Margaret Conkey (1943- )

Elizabeth Paulson

Early Life/Biography

Margaret Conkey was born in 1943 (Haviland). She began her academic career in 1965, when she graduated from Mount Holyoke College, earning her bachelors degree in Ancient History and Art (Dobres). From there, she went to study biblical archaeology at an archaeological site in Jordan, where she found her true passion for archaeology and began to understand some problems within site. Conkey experienced discrimination when she was not allowed to perform digging at the archaeological site in Jordan, as a result of her gender (Interview with Meg Conkey). However, her experience in Jordan also fostered her love for archaeology, and she decided to pursue graduate school. Conkey needed a full year studying undergraduate anthropology before being accepted into the anthropology department at the University of Chicago. To do so, she attended the Oriental Institute in Chicago. During this time, Conkey contributed to the magazine Current Anthropology, as an editorial assistant. From there, Conkey attended the University of Chicago and earned her M.A. in 1969 and her Ph.D. in anthropology in 1978 (Dobres). While at the University of Chicago, in 1975 “she was the Chairperson of the Committee on the status of Women in Archaeology of the American Anthropological association” (Dobres). After graduation, Conkey went on to teach for six years at San Jose State University, from 1970-1976 (Dobres). After teaching at the University of California, Santa Cruz for one year, she taught at SUNY Binghamton, from 1982-1986 “where she also served as co-director of Women’s Studies” (Dobres). In 1987, Conkey became an Associate Professor at the University of California at Berkeley, where she “received the Class of 1960 endowed chair in 1997, and became an Emerita Professor in 2011” (Dobres). Margaret Conkey served as director of the Archaeological Research Facility at the University of California at Berkeley, from 1994-2007 (Dobres). During her time at the University of California, Berkeley, she received numerous awards for her excellent teaching and accomplishments in archaeology. In 1995, Conkey was awarded an honorary degree from Mount Holyoke College, her alma mater (Dobres). In 1996, “Conkey received the Distinguished Teaching Award of the Division of Social Sciences” (Dobres). Conkey also “served as President of the Association for Feminist Archaeology of the American Anthropological Association” from 1997–1999 (Dobres). Conkey became an elected Fellow of the California Academy of Sciences in 1998 (Dobres). In 2001, she received the Educational Initiatives Award and then earned the Chancellor’s Award for Advancing Institutional Excellence in 2009 (Dobres). Additionally, Conkey served as the “President of the Society for American Archaeology” from 2009-2011(Dobres). Conkey currently “serves on the board of the Center for Advanced Studies in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University” (Dobres).

Archaeology Career

Conkey approaches archaeology with scientific thought, using scientific techniques and the scientific method and blends a unique feminist perspective throughout her work (St. John). Conkey’s goals of her research are to “practice archaeology as a feminist” and not to “create a separate ‘feminist archaeology’” (Haviland 210). Conkey views archaeology with a feminist perspective throughout her research, which surrounds her interests of “prehistoric archaeology, hunter-gatherers, prehistoric art and symbolism, gender studies in archaeology; Old World, Southwestern Europe” (Conkey). Conkey’s feminist perspective has challenged multiple cherished beliefs, such as, the problematic models of the origin of humans, where the "man the hunter" model was been viewed as the sole “driving force in human evolution”, while the aspect of “women’s productive and reproductive roles in the evolution of Homo sapiens” is ignored. (Dominguez, Franks and Boschma).

Conkey specializes in the Paleolithic era, also known as the late Ice Age, “when humans made the first known images we consider art: bison and horses painted with ochres on cave walls, antler and bone carvings” (St. John). During her archaeological career, Conkey has challenged the widely accepted belief that male artists created Paleolithic art “as an expression of spiritual beliefs related to hunting activities” (Haviland 210). Conkey emphasizes that this view, along with other “reconstructions of behavior in the past” depend on current societal gender norms to fill in holes throughout the archaeological record (Haviland 210).

Conkey practices archaeology as a feminist by “challenging the ways that gender affects the field of archaeology” through the proposition of different types of research questions (Haviland 210). Conkey aims to ask different questions, because she believes that this could lead to new conclusions. She asks different questions with regards to feminist theory and the “anthropology of gender” (St. John). Conkey challenges the idea that “textbook illustrations of cave painters show men as the artists”, even though nobody can know for certain what gender “held the brushes and knives to create cave art” (St. John). Conkey aims to change the mindset that women did not contribute to cave art, and believes that it is important to consider the possibility that women had a greater involvement in more aspects of daily life during the Paleolithic era than previously thought (St. John). She acknowledges that while it may be true that men killed most of the animals throughout societies that used hunting and gathering methods (St. John). However, it is possible that women may have performed the majority of the butchering (St. John). Conkey points out “we can't explain 25,000 years of material by saying it was all related to hunting." (St. John). Conkey goes on to point out that “what is 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." (St. John). Conkey acknowledges that the interpretations of artifacts from “the deep past” are very functional, and ultimately suggests that “it's basically sex, food, and tools" (St. John). The paintings during the Paleolithic era “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” (St. John). However, Conkey perceives that this art throughout the late Ice Age was not "about people with magical powers staggering in [to a cave], painting something, and leaving." (St. John). Conkey encourages that images present throughout the Paleolithic era be viewed in a different perspective by archaeologists, so that alternative meanings can be found (St. John). Conkey uses her feminist perspective throughout archaeology as not only an “artistic revolution, but also a social revolution”, therefore suggesting that the creating of art throughout Paleolithic communities was critical in sustaining them (St. John). Conkey argues that images present within the Paleolithic communities were “apart of social memory and other broad issues”, offering an alternative perspective that was ignored by other archaeologists (St. John). Since “people painted caves from southwest Europe to Russia for some 25,000 years”, she argues that "it's very unlikely that there was only one meaning for all that image making" (St. John). Conkey acknowledges that the “attempts to magically protect hunters' success may be one meaning” (St. John). However, she believes that images present in the deep past could have also served social purposes (St. John). Conkey relates the personal identity of modern day tattoos with carved items in the past, and suggests that they could have even “commemorated stages in a life cycle” (St. John).

Venus von Willendorf Conkey even proposes that the famous "Venus of Willendorf” could have been apart of “a female life cycle ritual” (St. John). This paleolithic artifact is shown in the image to the right.

Conkey has published many works, which encourage alternative feminist perspectives throughout archaeology. In 1984, Conkey collaborated with Janet Spector to publish an article titled “Archaeology and the Study of Gender” in volume 7 of Advances in Archaeological Method and Theory (Dominguez, Franks and Boschma). Conkey’s work “critiqued archaeologists for overlaying modern-day, Western gender norms onto past societies, such as in the sexual division of labor” (Dominguez, Franks and Boschma). Additionally, this article “critiqued that contexts and artifacts attributed to the activities of men were prioritized in research time and funding, and that the very character of the discipline was constructed around masculine values and norms” (Dominguez, Franks and Boschma). Then, in 1991 Conkey co-authored with Joan Gero to publish the book Engendering Archaeology: Women and Prehistory (Haviland 210). This work “brought feminist perspectives into archaeology” for the first time (Haviland 210). Conkey analyzed “prehistoric data to discover how gender systems operated in the past” (Dominguez, Franks and Boschma). This popular book has inspired archaeologists to view the past with a different perspective.

Conkey is currently researching the French Midi-Pyrenees, with an archaeological field project called “between the caves”. This project aims to “provide a context for the art and material culture of this region’s Cro-Magnons” by “surveying the regions between the caves” (Haviland 210). Currently “she heads a team that surveys the landscape in southern France, searching for traces of the day-to-day lives of the cave painters.” (Svitil). Through this research, Conkey “aims to reconstruct daily life and the environments in which Upper Paleolithic people expressed themselves through art” (Haviland 210).

Contributions to the Field of Archaeology

Conkey has contributed to both feminist archaeology and feminist anthropology in great ways, increasing awareness of women throughout the field and “in terms of ethnographic accounts and theory” (Dominguez, Franks and Boschma). Conkey has also introduced a feminist perspective on prehistoric art. Conkey has pioneered the field of feminist archaeology, and has added “an anthropological concern with ecology, function, and adaptation” (Dobres). Conkey challenges “the ways that gender affects the practice of archaeology” through her research (Conkey). Conkey began her archaeological career with her 1978 dissertation, which “was the first structural analysis of portable Paleolithic art pursued at an American university” (Dobres). Therefore, Conkey made major contributions with feminist perspectives early on in her career. During Conkey’s time at the University of Chicago, the theoretical framework of processual archaeology was prominent. This theoretical framework “emphasized the relationships between the natural environment and culture” and failed to acknowledge “Ice Age art a legitimate topic of scientific inquiry because at the time no one could imagine imagery painted on cave walls or carved into bone, antler, and ivory as having any adaptive value” (Dobres). Therefore, “Conkey was the first to apply a culture-as-adaptation perspective to the question of Ice Age art” (Dobres). Conkey accomplished this by merging her feminist perspective with a structuralist perspective (Dobres). She did not analyze the meaning of art present throughout “portable artifacts”, but “analyzed how their patterning would have been adaptive for those making and seeing them” (Dobres). This strong female archaeologist has advanced archaeological method and theory through her research on Paleolithic art. Conkey’s research “demonstrates that Paleolithic art is a valid scientific topic amenable to hypothesis testing” (Dobres). Additionally, “her work has also paved the way for understanding ancient visual imagery from an adaptive perspective” (Dobres). Through her research, “Conkey has shown how ancient visual imagery was as central and necessary to ancient cultural survival as were stone tools or fire” (Dobres).

Conkey has contributed to the archaeological field to a great extent, by proving a unique perspective on archaeology and gender. Before Conkey had presented her feminist perspective, “it was assumed, uncritically, that in the past men made and used the hard tools (that conveniently survive in the archaeological record) to hunt, to dominate nature and thus ensure cultural survival, while ancient women were assumed to have pursued the “less important” activities (with perishable tools) such as gathering and childcare” (Dobres). Conkey challenged these narrow-minded assumptions and more importantly, “went further by suggesting that ancient gender relations (much like Paleolithic visual imagery) mattered substantially to how cultures functioned in the past” (Dobres). Therefore, Conkey has displayed the importance in making feminist perspective necessary throughout archaeological inquiry.


Named “50 most important women in science” by Discover magazine, Margaret Conkey is a strong role model for aspiring female archaeologists. Many individuals perceive archaeology as masculine, and Conkey works very hard to challenge negative stereotypes against women. Additionally, this strong female archaeologist has changed the field of archaeology through feminist theory and engendering archaeology. Conkey states that “there has long been a heavy bias toward seeing the whole human past in terms of male action" and aims to offer an alternative perspective (Svitil). She has been “trying to convince people that we can't explain 20,000 years of material by saying it was all magic for the hunt." (Svitil). In addition to encouraging alternative perspectives throughout the field, Conkey has strengthened the teaching of archaeology in local schools (Conkey). Through these accomplishments, Conkey will be remembered as a strong female archaeologist that has surmounted obstacles throughout the field of archaeology that has offered a meaningful perspective. Hopefully Conkey’s work has inspired young female archaeologists to join the field, so that feminist perspectives can be applied to multiple archaeological works. More importantly, hopefully Conkey’s work has inspired all archaeologists, regardless of gender, to view the past with an alternative perspective.

Works Cited

Conkey, Margaret W. "Margaret W. Conkey." Anthropology Department, UC Berkeley. University of California at Berkeley Anthropology Department, 2014. Web. 05 May 2016.

Dobres, Marcia-Anne. "Conkey, Margaret Wright." Encyclopedia of Global Archaeology. Ed. Claire Smith. New York: Springer Science+Business Media, 2014. 1633-636. Springer Link. Web. 5 May 2016.

Dominguez, Johnna, Marsha Franks, and James H. Boschma. "Feminist Anthropology." Anthropological Theories. The University of Alabama, 2009. Web. 05 May 2016.

Haviland, William A. "Anthropologists of Note." Evolution and Prehistory: The Human Challenge. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning, 2008. 210. Print.

"Interview with Meg Conkey." Interview by Douglass W. Bailey. Academia. N.p., 2016. Web. 5 May 2016.

St. John, Don. "Margaret Conkey '65: Painting a New Picture of Ancient Life." College Street Journal (2003): n. pag. Margaret Conkey 65: Painting a New Picture of Ancient Life. Mount Holyoke College, 31 Jan. 2003. Web. 05 May 2016.

Svitil, Kathy A. "The 50 Most Important Women in Science." Discover 1 Nov. 2002: n. pag. Discover Magazine. Kalmbach Publishing Co, 1 Nov. 2002. Web. 05 May 2016.

Venus of Willendorf. Digital image. Wikimedia Commons. N.p., 10 Apr. 2010. Web. 6 May 2016. .