Science

Of Buildings and Bras

In 2010, I had the pleasure of befriending Leah McCurdy, a PhD student in archaeology at the University of Texas at San Antonio. I am always in awe of her fierce intelligence, deep inquisitiveness, outgoing personality, and drive to help others as much as she can. Leah has recently begun expanding beyond the archaeological work she does in Belize to try to help Belizeans in need. I am inspired by Leah’s work, and as a fellow anthropologist, I love that she is working to give back to the communities that make her work possible. I recently spoke with Leah via e-mail about her research and her organization BRAs for Belize.

Will: What made you want to become an archaeologist? When did you decide that this is what you wanted to do?

Leah: I was an Art History major during my undergraduate studies and have always had a fascination with buildings and architecture. I took an archaeology class because I thought it would be relevant and interesting. I liked the class and signed up for a summer field school in Belize in 2008 to learn about what archaeologists do in the field. I think I wanted a bit of adventure, and I’ve always been a “get your hands dirty” sort of person. I went to Belize not really knowing what to expect and found that I totally loved it! I got to be messy, joke around, do hands-on learning, wander around ancient places, be in a different country for a month, and the best part … imagine how I would reconstruct ancient buildings.

You can do a ton of other things in archaeology, but this really grabbed my attention. I think the minute I got home from Belize I started checking about how archaeology and buildings go together. I was already pretty entrenched in art history to switch majors, so I minored in anthropology for the archaeology and moved on to finish my bachelors. I returned to Belize in 2009. By that time, I had already taken another bull by the horns and applied to study on a Master’s course in England at the University of York under the Archaeology of Buildings program. In England, I got hooked on buildings and archaeology even more and found a niche in virtual architectural reconstruction.

In 2010, I started the PhD program in anthropology at the University of Texas at San Antonio, and I am nearing completion—fingers crossed, knock on wood! I’ve returned to excavate in Belize for the past seven years, have started teaching undergraduates about archaeology, and conducting my own research. I love buildings, thinking about construction, and wondering about what things were like in the past.

W: What has it been like for you as a woman working in archaeology? Do you find the field is male-dominated? If so, why do you think that is?

L: Actually, in my experience, it’s rather female-dominated. Not in the same way that we think of male-dominated sciences, but on my project women far outweigh men in terms of grad student numbers. At conferences, I often remark on the higher number of women than men. Early archaeologists were almost exclusively men. In Maya studies, there are only a handful of prominent women in the history of fieldwork. Today, I would bet that there are more female archaeologist permit holders working in the country of Belize than male.

In terms of the work and being a woman, there are a couple of hurdles, but mostly it’s become very gender neutral. In places like Belize, we work with local archaeologists who have experience digging at Maya sites. Gender roles in Belize and Central America are much more traditional than in the States, although this is really changing now. Ten years ago, Belizean excavators still remarked on working with women in the field. Now, I hardly hear a thing about it, but on some occasions I get candid questions about whether I’m married, want to have children, why I’m working in this job, and so on.

In general, working in (foreign) archaeology (for everyone, not just women) entails being away from your family and everyday life for long periods of time. That can be rather difficult for everyone, but for women with spouses and/or children it can be especially difficult. Fieldwork is fun and rewarding, but at times it’s frustrating because you are disconnected from your life back home. In more recent years, women bring their children to the field or plan family vacations to meet up in whatever field location. Things are much easier with intermittent internet access. But “being away” is still a big aspect of archaeology that poses challenges to women.

W: What specifically are you studying there in Belize?

Leah's fieldsite
Leah’s Fieldsite (Photo courtesy Leah McCurdy)

L: We study many different aspects of ancient Maya culture and society. Specifically, my research focuses on ancient Maya architecture, construction, and labor. I excavate monumental buildings at the ancient Maya city of Xunantunich to understand building process and how powerful people recruited and managed large labor populations. More so, I’m interested in the laborers themselves. Where did they come from? What tasks did they perform? How did they feel about construction activities? What did the acts of building mean to them?

Other folks on my project research ancient Maya ritual activities, the earliest Maya people, ancient plant use, households and economic production, ancient political dynamics and warfare, and even howler monkeys!

W: What is the goal of your PhD research? Where can people find more information about your work if they’re interested?

L: My goals are to develop a comprehensive model of ancient Maya architectural construction, including all the tasks involved, organizational structure, and political dynamics; project how much time and labor went into building a prominent Maya building in Belize over time; estimate what percentage of the surrounding population would have been involved in constructing this prominent building that symbolized the power of polity elites; explore the interworkings of communities that are the foundation of such large-scale building or civic projects; and delve into how monumental buildings are as much as reflection of elite power as they are a representation of every single mason, stone carver, quarry worker, and plasterer to have contributed work during construction. There’s more info about my research at my website.

W: What sort of advice do you have for young women who might be thinking about going after a career in archaeology?

L: GO TO THE FIELD!!! DON’T DELAY!!! Get a place on a field school as soon as you can! It’s one thing to sit in a classroom and hear a lecture about excavation and survey. It’s a whole different ball of wax to travel internationally (if you never have), live in a totally different place for a month, do manual labor (digging) all day long, be messy and smelly all day long, and be “on” intellectually at the same time. This is not to say that it is too difficult or to stop anyone from going, but you have to try it out for yourself before making a big commitment career-wise. I’ve worked with a ton of field school students over the years, and many of the women love it, but many of them sort of hate it. Either way, you just need to figure it out! So think of a place that you have always wanted to go (think about climate and distance and money, too) and check into field schools through universities or other organizations. There are so many great opportunities out there! And don’t let fear of the unknown get the better of you! Traveling and being away from home does entail risk, but you miss out on a great deal if you don’t take some risks every now and then. Field archaeology involves taking risks: physically, intellectually, and sometimes socially. It can also be some of the best times in your life!

W: Okay, let’s talk about your non-archaeological work in Belize. What sorts of problems do women in Belize face on a regular basis?

L: Belize is a very small country. It is only a teeny bit bigger than New Jersey. It is also a very poor country. Being small and poor, opportunities for women are hindered. Basic everyday issues like paying bills, earning enough to feed your family, paying for your kids’ education (as this is not state-funded) are difficulties for women in Belize. Concerns with sanitation, health, and the tropical environment are also significant. Belize is also an ethnically diverse country with large Hispanic, Creole, Asian, and Maya populations. While many Belizeans embrace their diversity, this diversity can come with the cost of prejudice from all sectors. Despite our best efforts, prejudice is still widespread in this world, and often times in poorer economies women face challenges associated with both gender and social prejudice.

Recently, a very good friend of mine passed away from ovarian cancer. In Belize, medical care is extremely poor. For small villages such as where I work, medical care is typically received via missionary clinics. Most people cannot afford medical treatment for even minor issues. My friend with cancer was diagnosed in Belize but there is not one place in Belize that can treat cancer. She had to travel to Guatemala, with increased expenses and difficulties of travel, to receive treatment. Another friend’s son broke his arm, but they could not afford to go to the hospital in Belize so they traveled to Guatemala to treat the boy. You can imagine how much this puts a strain on a family who often finds it difficult to make everyday ends meet.

With all this in mind, I am always so humbled and inspired by the great generosity of spirit and healthy outlook on life held by Belizeans of my acquaintance. I have made a great number of Belizean friends over the years. I have learned a great deal about joy and common sense living from them.

W: You have started a project called BRAs for Belize. Why bras?

L: My Belizean friend Sylvia Batty and I were chatting one day several years ago about things she might want me to bring down next time I traveled to Belize. Because the country is so small and struggling economically, it is difficult to find good quality items. Sylvia was very keen for me to scope out some good bras for her from the states. Good bras are particularly difficult to find in Belize, especially bras in larger sizes. Decent bras are quite expensive even by middle-class American standards and are positively out of reach for many Belizean women.

Leah and Sylvia
Leah and Sylvia (Photo courtesy Leah McCurdy)

Further, as many women can attest, there’s something about a good bra that perks you up—literally and figuratively! A good bra can give you confidence and a feeling of strength. There’s almost a sense of empowerment associated with a great bra and the way it makes you feel. After speaking with Sylvia, I thought that bringing some “support” to the women of Belize could be a very immediate and personal way to impact their lives. I don’t profess to be solving world hunger with this project, just offering a bit of support, confidence, and stimulus to Belizean women’s everyday lives.

For the past several months, we have been collecting donations of gently-used or new bras as well as cash for purchasing new bras. Further, we plan to use some of the cash donations to produce English/Spanish pamphlets with information about bra fitting and breast health. It is our hope that we will be able to print enough to give to each woman who receives a bra. I recently counted all of the bra donations we have received so far and we have 117!! The generosity has been amazing, and I look forward to seeing how the women react in Belize!

W: What is the deadline for people who wish to donate? What can people do after the deadline?

L: The deadline is when I travel to Belize this summer. If you are interested in donating gently used or new bras, sending them by June 1st will ensure that I get them in time to pack. For anyone who wants to donate cash to BRAs for Belize so we can purchase new bras, if you do that by mid-May then I will have enough time to search the discount racks and purchase some new bras! All donation information can be found at our GoFundMe site.

After these times this summer, you can always donate via our PayPal account or send us an email. You can also SPREAD THE WORD!! We have posts on Facebook or you can share our GoFundMe page on social media. It has been amazing to see the generosity and support from tons of different people! I’ve become the bra lady and I love it!

W: What other ways do you hope to help women in Belize in the future?

L: I have some long-term plans to involve my mother, who has a background in business and management, to develop entrepreneurship and business education and support for women in Belize, specifically women who struggle to support their families. We are thinking about developing a sort of exchange program with recent or upcoming American business school graduates to Belize. We envision it as a two-way learning experience. We hope to provide an opportunity for new American business women to learn about the struggles that women face in other countries and get a broader perspective on the world that global businesses work within and among. Providing workshops and training regarding business start-up, accounting, and management for Belizean women would be the meat of the exchange program session, with possibilities for the American students to live with Belizean families, work one-on-one with specific Belizean entrepreneurs, and learn from the workshops as well.

I am also very interested in the intersection of archaeology and conservation, or preservation as it is often called. Sustainable preservation involves investing in the communities that surround archaeological sites to create or strengthen the feedback loops of tourism, archaeological conservation, and economic development. I hope to work with a friend of mine local to the village of Succotz, Belize, to develop sustainable preservation practices in the area. These efforts will be broader steps to support women in Belize as many women rely on tourism economically.

W: One last question: What’s your favorite thing about working in Belize and why?

L: I’ve talked a lot about Belizean women here, but I have to mention that one of my other favorite things about Belize is working with the men who excavate with me in the field. Belizeans have a wonderful sense of humor and are always willing to explore more serious topics as well. Field conversations are always dynamic, fun, and sometimes a bit “out there!” Also, I’ve always been fascinated by the ingenuity of Belizean people. This ingenuity is on display every day in the field when we have to create ladders out of sticks and make a roll of string last for four weeks. I love seeing how other people solve problems. My immediate reaction to problems is usually, “let’s go buy more” or “we need a chainsaw!” I’m always in awe of the less “western” route to solve problems in the jungle. One of my field favorite moments ever was watching a team of Belizeans cut down and move 10 trees in about an hour with only machetes and some rope. They politely asked me to stand aside as my machete skills are lacking!

Thanks, Leah, for sharing your work with us! If you would like to help Leah, head on over to her GoFundMe site to donate or get information on how to donate gently-used bras.

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Will

Will is the admin of Queereka, part of the Skepchick network. They are a cultural/medical anthropologist who works at the intersections of sex/gender, sexuality, health, and education. Their other interests include politics, science studies, popular culture, and public perceptions and understandings of anthropology. Follow them on Twitter at @anthrowill and Facebook at facebook.com/anthrowill.

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