Skip to main content Skip to footer site map

She Digs: Annalisa Heppner


She Digs is a new column from Secrets of the Dead featuring some of our favorite women in the archaeology field. This month, we met with archaeologist Annalisa Heppner. She received her master’s degree from the University of Alaska Anchorage and has been an archaeologist for more than a decade. She has spent time studying Indigenous communities on the Arctic Coast of Alaska and is currently serving as Project Manager of the Circumpolar Laboratory Inventory Project at the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology at Brown University.

We sat down with her to learn more about the role of Indigenous people in archaeology, her passion for museum management and the importance of archaeological preservation.

By: Tess Brock 

Secrets of the Dead: Tell us a little bit more about your background and how you got started in the field.

Heppner: I’ve always had an interest in history from a young age, but the real impetus for me getting into archaeology, especially the archaeology of North America and anthropological archaeology, is that my mom has her degree in Native American studies and my mom and my grandmother are both Native Mexican, from the Rarámuri community in Chihuahua in northern Mexico.

My grandmother and mom grew up in California away from their home community, but with pretty strong cultural ties with their big extended family. That really influenced me to do Native American studies but the program at the University of Tennessee folded, and they shuffled all the students into anthropology. I took a class on North American archaeology, and it was a really cool experience with opportunities to do fieldwork. I’d never really done anything like that before, and I’m always down for an adventure. I kind of stumbled into this career, but it worked out really well.

My first jobs in archaeology were actually not field jobs, they were museum and lab work jobs. I was cataloging artifacts in the lab as an assistant to a grad student’s dissertation project.  I’m really passionate about how museums work. They’re very intrinsic to archaeology, but because it’s such a field science, the museum gets lost in that often.

Secrets of the Dead: What was your first experience like in the field?

Heppner: My first field school was in South Carolina at the Topper Site, which is a pre-Clovis paleo Indian site. That’s what really got me into this work. I’m less interested in how people got here and more interested in the discussions about how people were living here 13,000 years ago.

What was life like when you were living in this world with mammoths and mastodons and giant ground sloths? What was life actually like versus what are the mechanisms for traveling across the landscape?

Secrets of the Dead: How do you define Indigenous archaeology and its importance?

Heppner: There are a couple of different working definitions of Indigenous archaeology. There are other scholars like Dr. Kisha Supernant and Dr. Sara Gonzales that have great definitions I look to. For me, the crux of Indigenous archaeology is that it’s led by Indigenous people, done in service to Indigenous people, and is done, if not led by, in community with Indigenous people. It looks at the archaeology of Indigenous people and their pasts from their lens. The most important thing about Indigenous archaeology is that the stories being told are the stories led by the community in question. Archaeologists can do well to reposition themselves less as experts and more as people providing a service. Being in service and doing something for someone else is when archaeology is at its best.

One of the things that come from my background that I take really seriously is that everything is shared. There’s this concept called “Korima” in Rarámuri culture, which is that everything that you have belongs to your community. Everything is shared in common, so when I do archaeology, I try to bring that approach and remove hierarchy. It’s important to build the knowledge directly with the community you’re studying as much as you possibly can. Whenever I’m a field director or field lead, I like to make sure there’s space for reflection and making sure that at the end of the day, we’re all coming together to figure out what we learned. Making sure that everyone’s voices are heard throughout the project is really crucial.

Secrets of the Dead: You have been working as an Alaskan archaeologist since 2009, what has your experience been like there?

Heppner: Alaska is great. I really love it there. I’m really lucky it’s still a big part of my career. I’ve spent time living in the North Slope borough on the Arctic Coast doing social impact assessments. Doing interviews with people in the true Arctic at the height of winter was very neat, but also really, really cold.

You can’t do archaeology in Alaska without having to work with Native people and that’s not true for the whole United States. There are lots of places where only you know, when I was working in South Carolina for example, we didn’t think about consultation with Indigenous communities because they don’t have a strong political presence there versus in Alaska where if you’re going to do any sort of archaeological work, you have to think about the Indigenous communities and how they will respond. If they want to be involved with your project, they’ll be involved. Working in that environment is really valuable for archaeologists to remember we’re not the final say on anything in Alaska.

Secrets of the Dead: Currently you serve as Project Manager for the Circumpolar Laboratory Inventory Project at the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology at Brown University. Can you tell us more about the project and your role there?

Heppner: The Circumpolar Laboratory Inventory Project is funded by the National Park Service and it focuses on the collections made by Dr. J. Louis Giddings and Dr. Douglas Anderson. They made these collections from two big expeditions between 1953 – 1978. The collections are foundational to how archaeologists understand the cultural history of northwest Alaska, and Dr. Giddings and Dr. Anderson were pretty big players in the origins of Alaskan archaeology. To be totally frank, what happened was that there were a lot of old collections, but they fell into disuse. The collection is probably about 500,000 – 800,000 objects. It all got pretty neglected, so I’ve spent the last couple of years going through, object by object, digitizing the catalog, writing everything down, going through old field notes, and rehousing the objects so they’re in a safe and stable condition.

I like to talk about the project as being step zero in our long-term goals for the collection. What I hope to see is using this collection as a way to rebuild relationships between northwest Alaska and Brown, as well as Indigenous communities and Brown because while Dr. Giddings and Dr. Anderson did a lot of work there, it has not been continued. What I would like to see is a reopening of discussions with communities in northwest Alaska about these collections and what they want to see happen with them.

Secrets of the Dead: How do you avoid problems with preservation?

Heppner: The archaeological community is slowly shifting to think about curatorial responsibilities from the beginning of a project onward. One of the things I like to remind people of is that science has to be replicable and with archaeology, you can’t put everything back and dig it up. Everything that you do when you’re removing an artifact from the ground, you need to understand you have destroyed its context. You have to write it down. You have to put it in a format that other people can access. You have to make sure that whatever you take out, you take care of.

Archaeologists have a responsibility, that they don’t take very seriously sometimes, to truly care for the objects they recover. You would never go to someone’s house and look at their TV and be like, you know, I’m going to take it and then leave it in your basement and let it get a big crack in it. We need to make sure that we treat the material that comes from other people with the utmost respect that we can.

In a lot of Native cultures, my own included, things that come from plants, things that come from animals, even things that are built, all have lives. Objects have lives, and you have to respect them as if they are people.

Secrets of the Dead: How can archaeologists work on bettering their relationships with their local communities?

Heppner: One thing that archaeologists can bring to their communities is public education. The Haffenreffer Museum and partners have this program called Think Like an Archaeologist. It goes out to six grade classrooms in the Providence public schools and teaches a weeklong unit on thinking archaeologically for social studies or science classes. It is so much fun and seeing them get excited about reconstructing a pot or learning about stratigraphy or learning about how to think archaeologically is so cool, and it’s a really great program. Archaeologists should spend a lot more time demystifying what we do and focus more on bringing people in versus being a gatekeeper.

Secrets of the Dead: What would your dream collection look like if you had your own museum?

Heppner: I actually don’t think I would have a permanent collection. Museums can be this really exciting space for temporary interactions and building together. I would love to see a museum that exists as a place where you can share and exchange ideas versus solely collection based. Say I wanted to have a conversation with other Rarámuri people who grew up in California. I could bring Rarámuri people and their belongings to the space. We could do an exhibit or a workshop, and I could take pictures of the things we create. I also have a responsibility as a person educated in Western society, who had access to universities and all these things, to really serve as a bridge for people who don’t. I think we should put ourselves in the role of bringing other people in as much as they want to be brought in. Our ethos should not be gatekeeping, but rather knocking the gate down and inviting people in.

Secrets of the Dead: How can archaeology benefit from more women in the field? 

Heppner: In my master’s thesis, I wrote about the reflection of white American manifest destiny onto the past when we talk about that time period at the end of the last Ice Age in North America. The way the novel population swept across the landscape and pioneered their way is described as being an odyssey. The American identity is really constructed around this pioneering mindset that gets reflected in our archaeology. Women are broadening this approach by asking more interesting, bigger questions. How did these people live? How did they meet their partners? What did family relationships look like? Women are bringing these questions about daily life to the forefront.

Another thing that’s important to think about, especially for women in archaeology, is that it can be a tough field to break into. There is a lot of prejudice against women, and there is sexual harassment and sexual violence in the field. You’ll get told that you’re too girly or that you’re too fat to do archaeology, that you don’t have the stamina to hold up to a field survey. Overall, the message can be, “women don’t belong in the field and instead should be doing lab or admin work.” It is challenging, but I think with my generation of scholars, my generation of women in archaeology, we’ve really leaned into collaborative mode to combat that message. Let’s build something new. Let’s work together to create a field that is all about collaboration and inclusion.

Secrets of the Dead: What is one piece of advice you would have for young women interested in the field?

What I tell women in archaeology all the time is to find the other women. You’re not going to get along with everybody, but you will find the most amazing women to befriend. Having that core group of women that you can work with and lean on is key.

Special thanks to Annalisa for talking with us! You can follow her on Twitter and keep up with her work at the Circumpolar Laboratory on Instagram.


Subscribe to the Secrets of the Dead Newsletter


PBS is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization.