A Trailblazer for Women in Archaeology

Category: News

A family subscription to National Geographic magazine sparked a love of archaeology in Lynne Sullivan (’74) when she was in elementary school, and that love continues today even into her retirement.

She entered the field in the face of gender discrimination and, after completing her doctoral degree and working in the New York State Museum for 13 years, returned to Knoxville to assume her role as a curator at the McClung Museum of Natural History and Culture, where she worked until retirement.

One of Sullivan’s primary specialties is the social aspects of the Mississippian culture, which existed in what is now the Southeastern United States prior to the arrival of European settlers. She knows, for instance, that by the 1400s drought forced most people out of what is now Middle Tennessee, and they trickled into East Tennessee and the Ohio River Valley.

“These conditions initially caused conflict and violence but then resolved as people formed councils to discuss issues; and we can learn from the past by studying what people have done in specific circumstances,” Sullivan said. “These are opportunities for us to learn what did, and didn’t, work in managing a society.”
Her lifelong commitment to the field of archaeology led to her being nominated for the Southeastern Archaeological Conference Lifetime Achievement Award by David Anderson, a professor in the Department of Anthropology. Letters of support were written by colleagues including the McClung Museum’s former director Jefferson Chapman and Curator of Archaeology Timothy Baumann and UT Professor Emeritus Gerald Schroedl.

“Lynne has been a pioneer during the last 50 years as a female archaeologist,” Baumann said. “She’s obviously had an enormous impact on UT and the McClung Museum, but also on the field of archaeology. She’s proud of the struggles she went through to break that glass ceiling in a field that was very much against women’s roles being fully immersed in the science. That’s why, beyond her list of publications, I’ve always been very impressed with her.”
Chapman, who was director of the McClung Museum when Sullivan was hired, says that her professional contributions have not slowed since her retirement. In fact, she continues to publish and engage in discussions surrounding topics and controversies of the field.

“We are very blessed that she made her career at the museum as a curator and continues to work with the museum’s collections,” Chapman said. “They are of national, if not worldwide, significance, and she’s done quite a bit to enhance that. I really have a lot of respect for her continuing work in retirement and activity in archaeology and publication.”

Both Chapman and Baumann say that when Sullivan retired from her role as curator of archaeology at the McClung Museum she left a foundation that has allowed her successor to enhance the museum and its collections. Baumann, who is now the museum’s curator, says that Sullivan’s ongoing work with UT, the Tennessee Valley Authority, and the National Park Service is vital and helps archaeology stay relevant in the current day.

“Her continued research into preserving sites in East Tennessee, and her willingness to stick her neck out and say what she thinks, is admirable and part of why she’s so highly respected,” Baumann said. “She understands we have a responsibility of legacy to take care of these collections and provide leadership around archaeological preservation. Those are big shoes to fill, and she has provided a wonderful foundation for me to follow.”