UC Berkeley professor emerita receives prestigious anthropology award

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UC Berkeley Public Affairs/Courtesy

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UC Berkeley anthropology professor emerita Margaret Conkey was awarded the Thomas H. Huxley Memorial Medal in December 2017 for her studies of Paleolithic cave images and the role of gender in archaeology.

The award, bestowed by the Royal Anthropological Institute, is issued annually to those who have made significant lifetime contributions to the field of anthropology. Conkey rose to prominence in the anthropology world for her work studying Paleolithic European cave drawings, leading to the discovery of the prehistoric archaeological site Peyre Blanque, as well as her push to increase feminist archaeological perspectives.

Her long-term field research project, called “Between the Caves,” has resulted in the recovery of more than 3,000 stone artifacts from caves across the French Midi-Pyrénées.

Conkey joined the campus anthropology department in 1987 after being part of the anthropology faculty for Binghamton University. Although Conkey became a professor emerita in 2011, she is still active in her research, especially in that of the French Midi-Pyrénées.

One of the ways in which Conkey pushed for increased visibility of women’s roles in prehistoric societies, according to campus archaeology professor Christine Hastorf, was to exchange images depicting the everyday life of Paleolithic men, which historically dominated archaeological depictions, for those of Paleolithic women.

“She would get people to draw images of women (in presentations), so that the behemoth of archaeology would shift from the ‘Indiana Jones’ way of doing things to women doing things,” Hastorf said.

In addition to encouraging more women to study anthropology, Conkey has worked to encourage indigenous people and ethnic minorities, groups that have historically been underrepresented in anthropology, to apply to the UC Berkeley anthropology department, according to campus archaeology professor emerita Ruth Tringham.

For Tringham, Conkey’s greatest impact has been in bringing people from different academic disciplines together to work on various projects. Tringham also highlighted Conkey’s work on better understanding everyday prehistoric life, especially the understanding of gender as an everyday construction at the time.

Receiving the award, said Conkey in an email, was such a surprise that she had to look up the details of the award after it was announced. She emphasized, however, that any contributions she has made to the field of anthropology were only possible because of her work with others.

“I am so glad to be able to represent Berkeley Anthropology, in addition to the others since the early 1900’s who have been recognized — all males — and add to the diversity of the recipients,” Conkey said in an email. “For me, personally, to have some people think that I have been able to make valuable contributions to the understanding of human culture … is really rewarding in and of itself.”

Ashley Wong is the lead academics and administration reporter. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @wongalum.