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Dr. Ruth Tringham (2003)

2003_TringhamDr. Ruth Tringham is a Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley. Born in Bedfordshire, England, she attended the University of Edinburgh where she received her undergraduate and graduate degrees from the Department of Archaeology. Prior to her arrival at Berkeley, she taught at London’s University College and at Harvard University. She is an accomplished researcher, well known for her work on the Neolithic of Eastern Europe, and the author of numerous publications covering a wide range of archaeological topics. The titles of a few of her published works include Archaeology and the Goddess: Exploring the Contours of Feminist Archaeology (with Margaret W. Conkey); Men and Women in Prehistoric Architecture; Households with Faces: The Challenge of Gender in Prehistoric Architectural Remains; Selevac: A Neolithic Village in Yugoslavia (with Dusan Krstic); Man, Settlement and Urbanism (with Peter Ucko and G.W. Dimbleby); and Hunters, Fishers and Farmers of Eastern Europe, 6000-3000 B.C.

Dr. Tringham is best known for her work at the Neolithic settlements of Selevac (1976-1979) and Opovo (1983-1989) in Yugoslavia, at the Eneolithic tell settlement of Podgoritsa in Bulgaria (1995), and at the well-known site of Çatalhöyük in Turkey (1997-), which some have argued represents humankind’s first “town” (Dr. Tringham thinks otherwise). She is the Director of the BACH (Berkeley Archaeologists at Çatalhöyük).

During the course of her career, Dr. Tringham has directed much of her attention toward the archaeological study of households and the identification of gender in the archaeological record. It is her philosophy that archaeology is both an interpretive discipline and a performance art. In recent years, she has helped pioneer a multimedia approach to recording, teaching, and “performing” archaeology. She is a recipient of the 1998-2000 Presidential Chair in Undergraduate Education (UCB), and a 2001 recipient of the Chancellor’s Educational Initiatives Award (with Meg Conkey and Rosemary Joyce) for Educational Multimedia Development for her pioneering efforts in multimedia. Her interest in multimedia presentation of archaeological research to her colleagues and the public led to the founding of the Multimedia Authoring Center for the Teaching of Anthropology (MACTIA) laboratory at Berkeley. For more information on Dr. Tringham’s work at Çatalhöyük and other projects check out the MACTIA web site at

Dr. Tringham was the Awards Banquet Keynote Speaker at the 2003 SCA Annual Meeting in Sacramento. The title of her presentation was, “Real Audiences and Virtual Excavations (RAVE): The Construction of a Cultural Heritage Place at Çatalhöyük.” This interview was made possible through the efforts of SCA members Breck Parkman and C. Kristina Roper.

SCA: Can you tell us where you were born, and a little about your early childhood?

RT: I was born in England at home in a small village in Bedfordshire, near the famous Bletchley Park, where the cyber-wizards lived and trained in WW2. The village is now very near to a super-highway (the M1) but is quite unspoiled. I went to visit it for the first time about three years ago and found the house and the village and could remember every path. Amazing! I was the youngest sibling with two older brothers for a long time. We also always had a dog and a cat in our house. When I was five my family moved back to London. I went to a regular primary school until I was 11, and then won a scholarship to an all-girls high school in north London that was one of a series of semi-private schools called the Girls Public Day School Trust. The trust was started by two suffragettes who were determined to educate girls in the same way as boys. Their schools focused on academics and had a high degree of success. By the way I am not the only archaeological product from there. Barbara Bender was a couple of years ahead of me! Soon after we moved house to Hampstead, near my school. Here my younger brother and sister were born.

The high school taught me Latin and Greek, and I became a star at sports. But I think an even more important formative factor in my life was my participation since age 12 in the children’s clubs at the Natural History Museum in London. Not only did I meet boys here, but I got to learn how to do research projects. Virtually everyone I knew who was a member of these clubs ended up doing some kind of research in their careers.

SCA: Who are the people that most influenced you?

RT: My mother imbued me with the need to question authority and look for sub-texts and agendas of authoritative text. This has served me well in my life and in my more recent archaeology. When I wrote my first book “Hunters, Fishers and Farmers of Eastern Europe” I dedicated it to V. Gordon Childe and my three mentors: Stuart Piggott, Bohumil Soudsky, and Peter Ucko. And until that time they were the people who most influenced me. You are made a person by the people who “influence” you, but at some point, I think ” influence” changes from a desire to emulate to being inspired by people to do things you would otherwise not dare or think to do. They inspire your own creativity. I continue to learn many things from many people, including a number of students with whom I work and have worked at Berkeley and Harvard. It seems almost insidious to rank them and I hope they will not be offended if I do not mention all their names, but just a couple. My recent colleagues in the Archaeology program at Berkeley, especially Meg Conkey and Rosemary Joyce and the Çatalhöyük excavation project team.

SCA: Do you have any hobbies or special interests that you’d like to tell us about?

RT: Music has always been a big part of my life. At 9 I started to play the violin until aged 18. In my Natural History Club camps I got into the whole folk-singing thing, playing skiffle board (can you believe it?) and graduating to the guitar in college. I played the guitar, learning folk-songs from every country that I visited and singing at parties and excavations. This continued until I came to California. The end of my folk-singing with chest voice came when I started to take voice lessons. Somehow the two didn’t seem to go together. For the last 15 years I have been singing in the San Francisco Symphony Chorus, winning a Grammy for Carmina Burana (with 200 other people).

I also used to do a lot of oil painting of scenes from my imagination (my favorite was a scene I remembered called “Soviet tanks at the Charles Bridge, Prague”). I have always loved to do athletic kinds of things, fencing, volleyball, racquetball, running, skiing, and hiking. Some of these I have done more intensively than others. And I love reading and watching mysteries.

SCA: What do you like to do when you want to get away from archaeology?

RT: I don’t think I ever want to get away from archaeology, or at least not thinking about history. What I do like to get away from are the administrative chores and politics of the university and also some of the intensity of the classroom where I am the boss. Every Tuesday evening I enter an entirely different social context in rehearsal at the SF Symphony chorus, where I am just another voice. It is the most amazing experience to sing wonderful music in the middle of one of the country’s best choruses and with a great orchestra and world-renowned conductors.

I also spend a lot of time doing building projects and gardening/landscaping projects on my house in San Francisco. I live in a lovely sunny neighborhood of Bernal Heights. I go to the opera (my friend Peg sings in many local opera companies and we have many other performer friends), movies (though I like to curl up at home with a DVD). I have a cat Barclay who trains me to amuse him in a ritualistic fashion.

Actually, when I think about it, when I travel I am almost never tempted to go to museums unlike most of my archaeologist friends, so maybe I do try and get away from archaeology…

SCA: Have you read a book or seen a movie recently that you really enjoyed, and what was it?

RT: I have just discovered mysteries by an author called Kathy Reich that I really like at the moment. She is a forensic anthropologist and has a wonderful skill in bringing the process of forensic science (which I love) into a mystery context in an in-depth but readable fashion. I am inspired to try the same thing with archaeology using multimedia. My favorite movies are Babe, Diva, and most recently The Hours. The only thing I watch on TV is CSI.

SCA: If you hadn’t become an archaeologist, what career might you have chosen?

RT: A few weeks ago as an exercise, I made a list of the careers that I would have chosen: stage designer, puppeteer, beekeeper, detective/crime scene investigator, beekeeper, animal trainer, builder…

SCA: When did you first know that you wanted to become an archaeologist?

RT: When I was 8 I had a museum in a chocolate box from stuff that I found while digging around in the garden. In my Natural History Club at age 13 I actually participated in an excavation, but preferred the geology and marine biology options (probably because my friends were doing it). I thought I would like to be an explorer-archaeologist in the Amazon or Mexico, and actually wrote to the director of the National Museum in Mexico, but he never answered. By age 16 I knew I wanted to be an archaeologist. I was walking along the banks of the Thames looking for old clay pipes, and – much to my mother’s horror – got to excavate in an abandoned 17th century plague pit – were actually looking for Roman London remains.

SCA: Can you tell us a little about your training, where you went to school, and what you remember about that time in your life?

RT: I did both my undergraduate and graduate degree in the Dept. of Archaeology at the University of Edinburgh. The undergraduate degree was a 4-year course and you ended up with an MA not a BA. I chose Edinburgh because it was far from home and because wanted nothing to do with Cambridge or Oxford (you had to stay another year at high school for their entry exams and my brother had been at Cambridge and did not seem very happy). Stuart Piggott had succeeded V. Gordon Childe as the head of the dept at Edinburgh, and it always had a very pan-European attitude to prehistory, as opposed to the British/Colonial attitude at Cambridge. Piggott at that time finished his book Ancient Europe and was in the middle of his collaboration with Richard Atkinson on understanding Stonehenge and excavating Neolithic stone-chambered tombs including Wayland’s Smithy. After my first year, we all went on a field school in Cornwall, run by Charles Thomas, who was a lecturer at Edinburgh. His assistant directors were Bernard Wailes (later of U Pennsylvania) and J.V.S. Megaw. Among the site supervisors/tutors was David Clarke. With Piggott’s encouragement I went off to Denmark to participate in an Iron Age excavation in a bog after my first year, and then Norway where we surveyed on the Pasvik River opposite the Soviet Union. I was set on a path to become a Scandinavian archaeologist until I went to Czechoslovakia after my junior year. Here I participated on the excavation of the Neolithic site of Bylany with the Czech archaeologist Bohumil Soudsky. After that, I never left Eastern Europe. I wrote my Senior Thesis on Neolithic clay figurines of Eastern Europe. And my PhD dissertation which was supervised more by Soudsky than Piggott was about bringing together Southeast Europe and Central Europe Neolithic.

The first year of my graduate work I spent at the Charles University in Prague, but mostly at the year-round excavation of Bylany. What I remember of this time in my life is that I didn’t work very hard at things that didn’t interest me (Art History and Ancient History and much of archaeology) but I did work very intensively at research projects. The archaeology was very culture history oriented with many distribution maps and diffusion arrows, and even then I was bored by that. There’s much more, but…

SCA: In your opinion, what are some of the most significant archaeological projects and/or technological innovations underway today and why are they important?

RT: To name projects that I think are significant is going to end in tears, so I will just say that I do think the Çatalhöyük project is significant in terms of encouraging a team of archaeologists and their apprentices to think and record the philosophical and experiential basis of their actions, and the short-term and long-term implications of those actions, and to modify those actions accordingly. It is not perfect but for me it’s significant because I feel that I can make the feminist practice of archaeology a reality here. There are certainly other projects around the world where this is being done. Innovations in the process of archaeology, in recording and sampling and retrieving are more likely to make a project significant than actually what is being found or discovered. In this process the innovations made in observing, analyzing and interpreting archaeological deposits including architecture have been coming thick and fast, including the fact that micro-sedimentological analysis and recording with the Harris matrix is becoming more routine on excavations (just as we saw screening develop in the 1970s-80s) along with their interpretation in terms of the life-histories of houses and places. The innovations in recording, analysis and visualization provided by digital technology are just beginning to become routinely visible. Not only does the use of the total station, digital cameras, and scanning increase the amount of data recorded, but they decrease the amount of time taken to record, and increase the possibilities of analyzing and modifying actions in the field, in the long run they decrease costs for many reasons, and they increase the range of ways that the observations can be used and interpreted. I believe that video-recording will become an increasingly important technique for providing real-time field actions in addition to the “performance” that is their current context. The revolution in building and manipulating and searching archaeological databases is just beginning.

SCA: What are some of your most memorable experiences as an archaeologist?

RT: Although I don’t consider myself a big “artifact” person, the thrill of finding something, turning it over and knowing that you are the first person to see that surface after x-thousand years is one that always remains in my memory. I’m not one of those people blessed with “archaeologist’s luck” but I still have a lot of such memories. One was when I found a spectacular iron sword that was turned blue by bog juices and a gold-plated handle. Another was when I turned over an unspectacular piece of burned clay rubble at Opovo, and saw the vitrified remains of a piece of 6000-year old cloth.

SCA: What are some of the biggest challenges you have faced as an archaeologist?

RT: How to express the complexities of a feminist practice of archaeology –multiple interpretations of archaeological data at multiple scales, allowing multiple voices from past and present to be heard.

SCA: What would you recommend to those who are just beginning their careers as archaeologists?

RT: Training in a particular skill and becoming skillful at analyzing a particular material – faunal analysis, macrofloral analysis, micromorphology, lithic analysis, ceramic technology etc. – can help focus research and should be started as early as possible. It also helps gaining access to a field project and get a job later on. It doesn’t mean that you have to stick with this throughout your career. At the same time your skill will be that much more “marketable” if you link it to interesting theoretical questions and a real set of data. But interesting theoretical ideas or in depth field experience alone are not going to enhance your archaeological career. Don’t create in yourself an image of authority; your authority will come from engaging personally with your ideas in a playful way. And while you’re at it, why not question the authority of “the experts.” One last thing: celebrate ambiguity!

SCA: In your opinion, what are the greatest successes and failures of archaeology to date?

RT: I’m not even going to attempt to answer this question to protect the living and myself…

SCA: How might we make archaeology more relevant to the public?

RT: I have always been disappointed in the public media’s face of archaeology that consistently foregrounds the products of our research and attempts to make them interesting by placing them in a context of discovery and solving mysteries with true facts. And yet in a way we archaeologists cultivate this face. My feeling is that the public are going to engage in archaeology (which is how I interpret the phrase “making it relevant”) only when we share with them the process of what we do and how we think, recognize the diversity of their voices, and allow them to make a contribution to the interpretive process. This means letting go of much of our power and authority, but in return we gain a responsible thinking public who are willing to make an effort on an individual basis as well as a collective basis to treasure the material remains of the past. In my current multimedia work I am trying to do this by allowing public access to my archaeological database through a user-friendly web interface that guides but does not control searches.

SCA: What effects might globalization have on archaeology?

RT: This is a hard one to answer. Globalization is a double-edged sword for archaeology, because on the one hand it can provide global standards for the preservation and public responsibility for archaeological remains and their preservation and presentation. On the other hand globalization can lead to an essentializing of the past and a squashing of the diversity of voices and alternative interpretations. Globalization of communication through the Internet is making it an exciting time for disseminating the results of archaeological practice at the very moment when it is being carried out. At the same time, the world-wide effect of globalization is an illusion since a relatively small proportion of the globe has access to its globalizing technologies.

SCA: Where do you see archaeology going in the future?

RT: There is a difference in the future of archaeology in the U.S. and the future of archaeology elsewhere. It is and will become ever more so, I believe, a diverse field from the point of view of theoretical points of view. I see worldwide a growing interest in the issues of presentation of the interpretation of archaeological data to the diverse public, at the site of excavation, as well as on the Internet. I would like to see a constructivist view of history coming to dominate our discipline, but I think that, at least in the US, the dominant aim and ambition of archaeologists (and of funders) is still to reconstruct and reveal a near-truth picture of what was. Digital technology is obviously going to offer some important changes in the way we practice, especially in terms of recording and publication.

SCA: Do you believe that the past will continue to have relevancy in the future?

RT: If it doesn’t we are lost. I believe in this more bly than in a belief in any supernatural being. I grew up in a context where knowledge about the past and other areas of the world were a given part of my worldview. My goal in teaching and communicating is to put what we do in our daily lives in a historical and geographical context so that we do not delude ourselves that we are perfect and the masters/mistresses of the world and are critical of those who strive to give this delusion a public face.

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