Tuesday, February 3, 2015


Alan Kaiser, Archaeology, Sexism, and Scandal: The Long-Suppressed Story of One Woman's Discoveries and the Man Who Stole Credit for Them. New York; London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2014. Pp. xx, 251. ISBN 9781442230033. $38.00.

Reviewed by Kathy L. Gaca, Vanderbilt University (kathy.l.gaca@Vanderbilt.edu)

Version at BMCR home site

What difference do prominent thesis and dissertation advisors make as gatekeepers of social equity in their respective academic fields? Back in the 1920s and 1930s, the cultural anthropologist Franz Boas, a somewhat older contemporary of the classical archaeologist David M. Robinson, understood that master's thesis and doctoral dissertation advisors should nurture and empower their graduate students to produce and publish their own research. Boas also realized that female graduate students in particular should be encouraged to move beyond social biases that tend to reduce women to the status of ancillary support staff and that they should be treated as researchers in their own right. Boas tried to live by this principle in his own complicated way, as "Papa Franz" both protective and controlling, during the formative years of cultural anthropology at Columbia University. His guidance helped lead Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, Ruth Bunzel, and Elsie Clews Parsons, among others, to come into their own and make a name for themselves by producing landmark studies. That in turn helped shape cultural anthropology to become, among the social sciences, relatively progressive and inclusive early on.1 Although Kaiser does not mention Boas as a counter example to Robinson, he makes a solid case that classical archaeology was behind the curve by comparison with cultural anthropology.

Kaiser demonstrates that Robinson —professor of classical archaeology at Johns Hopkins University, ambitious excavation director at Olynthus from 1928 to 1938, and advisor of numerous master's theses and doctoral dissertations — stole the intellectual property of his advisee Mary Ross Ellingson on two separate occasions, once in 1933 and again in 1952. Robinson published a lightly altered version of Ellingson's master's thesis solely under his own name as Excavations at Olynthus VII: The Terra-Cottas of Olynthus Found in 1931 (1933), and he did the same in the first chapter of his Excavations at Olynthus XIV: Terracottas, Lamps, and Coins Found in 1934 and 1938 (1952), which he took from Ellingson's doctoral dissertation. In so doing Robinson treated Ellingson as an unrecognized subordinate in the service of his own career, not as a future colleague whose scholarly career he was obligated to nurture and promote in her own name. Given the strength of Kaiser's case, Johns Hopkins University Press and Johns Hopkins University should acknowledge Mary Ross Ellingson as the author of the volume and chapter in question.

In addition to the solid evidence for Robinson's plagiarism, Kaiser offers a persuasive argument that sexism informs Robinson's use of Ellingson's work. This argument unfolds gradually in the book through the genuine efforts Kaiser makes to offer a more generous explanation in this regard, that is, to find Robinson an excuse if he had one. Perhaps plagiarism standards differed back then. Maybe Robinson as excavation director actually owned the work of his graduate students. Even if a plagiarist, perhaps Robinson did not discriminate by sex in this regard. Possibly he co-opted the work of his male graduate students to the same degree as he did Ellingson's work. Maybe the painted portrait of himself that Robinson commissioned, reproduced as a card, and sent as a holiday greeting to Ellingson in December 1952 was a tacit follow-up apology to her that he probably should have given her more credit for the first chapter of Olynthus XIV. Yet Kaiser explains why his many efforts to excuse Robinson fail, and that leaves sexism as the most plausible explanation still standing.

Kaiser graciously tries to leave intact his last effort to mitigate Robinson's unacknowledged use of Ellingson's intellectual property—his view that the imagery on Robinson's 1952 holiday greeting card in effect shows Robinson offering Ellingson an apology. The card's imagery, however, will surely provoke further debate as to the messages it conveys. In Robinson's portrait as represented on the card (165, fig. 6.1), there sits the white-haired Robinson, dressed magisterially in his professorial regalia, with a faint hint of a smile on his placid face, while unmistakably holding Olynthus VII on his lap, open to the distinctive image on the frontispiece of the volume that Ellingson had to have recognized when she received the card. Even if Robinson meant the card as an apology to Ellingson, as Kaiser maintains, in other ways the card reasserts Robinson's wrongful claiming of her work. There the volume sits on his lap and in his hands, her master's thesis published as his own work. Further, given the social custom of sending holiday greeting cards, Robinson likely sent this card to other recipients too. Any colleagues and graduate students in classical archaeology who received a copy of this card would also have recognized the book, but they would have seen it as one of Robinson's volumes in the Olynthus series. Seen from this perspective, Robinson's 1952 holiday greeting card further represents the book as his own, thereby reenacting his deception of 1933.

Just as unsettling is the fact that Ellingson lived for years as a professor teaching classical archaeology, mainly at the University of Evansville in southern Indiana, knowing full well that Robinson took over her work as his own. Yet she never raised any protest about what he did, not a peep to Robinson or to other colleagues or to the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA) or to a court of law. Kaiser makes this silence reverberate in his engaging biography and social contextualizing of Ellingson as a lively and assertive graduate student and then as a teacher and mother. We are shown Ellingson's youthful dream to become a classical archaeologist of note and her first steps toward realizing this goal, as brought to life through Kaiser's skillful choice of her hitherto unpublished photos. The photos reveal both Ellingson's energetic field work at Olynthus and her growing anthropological interest in the nearby Vlachs because of their culture, not only because they were a labor source for Robinson's work crews whom she oversaw at Olynthus. Thereafter, her more ambitious dream faded. Ellingson, married as of 1939, went on to become a minor figure in classical archaeology, excellent at teaching the subject at the University of Evansville, yet publishing no research in her own name as a professor even though she earned her Ph.D. in 1939.

Archaeology, Sexism, and Scandal should help give classical archaeology, and directed graduate fieldwork more generally, an even stronger impetus to make sure that graduate students, female and male alike, are empowered to realize their potential as the published and recognized authors of their research, not to have their intellectual property taken over by advisors and feel constrained to remain deferential about it. The experience of Mary Ross Ellingson is one life story that shows us why.


1.   See Jerold S. Auerbach, Explorers in Eden: Pueblo Indians and the Promised Land (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2008), along with relevant bibliography therein.

1 comment:

  1. Robinson's plagiarism from his graduate students is well known and it was not only women graduate students who were his victims.


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