Ignoring Captain Boner and the topsoil strippers for a moment, there’s something odd about this photo that I can’t quite put my finger on. It features this years winning entry to the ‘2009 Sexiest Field Crew’ competition – a global search led by sexyarchaeology.org to find the new vanguard of dirty pretty things destined to inherit the earth.
In search of this elusive ‘thing’ I passed it around a focus group of average archaeologists (i.e. the pub) and then afterwards we all went to mass. Debate hinged on that hingey looking contraption shaped like a seven. It generated some very strong opinions, especially among the British archaeologists, who felt that digging out of phase in uniformed spit layers was fatally flawed. If you haven’t already grasped the connections, they argued, between the different features in which the artefacts were actually deposited, sieving every single bucket of spoil to recover every single artefact is a pointless waste of time.
Stumbling home later that night, 5 pints non-the wiser, I reflected on our conversation. As fascinating as it was, we’d effectively taken a piece of pseudo porn and bored the arse off it. Perhaps sexyarchaeology.org was right after all: like a tedious, but factually correct MI5 dossier, archaeology desperately needs sexing-up.
And yet there’s another website that would beg to differ. No sex please, we’re britishwomenarchaeologists.org.uk have argued for equal opportunities and a fair working environment for all. The BWA maintain that one in three female archaeologists has encountered sexist comments in the work place. Respondents to their questionnaire reported an institutional sexism that barred women from heavy fieldwork thereby delaying career advancement. Some even claimed an insidious casting couch culture.
It remains to be seen how representative these views are of the wider profession, but the appearance of both these websites in the same year indicates that gender politics, with their obligatory facebook followings, are now on the agenda as never before. In the red corner, we have sexyarchaeology.org – with viz vest wonder bras and ripped denim short shorts (the tops saying ‘lets do lunch’ while the bottoms saying ‘you’re paying!’). And in the blue corner, we have britishwomenarchaeologists.org.uk – with floral patterned blouses buttoned up to eleven (the tops saying ‘stop looking at my tits you dirty bastard’ while the bottoms kneeing you in the knackers).
The Sexiest Field Crew competition demonstrates that archaeology is not immune to ‘raunch culture.’ In-your-face sexual images are now the common currency of a pornified economy, where the scope of feminine power is reduced to sexual allure. With ironic references to Salt Lake City, polygamous relationships and 12 inch tools, the clever graduate students in this photo still can’t escape the basic fact that they are trading on their sex. The BWA are a worthier organisation focussed on research and questionnaires, but in singling women out for special treatment because their ‘negative experiences can be isolated from wider support,’ they are making a similar claim for gender based power play. If there really were a glass ceiling in archaeology, you’d think it would at least keep the rain off.
Sexy archaeology is a nebulous quality; it’s the earthiness of physical labour and the thrill of knowledge wrestled back from the unknown. It’s the look in people’s eyes as you tell them what you do, and the look in your own when you’re actually doing it. Lets celebrate this without falling prey to reductive gender stereotypes or movements for affirmative action.
When it comes to being a sexy archaeologist, sex is completely and utterly irrelevant.