging real good”; a silly tradition started when friends of mine presented me with one after a particularly intense field season. They also received from one of our volunteers a special camp stool to mark their transition from field school student to archaeologist; we had two of these stools on site and they were much coveted by the students. It’s hard to capture the meaning of gifts like these; they truly represent the bizarre and lovely microcosm that can develop on a field site between team members during a project. No outsider will ever understand why eating a whole cucumber with rice cakes for lunch is hilarious. No outsider will ever understand why we’ll forever cringe and roll our eyes upon hearing a dog named “Precious*” being called. *The name of the dog has been changed to protect the innocent dog. All dogs are good dogs. This dog just had a really obnoxious owner who was not a good dog owner.*


And then it was done.


I want to finish by acknowledging my fantastic students (Lace, Jesse, Kat, Kathryn, Emily, Keyna, Tara, and Josalyne), volunteers (Erika, Lisa, Andrea, Thomas, and Kendra), Haeden and JP. It was a honour to have worked with you this summer. I’m proud of what you accomplished and the work we did. It was archaeology at its best.


Last day photo of Team MCHAP 2017. 

An Open Letter to Our Students: Sexual Violence, Awareness, and Academic Lives

[Editor’s Note: Drs. Shulist and Biittner frankly care a whole lot about their students so this post is quite different than those that have come before. This post is a letter written to their students. It is a meant to address some of their nuanced understandings of how inequality exists in the academy, something they frequently talk about especially in the context of their roles in the Academic Women’s Network at MacEwan University. But really this means they want to write about some topics that are hard for them – hard because they are personal, they require reflexivity, they are triggering, they represent the very worst of the academy as an institution, and as such they require tact and care.  This article, or pages it links to, contains information about sexual assault and/or violence which may be triggering for the reader.]

Dear students,

If you are here at MacEwan in person, you know that this has been our first ever Sexual Violence Awareness Week. Among the events taking place this week was a roundtable panel, organized by the Academic Women’s Network, on Sexual Violence in the Academy. Both of us were involved in that panel, as executive members of the network, and in Dr. Biittner’s case, as a panelist. Between these local events and the explosion, on social media, of people sharing their stories or just their ‘#metoo’, it’s been a difficult week for us. We have been thinking a lot about our own experiences, about the literally countless stories we have heard over the years, and of the fears we have for women in the future. In some ways, Sexual Violence Awareness Week is frustrating, because many of the people paying enough attention to attend these events (including ourselves) are already deeply and painfully aware. At the same time, it reminds us of how necessary it is to recommit ourselves to learning more, to paying attention more, to reflecting more, on how the pervasive myths of rape culture intersect with and reinforce oppression in multiple forms. As we think about these things, and particularly emerging from the panel about academia, we have a few things we want to say to you.

  1. Academia is part of the world, and the world is patriarchal and unsafe, especially for women, trans, and nonbinary folks. On yesterday’s panel, we heard statistics about everything from rates of sexual violence in archaeological fieldwork (see also this update here) to patterns of negative judgment on student course evaluations. We also heard personal stories and reflections on experiences that have happened as we go about our lives and work in the academy. The statistics are horrible. The rates of sexual assault and harassment are heartbreaking. The personal stories are affecting and enraging. Some of this is the product of being part of a world that is so full of violence it can hurt just to look at it. Some of it is also the result of specific structures and patterns of academic culture. We are profoundly hierarchical. Rank and status matter, and institutions are inclined to protect those who bring in money. Our lives are deeply embedded in close relationships of trust, and our careers can rise and fall on the favour of our PhD supervisors or the Principal Investigator on a major grant project, which gives these people immense power to silence and control us, and some of them abuse that. And we often work in ways and in places that blur the boundaries between personal and professional, in which we lower our guard, and which can give predators ways to attack without being noticed by outside observers. Academia isn’t the only type of workplace where we see this, and other environments include different types of practices and standards that predators exploit, but these aspects matter and are meaningful to how we talk about what to do about it. We wish we could counsel you on how to move forward in or beyond academia without talking about this, but we can’t. Because…
  2. We want you to be safe. Just as we know that these experiences are hard to carry in our own work, we see how hard it is for you to carry them. We are committed to making you safe in any way we can. We try to do this by advocating for better policy, by warning you away from people we know to be dangerous, by getting training in ways to support you, by reflecting on how our own privileges require us to pay attention to our own roles in the perpetuation of patterns of abuse and disbelief of those who do not share those privileges. This is a pedagogical commitment for us, and we think it should be for everyone, though we know it’s not. It is almost frustrating to have to say that of course people who are dealing with trauma, who are anxious or fearful, or who are unable to safely attend their classes, cannot learn to the best of their abilities. Some people see this as being overly protective of people who should be adults. We see it as our responsibility as educators and human beings. At the same time…
  3. It’s hard to admit we can’t make academia safe for you. We really, really wish we could. We wish that we could do more than whisper these warnings. We wish we could guarantee that when you go to a place to get an education, that is, in fact, what you will get. But the problem is so big, and it’s so hard, and we can’t. We wish we could be the Carrie Fisher in this story, and maybe, in a few decades when we are more secure and established, we will be, but for now, the only thing we can say is…
  4. We want you to talk to us. But we also want you to realize this is hard for us. This is not easy to articulate, because we do not want it to seem like we are claiming your traumas and experiences of violence are too much for us. They aren’t. Far from it. We are not counselors, and we are not friends, but we care about your success and your ability to do your work with as much focus, energy, and even joy as you can. At the same time, when we think and talk about the impact of sexual violence in academia, we need you to know that some of us are hearing these stories, checking up on those of you we are concerned about, and spending time and mental energy thinking about how, exactly, to protect you and others from known predators. Others around us are not doing that. And this is not to say you should go to them, necessarily – they may not be safe, this is a real thing. We just want you to consider this when you look at who is successful in academia, and when you plan, for yourselves, an academic life. We do this instead of writing another research paper, because this is far more important, but we also must admit it is the research paper that will get us a job, or a promotion, or a grant. As it is women profs (and especially, women of colour profs) who do the majority of this…
  5. This has a big impact on how many people, especially women, trans, and nonbinary people, are able to do their jobs. You, students, may or may not see everything that is involved in our work as your professors. We teach, we prepare classes, and we grade, yes; we also write our own papers and presentations, apply for grants, conduct original research, and serve on committees that make the university run. None of this is easy to do if we are also dealing with the symptoms of trauma, or the anxiety that comes from dealing with a harassing supervisor, or the distraction and shame of an abusive partner. It’s not that we don’t want to provide you with the support you need, it’s that we are more frequently asked to provide this much needed support from our students than our male colleagues because we are female, while knowing that students are also more likely to be biased against us as instructors also because we are female. Add all of this to the emotional labour that is overwhelmingly required of women in our society and you have not just for poor job performance but a high risk for the development of serious mental health issues (anxiety, depression, etc.). So we have to take care of ourselves meaning…
  6. We may only be able to listen, to acknowledge your feelings, and then send you off with options for additional and/or ongoing support. We can and will provide you with academic accommodations – the anniversary of your assault is the same day as your due date so you need to just take off somewhere and might not be able to hand that assignment in on time? Ok. Not a problem. As stated above we cannot be your therapist, your friend, or your confidant (though we will try to make sure that you have all of those people in your life), but we can let you know of what resources are available for you as our student, because…
  7. We know of resources! As instructors we learn the ins and outs of our institution. We also try to make ourselves aware of additional resources nearby that we can suggest may be able to help you – especially those that provide low or no cost counseling services, because it’s horrible to realize that financial barriers prevent many people from being able to access support. Here’s a list of some valuable resources available to you at our campus and in our city:
  8. Together we can try to change this. During the panel one of our students, one of your classmates, maybe you, asked “what can I do to change this?”. Any answer we give to this feels inadequate in the face of a problem of this size, but as anthropologists, we firmly believe in the importance of understanding and imagining the possibility of a radically different world. We know, from our research, that the way things are is not the way they have always been or the way that they have to be. And so we know that they can be changed, and that they have to be changed from the ground up. We have to challenge pervasive assumptions that dismiss the importance of consent and minimize the damage that occurs when we violate other people’s boundaries, that make light of intimate partner violence, that perpetuate toxic notions of masculinity and authority. We have to reflect on our own assumptions about what victims look like, act like, and feel like, and honestly interrogate whether we are more likely to believe some than others. And as the week’s keynote speaker, Dr. Rachel Griffin, reminded us, we have to show up, and be open to listening, because that act could be the thing that saves someone’s life. This is not abstract. This is not a courtroom in which we must hear evidence and be fair to the accused. It really is that important just to say…
  9. We believe you. Because we do. We will. We know.

In solidarity and hope,

Dr. Biittner and Dr. Shulist



Names and Patriarchy

Names are a remarkable form of linguistic material. Group names, place names, personal names – all have functions and social roles that are far more complex than we often credit (I’ve written before about the use of endonyms for Indigenous peoples/languages, and will put a bookmark in my brain to try to write about place names at some point as well). Names carry a lot of weight in defining identities — and this means they do a ton of social work in establishing relationships among people.

I am well behind on blogging things I’ve found interesting, so forgive me for delving into ancient internet history of a full month ago, but the story of Serena Williams’ baby’s name was too fascinating to let go entirely. As the link notes, the name is apparently highly conservative, putting a junior on the father’s name – except that in this case, Alexis Ohanian Jr. is a little girl.

For all that we, in Anglo-North American society, have moved away from many aspects of patrilineal descent (like for example in terms of inheritance), names are one of the ways we cling quite strongly to it. Without wanting to get in to any kind of discussion about the merits of name changing at marriage (seriously, don’t @ me. It’s always the same conversation), one point that’s always raised is that women choose between “their partner’s name or their father’s name”. It’s a claim that depends on the notion that our names have and will come from our fathers, and that it is primarily boy children who get to claim ownership of the name. While there is now a proportion of heterosexually married women who have, either completely or partially (e.g. using one name professionally and another personally) kept their original names, this has not yet translated into a widespread change in how offspring are named. Hyphenation has a definite presence, but the most common pattern remains that children receive their father’s names. My own family is an exception here, because I said I wanted a child that would carry my name, and my partner and I quickly agreed to have one of each. Our older child has their father’s name, and our younger child has mine.

This is meaningful to me because my lineage is marked in our family. Last names, though, are not the only ways that we put that identity forward. Giving our children family names, particularly ‘Junior’ from an immediate parent, also carries those meanings. And while the practice is generally waning, it remains much more strongly associated with father-son bonds than with any relationship involving women and girls. Gilmore Girls made a joke of this by having teenage mom and highly quirky Lorelai name her baby daughter Lorelai (called Rory) for exactly this reason – men do it all the time, why couldn’t she want her girl to carry on her name? (I have a general theory that this is why we see much greater variation in the “Top 100” baby names for girls than for boys – decade after decade, William, Michael, John, David, Daniel, and Matthew hold strong, while Sarahs and Katies – to pick two entirely not random examples – peak and fade relatively quickly. This theory is entirely the product of my brain and fascination with reading baby name lists, however, and no real stable evidence).

Little Alexis Jr. inserts another interesting exception to the pattern, having a daughter carry on her father’s name/identity. Honestly, it’s somewhat unsurprising that a powerhouse mother like Serena would be willing to push the boundaries of how her baby daughter will be named and seen. At the same time, I am a bit surprised that this little Junior is taking on the name of her much less famous parent. A Serena Williams Jr strikes me as a name that would inspire an impressive reaction (although perhaps too much weight to put on a tiny person, but that didn’t stop countless famous men from assigning that burden to their sons).

The whole conversation speaks to the way we see names and identity, and yes, the ways in which our perceptions of descent and family lineage remain oriented around fathers and sons. An era of acceptance of non-traditional family structures, including gay and lesbian couples (as well as decades of feminist pushback against the ways that names connote ownership) may have made a dent on this view, but its prevalence shows just how deeply engrained this part of patriarchy is. And this is why names are so meaningful and powerful – ultimately, this is a part of linguistic and cultural practice that holds force long after we have stopped thinking of our descent practices as inherently passing through a male line. I agree with the linked blogger that a female junior, in this context (and adding in the racial dynamic, which is also hugely important in defining young Alexis’ relationship to her white father) is a bold step. What strikes me, though, is that these bold steps seem to be taken in isolation, and I’m interested to see what it might take for them to start adding up to a march away from the status quo.