Going above and beyond in archaeology and museum work

Fourth-year Qi Liu has participated in every undergraduate program at the Penn Museum, done research for two senior theses in anthropology and art history, and joined excavations in the U.S. and abroad.

Qi Liu in front of Penn Museum.
Qi Liu, an anthropology and art history major, has participated in every undergraduate program the Penn Museum has to offer and is completing two senior theses.

While Azerbaijan and Mississippi are very different places for archaeological fieldwork, Qi Liu noticed a commonality on the first two excavations she joined, both during the summer of her second year at Penn: They were female-directed with a predominantly female crew. Traveling to Oman that winter, she again joined a team of mostly women.

Liu, now a fourth-year student majoring in anthropology and art history and minoring in chemistry, figured this was not by chance and chose to write a senior thesis on the changing role of women in archaeology. To assess the shift from mostly male crews a half-century ago, Liu has interviewed more than 20 people, from undergraduates to seniors in their 80s and 90s.

Megan Kassabaum, the associate professor of anthropology who led the Mississippi excavation, says other students may have noted the gender dynamics, but that Liu wanted to know why and how they changed. “She’s incredibly self-directed, so some of the directions that that project has gone I frankly never would have thought of,” says Kassabaum, who advised Liu’s thesis.

Liu wrote a second senior thesis “Female Piety and Power: The Appearance of Noli me tangere in Ottonian Manuscripts,” which won the David M. Robb Thesis Prize from the History of Art Department.

For Liu, who is from Beijing, this is part of a larger trend of going above and beyond. Anne Tiballi, director of academic engagement at the Penn Museum, notes that Liu is only the second student in 10 years to participate in all four Museum programs offered for undergraduates: Field Funds, which supported her archaeological work in Mississippi and Illinois; the Student Exhibition Internship Program; the Summer Internship Program; and the Penn Museum Fellows program, which is supporting her anthropology senior thesis.

Women in archaeology

Liu has gotten assistance on her senior thesis from Kassabaum and Sarah Linn, who runs the Penn Museum Fellows program and is assistant director of academic engagement at the Museum. Liu says she began by interviewing female archaeologists she knows—including Kassabaum—and asking if they could connect her with their colleagues and students. From older interviewees, she heard stories of Bermuda shorts being banned for women on campus and false accusations of getting a position by sleeping with the department chair.

“In the 1950s and ’60s, you go to the archive and you look at the excavation crew photos, and it’s always a group of men, shirtless most of the time, holding shovels and looking at the camera and looking tough,” Liu says. She explains that when women entered archaeology in the ’50s, it was mostly through marriage to a man directing an excavation, and the ’70s and ’80s saw women making it onto a project without attaching themselves to a man. But those women may have felt pressure to perform masculinity, and to choose between archaeology and having a family.

Women had more opportunity to do both by the ’90s and early 2000s, Liu says, but it “varies a lot on where you do your dig, because local culture gender norms definitely have an impression.” She still sees a “good ol’ boys culture” in archaeology today, with the attitude that female archaeologists must “be cool”—drinking after excavations, tolerating insensitive jokes, and not complaining about living conditions—to hold their own with the men. One woman working in the Near East shared that she briefly took up smoking because men made decisions on cigarette breaks.

Qi Liu on excavation in Oman.
Qi Liu found a tombstone on an excavation in Oman in January 2023. (Image: Courtesy of Qi Liu)

Liu says that she started the project trying to pinpoint a time when the gender balance shifted in archaeological fieldwork but found the story was more complicated. She ended up focusing more on intersectionality as she spoke with women from different ethnic, sociocultural, and economic backgrounds.

After graduating, she wants to do more museum or excavation work before graduate school—and to figure out what she wants to do in graduate school, as she is weighing whether to pursue her interest in archaeology, medieval art history, museum interpretation, or conservation.

Seizing all opportunities

Liu didn’t declare both majors until her third year and says she has more to do, so she will stay at Penn an extra semester. Liu says she entered college wanting to study comparative literature but found that she wanted to work on concrete materials. “I was looking at opportunities to work with material culture and visual representation, and that’s what archaeology and art history both have, and I think they complement each other really well,” she says.

As a second-year student in the spring of 2022, Liu met Kassabaum when she took the professor’s new Archaeology in the City of Brotherly Love course, in which students visited local historical and archaeological sites during their all-day class period on Fridays. Kassabaum was struck by Liu’s distinct interest in conservation and “immediate grasp of what archaeology could offer to bigger histories of the city,” she says, and with no doubts about Liu joining her excavation that summer at two pre-contact Native American sites in Mississippi.

Kassabaum has been bringing students to southwestern Mississippi since 2015 and says she is selective about who she brings, because the relationships she has in rural Mississippi are hard-fought and fragile and because of the “intense experience” of living, eating, and working together for several weeks. Liu was one of four undergrads and six graduate students on the 2022 trip.

For the 2022-23 Student Exhibition Internship Program, Liu was one of three undergraduate student curators for Key Questions: Unlocking Florida’s Ancient Past, working with Museum staff on displaying, interpreting, and even carbon-14 dating artifacts that offer clues about the daily lives of Indigenous peoples living hundreds of years ago on the state’s southwestern coast. Linn noted that this was the first instance of conducting scientific analysis as part of the annual student show.

The curators had been having meetings with Linn in Tiballi’s office, which is filled with cloth, looms, and other objects related to Tiballi’s research on South American textiles. In January 2023, Liu and fellow student curator Sydney Kahn asked Tiballi, who had just returned from a year at the History of Science Museum at the University of Oxford, to teach them about archaeological textiles.

“Once a week for most of last spring, we sat in the corner of the cafe, and we spun and wove and worked through this mini curriculum I’ve developed on textile analysis,” Tiballi says. She adds that Liu made a point of finding her at a recent Museum event to share that she had not only knitted a whole sweater vest but also spun the yarn to make it.

Liu participated in another internship last summer, funded through the Center for Undergraduate Research & Fellowship’s Summer Humanities Internship Program. She helped develop an “Egypt Everywhere” pamphlet to be given to visitors during the closure of the Egypt Gallery for a multiyear construction project, says Jessica Bicknell, director of exhibitions. She also interviewed visitors about their experience.

In the summer of 2023, Liu joined an excavation in Illinois led by Autumn Melby, an anthropology doctoral student who was one of the grad students on the Mississippi trip. That fall, she wanted to enroll in the second iteration of the Archaeology in the City of Brotherly Love course but couldn’t due to a Friday morning scheduling conflict, but she still came out to dig with the class many Friday afternoons, Kassabaum says.

“From fieldwork to internships to co-curating with two other undergrads plus a whole gaggle of staff, she really leans into co-creation,” Tiballi says. She adds that Liu makes her think about why these programs exist: “A student’s experience at the University can be transformed by their participation in it, and yet she’s come up with things that are completely unique to her, so it’s a sort of alchemy between what we can offer and what she’s brought.”

Qi Liu gives talk at Penn Museum.
Qi Liu gave a Daily Dig talk in July 2023 as part of her summer internship at the Penn Museum. (Image: Courtesy of Qi Liu)