Matilda effect in archaeology [fr]

Interview of Emilie Dotte-Sarout, archaeologist at the University of Western Australia and AFRAN member


- Can you introduce yourself in a few words?

I am a French archaeologist born in New Caledonia who’s been living in Australia for 12 years. I specialise in interactions between humans and their environment (archeobotanical studies), and on the study of archeology and its development as a field of scientific studies in the Pacific (historiography).

- Tell us about the history of women archaeologists in the Pacific and the struggle against oblivion in an environment that was mostly designed for male scientists.

I am focusing on the history of the first women who worked as archaeologists in the Pacific region, and those who most actively contributed to developing this field of scientific studies, especially between the end of the 19th century and the mid-20th century. At that time, women in general had a hard time getting access to scientific training, and struggled to obtain diplomas. Even if these women were sometimes allowed to attend university, they were not always allowed to sit for the exams nor practise their profession and work as scientists, and this standard lasted in many European countries until the turn of the 20th century. Even then, this first barrier that they needed to overcome often concerned women who lived in relatively wealthy and open-minded families.

Despite successfully overcoming these hurdles, even those women who succeeded in practising their profession as archaeologists, left valuable work behind, and had their skills acknowledged by their contemporary male peers, continued to face gender discriminations. As a result, the legacy of their research has faded away very quickly compared to male scientists. As one first-hand example: when I was a student of archaeology of the Pacific region, we heard a lot about the “founding fathers”, such as Roger Green, Edward Gifford, José Granger, Richard Shutler, Kenneth Emory, Ralph Linton (first PhD in Pacific archaeology in the 1920s)... while at the same time, we learned a lot less about Mary-Elisabeth Shutler who played a critical role in the first professional expedition of archaeology to New Caledonia in the 1950s.

Few scholars would be familiar with the work of Aurora Natua from Tahiti, despite the fact that she coordinated all the archaeological research in French Polynesia between the 1950s and the 1980s – including some of those led by J. Granger, R. Green and K. Emory. It is also worth noting that the second ever PhD in Pacific archaeology was obtained by a woman – Laura Thompson – in the early 1930s.

We tend to forget that many female researchers contributed to the groundwork alongside these famous male figures, and that many wives took part in archaeological excavations, data analysis and monograph writing, sometimes only to have their contributions moved to the acknowledgement section rather than recognised as co-authors. (Douglas and Carolyn Osborne in the mid-20th century).

- The story of Adèle Dombasle, a female explorer, scientist, and talented illustrator of the 19th century (and incidentally the ancestor of a famous French actress) is extremely inspiring. It is a story of discrimination, but also of resilience and, ultimately and in a biased way, accession to a form of public recognition.

Adèle (Adelaide) Garreau de Dombasle is an exceptional character, but also a perfect illustration of the struggle of these women to take part in the first European expeditions in the Pacific region, and how they successfully participated in the development of sciences (in this case, anthropological science).

In 1848, at just 29 years old, Adèle de Dombasle had just divorced and entrusted her three young children to her mother. She decided to embark aboard an expedition ship that should have driven her around the world. She aimed to work with famous ethnologist Edmond Ginoux de La Coche on commission by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as a professional drawer. As she set foot on the Marquesas Islands, her intent was to explore the valleys of Nuku Hiva island to realise drawings that would represent landscapes and monuments, their inhabitants, their tattoos and their everyday tools. She told the marine officer who tried to discourage her (“as a woman… it’s far beyond her capability!”) that she “only wants to see” the inhabitants, their realisations and their country, to better understand “the intimate characteristics of their existence”.

She managed to produce dozens of drawings during her trip to Polynesia (and Chile). These drawings depict various monuments and sites in the Marquesas Islands, the peoples from Tahiti and Marquesas, with some elements of material culture, landscapes and portraits. The details are truly exceptional (plant species are identifiable thanks to the precision given to the representation of leaves and stems). The tattoos and the artefact decorations are finely represented too, which makes them a unique source of information for archaeologists who work in the area today. Unfortunately, only a handful of them are known of today, including 17 that belong to the exceptional Musée du Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac in Paris.

Adèle was eventually forced to put an early end to her journey, in part because a divorced woman travelling alone with a single male companion was badly perceived by colonial authorities.. However, in 1851, she managed to publish an article that related her experience in Marquesas – outside of the academic circles. Her specific position as a woman also allowed her to build connections with the women in Marquesas and Tahiti and to collect artefacts that Ginoux then surveyed – these are kept at Musée de la Castre in Cannes (French Riviera), and she also played a crucial role in maintaining and protecting this collection.

Adèle de Dombasle died at age 82, in 1901. 13 years later, Katherine Routledge would set foot on Rapa Nui and become the first woman ever known to undertake archaeological studies in the Pacific.

- Drawings such as the ones Adèle did have been a key element of the French expeditions in the Pacific and Oceania since the 18th century. What do they tell us about the intent of the navigators and the way they perceived the world, and what is their scientific value today?

Of course, these drawings, paintings and engravings played a very important role during the explorations of the 18th century, then the scientific expeditions of the 19th and early 20th century, especially in the Pacific. They were an essential complement to the written description of the European “discoveries”, and sometimes outlined the discrepancies between the imagination of these early explorers (for example the European tendency to depict Polynesian women with clothes from the Greek-Roman antiquity), and scientific illustrations (see the drawings of Australian fauna and flora realised by members of French navigator Baudin’s expedition). Such drawings played a role both as scientific documents and as a foundation for European perceptions of the peoples and landscapes of Oceania and the Pacific.

At that time, young women who came from a higher social background were encouraged to learn graphic arts. This very specific know-how eventually gave them the opportunity to take part in expeditions and use their scientific skills. Adèle de Dombasle is one example, but she’s not the only one. Numerous “wives” of archaeologists or anthropologists did accompany their husbands as assistants to the “official” scientists. This is the case of Willowdean Handy with her illustrations and analyses of various Marquesan tattoo designs in the early 1920s. Worth mentioning is also the lesser known story of countess Régine van den Broek d’Obrenan, who realised various drawings, pastels and even one of the first francophone comics to illustrate the scientific journey she (and four others including her husband) had undertaken to collect ethnographic objects. Her efforts led to the creation of a department dedicated to Pacific studies at the Musée de l’Homme in Paris at the end of the 1930s.

Today, these illustrations represent an incomparable source of information for the historical, archaeological, cultural and anthropological study of Oceanian communities. They are also key historical testimonies that help us better understand how Europeans developed biased anthropological representations of the indigenous populations and environments of the Pacific, which were the primary focus of these expeditions. Finally, as we discover the drawings produced by women, this graphic corpus is a unique opportunity to analyse the impact of gender on representations.

- These fascinating stories deserve more publicity – your work deserves more publicity. Where should we go if we want to learn more about it?

There has never been an exhibition specifically dedicated to the women who used their talents as illustrators during scientific expeditions in Oceania.

There have been a few instances where institutions have put a focus on women who became famous as illustrators (see examples here and here or the work carried out by the Australian Museum on the Scott sisters). Some of the drawings by Adèle de Dombasle can be seen at the Musée du Quai Branly, others in a book that Frédéric de La Grandville dedicated to Edmond Ginoux de La Coche (2001. Edmond de Ginoux. Ethnologue en Polynésie Française dans les années 1840. Paris: l’Harmattan) or on this blog. A few books exist such as the notebook of Régine van den Broek d’Obrenan which has been recently published.

- The history of these women and their drawings is also rich in lessons learned for our contemporary values and shortfalls – they convey a timeless message about gender equality and inclusiveness.

These drawings are unique testimonies of the encounter of alterities, the curiosity of these marvelling explorers and what they would feel as they were travelling and surveying unchartered territories; in short, discovery at its best.

But I also think that these drawings, those by Adèle as those that other explorer-illustrator-scientist females realised, are very concrete evidence that minority groups – that is to say groups that will be put in a minority by social, cultural and political norms – will find a way to elevate themselves above their social condition. At the same time, the intersectionality of various factors of oppression – typically class, gender and colonial relationships – would make this outcome a lot harder to achieve.

This explains why it is so important to continue fighting any discriminations today and supporting diversity, including in scientific research. One of the best tools we have is to loudly discuss the figures, such as these women, who played an instrumental role in building our scientific knowledge of the world, but are still hidden behind the “founding fathers” (the infamous “Matthew / Matilda effect”, well identified in sciences). We need to tell the stories of the Matildas of the Pacific region.

Dernière modification : 29/06/2021

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