Three Women in Lithuanian Archaeology: Life and Work on Two Sides of the Iron Curtain

By Dr. Šarūnė Valotkienė, National Museum of Lithuania

In Lithuania, the origin of archaeological science is attributed to the second half of the 19th century (Kulikauskas, Zabiela 1999: 15-21). For a long time, archaeology was an all male field. However, in the middle of the 20th century, a pivotal turning point occurred as three promising female archaeologists – namely Regina Volkaitė-Kulikauskienė, Rimutė Rimantienė, and Marija Alseikaitė-Gimbutienė (better known abroad as Marija Gimbutas) – joined the ranks of archaeologists. This transformation raises questions about the factors that influenced this change.

The Three Women Archaeologists
Volkaitė Kulikauskienė (1916-2007) stands out as one of the most renowned Lithuanian archaeologists of the second half of the 20th century. In 1936 she started to study history (archaeology was not a specialized field at that time in Lithuania). 1938-1941 her career began at a museum, where she worked for several years before becoming a university lecturer and conducting research at the Lithuanian Historical Institute. Her primary research interests revolved around Lithuanian ethnogenesis and the material culture of the 9th-12th centuries. Throughout her career, she authored more than 10 books on archaeological topics (for example: Lietuviai IX-XII amžiais in 1970 (“Lithuanians in the 9th-12th centuries”), Senovės lietuvių drabužiai ir jų papuošalai in 1997 (“Clothes and jewelry of ancient Lithuanians”), numerous articles, and conducted various significant archaeological investigations.

The data utilized in this paper are from the memoirs and diaries of Volkaitė-Kulikauskienė, which have been published in the book titled Prisiminimų pynės (2016, “The Braids of Diaries”). This biography of the archaeologist is constructed based on her personal diaries, letters, and recollections shared by her relatives, particularly her daughter, Daiva Kulikauskaitė-Jankauskienė.

Rimantienė (1920-2023) was another prominent figure among Lithuanian archaeologists during the second half of the 20th century. In 1938-1946 Rimantienė studied Lithuanian studies, then she transitioned to archaeology. Her career from 1942 to 1960 included positions at a museum. From 1960 to 1999, she conducted research at the Lithuanian Historical Institute; at the same time Rimantienė worked at the universities of Kaunas (1945-1947) and Vilnius (1972-1977).

A black and white photo of a white woman with dark hair.

Fig. 1. R. Rimantienė in 1975. By Aleknavičius Bernardas. © Klaipeda County Ieva Simonaityte Public Library. CC BY-NC-ND.

Rimantienė’s research primarily focused on archaeological monuments from the Stone and Bronze Ages. She actively participated in various archaeological excavations. Throughout her career, Rimantienė published approximately 10 books on archaeological topics, alongside numerous scientific articles. A few essential books were translated into foreign languages such as German Die Steinzeit-fischer an der Ostseelagune in Litauen (2005) and English NIDA. A Bay Coast Culture Settlement on the Curonian Lagoon (2016).

The valuable information utilized in this research is drawn from Rimantienė’s memoir entitled Aš iš dvidešimtojo amžiaus: pluoštas archeologės prisiminimų (2010; “I from the Twentieth Century: a bundle of memories by an archaeologist”). Within its pages, the archaeologist candidly describes her childhood experiences, years of academic pursuit, and later professional and personal life.

Gimbutas (1921-1994) is a world-renowned archaeologist. In 1938, she pursued studies in Lithuanian studies, later transitioning to archaeology. Gimbutas defended her dissertation in Germany straight after the Second World War (1946). In 1949, M. Gimbutas emigrated to the USA with her family, where she taught at universities. From 1967 until 1980, she conducted archaeological excavations in south-eastern Europe. Gimbutas’s primary research focus encompassed Post-Paleolithic Europe and archaeomythology, resulting in the publication of more than 20 books and various scientific articles. For example, “The Balts” (1963), “The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe 6500-3500 BC: Myths and Cult Images” (1974).
This paper focuses on material from the diaries, memoirs and letters of Gimbutas, as well as published recollections of her family members and relatives (Gimbutienė 2002, 2005, 2015).
Several common key moments emerge from examining the diaries and memoirs of these women regarding their decision to pursue archaeology, particularly concerning the influence of their family environment, schooling, and university experiences.

Family Environments

The influence of family, particularly that of their fathers, is evident for Rimantienė and Gimbutas. Both individuals grew up in families of intellectuals and were exposed from a young age to renowned figures involved in national activities. Rimantienė’s grandfather Jonas Jablonskis, was a Lithuanian linguist, her father Konstantinas Jablonskis, was a historian, and her mother Sofija Landsbergytė-Jablonskienė, was a mathematician. Meanwhile, M. Gimbutas’s father Danielius Alseika, was a prominent ear, nose and throat doctor, actively engaged in public affairs in the Vilnius region; and her mother Veronika Alseikienė, was an ophthalmologist and public figure. Both girls’ fathers held an interest in the history and ethnography of Lithuania, thus exposing them to these sciences even before formal studies.

Gimbutas, in particular, demonstrated a strong sense of patriotism, as reflected in her diary entry at the age of 19, where she wrote, “I am studying because it is something that is close to my heart, so that I can educate myself and then give something back to Lithuania, it’s culture and my relatives” (Gimbutienė 2015: 50).

On the other hand, Rimantienė fondly recalled her childhood and emphasized the influence of her family’s passion for ethnology, stating “Growing up amidst folklore and ethnography at home, I felt a natural inclination towards studying ethnology” (Rimantienė 2010: 33).

Rimantienė’s mother exhibited remarkable activity despite the societal constraints that relegated her to the housewife role prevalent during her time. She shared invaluable wisdom with her daughter, encouraging her to pursue her career ambitions, regardless of the number of children she might have. On the other hand, Gimbutas’s mother actively worked and held a prominent public role, serving as an exemplar of a woman engaged in professional endeavors. Thus, within both girls’ families, the importance of women’s education was emphasized, reflecting a shift in attitudes toward working women from previous norms.

Schooling

Education also likely played an important role in shaping the career trajectories of these women. Volkaitė-Kulikauskienė’s passion for history was sparked by her history teacher, whose guidance proved pivotal in her decision to pursue this field: ‘Her lessons encouraged me to choose this field, although for a while, I was undecided between Lithuanian language and history. History eventually won out’ (Volkaitė-Kulikauskienė 2016: 31). Similarly, the Lithuanian language teacher of both Rimantienė and Gimbutas significantly influenced their professional paths. His engaging lessons were imbued with numerous examples of folklore.
University Experiences.

The third, and equally significant influence on these women was Dr. Jonas Puzinas, who happened to be a teacher for all three. During that time, he was the first and only professional archaeologist in Lithuania. He worked at Kaunas and Vilnius universities from 1934 until 1944. Puzinas conducted captivating lectures that encompassed a diverse range of subjects, including research papers on various topics, book reviews, museum seminars, and engaging field trips (Zabiela 2005: 19).

All three women vividly and respectfully described the impact of Puzinas’ lectures. In her memoirs, Volkaitė-Kulikauskienė wrote: “He was the teacher who ‘got me started’ in my professional field” (Volkaitė-Kulikauskienė 2016: 47). Rimantienė had a prior connection with her teacher, Puzinas, as she had participated in several archaeological excavations led by him, alongside her father. Fondly recalling the experience during the lectures, she remarked:

I remembered well how Professor Puzinas worked, how he collected material, how he compiled the card index. And most importantly, he showed us. […] And it was all written down in detail and in a very nice way’“ (Rimantienė 2010: 90, 120).

After The Second World War

In 1939, the Second World War began, and less than a year later, on 15th June 1940, the Soviet Union occupied Lithuania. In the wake of these events, the first mass arrests targeted politicians, well-known public figures, and intellectuals, leading to raids and interrogations. In response to the unfolding circumstances, in 1944, Gimbutas, her husband and their young daughter made the decision to leave Lithuania. They initially resided in Austria before seeking refuge in Germany and ultimately settling in the USA.

Consequently, the three scientists found themselves on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Gimbutas pursued her work and contributions in the West, while Rimantienė and Volkaitė-Kulikauskienė continued their professional endeavors in Eastern Europe, particularly in Soviet-occupied Lithuania.

What Were Archaeological Excavations Like?

After the war, in 1948, archaeological excavations in Lithuania resumed. The process faced several challenges, however, due to a shortage of various tools and instruments essential for conducting archaeological investigations. Furthermore, there was a scarcity of materials required for preserving the excavated artifacts in the field, as well as modern packaging materials (Luchtanas 2010).

Transportation to archaeological sites also posed difficulties, as archaeologists had to pre-book cars to reach and return from the excavation locations. During the excavation, they often had to arrange for their own transportation from their accommodations to the site, which usually involved walking or utilizing local modes of transport, such as horse-drawn wagons. Archaeological expeditions found lodging in local schools or on people’s homesteads and obtained food from the nearby communities, occasionally foraging for mushrooms, berries, and even fishing for sustenance.

A black and white photograph of an excavation with adults and children taking part.

Fig. 2. Archaeological excavation at the Juodonys hillfort in 1958, Lithuania. No. RKM F 6329, taken by Kazys Makuška © Rokiškis Regional Museum. CC BY-NC-ND.

Regarding the 1975 expedition to the Narkūnai hillfort, Volkaitė-Kulikauskienė wrote:

“During the initial days, much time was consumed by organizational tasks. We had to arrange accommodation for the students, coordinate food arrangements, and prepare the wagon that would serve as our living quarters.” (Volkaitė-Kulikauskienė 2016: 88)

So how were Gimbutas’s excavations conducted? Throughout her career, she led five excavations in south-eastern Europe. In 1971 she excavated in Anza (Macedonia). This is how Gimbutas described her daily life at the Anza excavations:

“I get up with the sun; I go to bed with the sun. We are still experiencing up to 40 degrees of heat. In addition to the excavation work, I am responsible for organizing everything else – buying food, fixing the car, cooking, laundry, etc. We have a lady who cooks a second breakfast and lunch for us for half a day” (Gimbutienė 2015: 265).

Her daughter, Živilė, recalled her mother‘s archaeological expeditions: ‘Leading up to the excavations, there was a substantial amount of correspondence, donation requests, team organization, and administrative tasks’” (Gimbutienė 2015: 231). For instance, the excavations in Greece required a significant amount of diplomatic skills, as Gimbutas mentioned: ‘I counted how many letters I had to write in connection with the present excavations in Greece: 228 in total’.

Although the conditions during Gimbutas’s excavations were not perfect, they were likely far better than those in Lithuania at that time. This is apparent not only from the previously mentioned excavation conditions in Lithuania but also from Rimantienė’s recollection of Gimbutas’s visit to Lithuania in 1971. During the visit, Gimbutas observed Rimantienė’s excavations and expressed surprise at their challenging working conditions, remarking that they were working hard without even having a water pump available.

The disparities in conditions were well-known among women scientists living under the Soviet regime. Following a visit to the USA in 1976 and a meeting with Gimbutas, Volkaitė-Kulikauskienė shared her impressions:

Marija showed me the material from the excavations in Macedonia. […] We discussed the conditions of their research and ours. Naturally, the difference is vast, and I really couldn’t boast about anything. (Volkaitė-Kulikauskienė 2015: 226).

Conferences

All three researchers attended numerous conferences abroad, but due to the division created by the Iron Curtain, they rarely had the opportunity to meet together. The contrast between the conference experiences on either side of the Iron Curtain was quite notable. A good example is the Archaeological Congress held in Prague in 1966, which was attended by Volkaitė-Kulikauskienė and Rimantienė.

However, before they were allowed to attend, they had to navigate a labyrinth of questionnaires, each with a slightly different twist, yet essentially containing the same questions. As Volkaitė-Kulikauskienė remembered:

A trip abroad was like a prize; in order to leave, one had to endure significant suffering and inspections. […] The process involved filling out detailed questionnaires, where you had to list all your relatives, including their dates of birth, death, and burial places. I had to make a choice, and the list of family members included only my sisters, husband, and daughter. (Volkaitė-Kulikauskienė 2016: 79).

Notably, Regina had three brothers, whom she couldn’t mention in the questionnaires due to political reasons prevailing at that time.

The archaeologists who were granted permission to leave Lithuania had to first travel to Moscow, despite the possibility of a more direct route to Prague. The authorities insisted on this route and provided ‘training’ on how to behave in Prague. They were advised not to befriend foreigners, avoid sharing the same lift with them, refrain from asking questions to local people, and so on. During the congress, participants from Soviet republics, including the Lithuanian archaeologists, were taken on targeted excursions, not only to sightseeing places but also to locations that promoted Soviet ideology. For instance, they were brought to lay wreaths at monuments honoring Soviet soldiers who had lost their lives during the Second World War.

Meanwhile, Gimbutas, already a renowned scientist, led a vastly different life. Memoirs and letters published by her husband, Jurgis Gimbutas, and her daughters reveal Gimbutas’s constant travels, mostly to various parts of Europe. Some of these trips lasted for several months, during which she not only familiarized herself with archaeological material from Western Europe but also visited museums and scientific institutions, conducted archaeological research, engaged with fellow archaeologists and participated in the archeological excavations and conferences.

The stark contrasts between the two sides of the Iron Curtain were well understood by the archaeologists themselves. In 1960, during one of Gimbutas’s journeys to Europe, she visited Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia. After returning to Vienna, she expressed in a letter to her husband: ‘One day in the free world! You cannot imagine the difference’” (Gimbutienė 2005: 175). This statement provides a vivid depiction of her experiences, particularly in light of her visit to Lithuania in 1968. In a letter to her daughter, she penned: ‘I live with the impressions from the beyond’. (Gimbutienė 2015: 263). The word “beyond” in her letter carries a profound sense of ambiguity and poignancy.

Conclusions

The mid-20th century marked a significant change in society. Three girls had much more choice than before. It showed evolving attitudes towards women. However, despite this progress, these women had to grapple with stereotypes throughout their lives, although this post does not fully explore this aspect due to word constraints.

The girls’ career choices were primarily influenced by their home environment, including their parents’ attitudes and fields of interest, as well as the impact of their teachers and the professors they encountered at university.

This study compared the subsequent professional paths of women who lived on different sides of the Iron Curtain. The focus has been on examining two specific moments in the researchers’ lives – the conditions of archaeological excavations and their participation in conferences. Gimbutas, living in the West, experienced considerably fewer constraints, although she did not entirely avoid bureaucratic nuances associated with organizing expeditions, as well as various other difficulties commonly encountered in the lives of scientists.

Biography
Dr. Šarūnė Valotkienė
I’m an archaeologist, specialized in the Iron Age. In 2019, I defended a PhD about the practice of placing grave goods. Now, my fields of interest are the history of archaeology and women’s lives in prehistoric societies.

Bibliography
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Gimbutienė, M. (2015), Dienoraštis ir prisiminimai, sud. Živilė Gimbutaitė, Kaunas: Naujasis lankas.
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Volkaitė-Kulikauskienė, R. (2005), ‘Vainikas draugystei’, in Marija Gimbutienė, Iš laiškų ir prisiminimų, sud. Ž. Gimbutaitė, Vilnius: Žaltvykslė: 224-229.
Volkaitė-Kulikauskienė, R. (2016), Dienoraščių pynės. parengė R. D. Kulikauskaitė-Jankauskienė ir G. Zabiela, Vilnius: LNM.
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VLE website: Visuotinė lietuvių enciklopedija, https://www.vle.lt/ [accessed 24 April 2024]

This post is part of a series in which speakers of the session “(In)Visbile Women in History of Archaeology” of the Annual Meeting of the European Association of Archaeologists 2023 publish their presentations. The posts will be published simultaneously in German and English. The German version of this post can be found on the blog of the project AktArcha at https://aktarcha.hypotheses.org/6549.

Introduction: (In)visible Women in History of Archaeology Series

The session “(In)visible Women in History of Archaeology” was a full-day session at the 2023 Annual Meeting of the European Association of Archaeologists in Belfast, UK. It was co-organized by Ammandeep Mahal from Beyond Notability, Doris Gutsmiedl-Schümann and Elsbeth Bösl from AktArcha, Tove Hjørungdal from the University of Gothenburg and Laura Coltofean-Arizancu from the German Archaeological Institute, Research Cluster 5: History of Archaeology. The session aimed to shed some light on the roles of women working in and contributing to archaeology and heritage in the history of archaeology, and welcomed papers about individual biographies as well as overviews and comparisons of women and their work in a particular area of archaeology. During the session, we also discussed methods and approaches to research the history of women in archaeology and heritage. 

A photograph of a whiteboard with the words Beyond Notability on from a conference.
Slide from the the Beyond Notability presentation.

The Beyond Notability team is collaborating with AktArcha to publish a series of blog posts on women in archaeology in which speakers of the “(In)Visible Women in History of Archaeology” session at the European Association of Archaeologists Annual Meeting 2023 will publish their presentations.  The series will be published simultaneously in German on AktArcha’s blog and in English on the Beyond Notability blog.

We would like to thank all speakers who decided to publish a blog post about their paper with us!

This post is part of a series in which speakers of the session “(In)Visbile Women in History of Archaeology” of the Annual Meeting of the European Association of Archaeologists 2023 publish their presentations. The posts will be published simultaneously in German and English. The German version of this post can be found on the blog of the project AktArcha at https://aktarcha.hypotheses.org/5942.