Women in NL Archaeology: Priscilla Renouf

In honour of International Women’s Day & Women’s History Month 2021, the NLAS is profiling women who have made contributions to archaeology in Newfoundland and Labrador. Inspired by TrowelBlazers “We’re here. And we always have been,” we celebrate all women in archaeology.

Dr. Priscilla Renouf. Photograph from the Globe and Mail 2014

Dr. Priscilla Renouf devoted her career to understanding past human occupation on Newfoundland’s Great Northern Peninsula, particularly at Port au Choix. She was an outstanding researcher, mentor, teacher, and supervisor, with a wicked sense of humour and the ability to bring the best out of everyone who crossed her path. Born in St. John’s, Dr. Renouf studied archaeology at Memorial University, supervised in her Master’s thesis by Jim Tuck. Her PhD thesis at Cambridge examined the settlement and subsistence patterns of past hunter-gatherers on the northern coast of Norway.

She returned to Memorial University and in 1984 she began a 30-year research programme at Port au Choix, focused on the unusually large Dorset site of Phillip’s Garden, understanding the cultural entanglements of different cultural groups that simultaneously occupied the same landscape. Her investigations revealed both short- and long-term variability in architecture, household structure, and settlement organization at the site over its 800-year history of occupation. She also led or was associated with investigations at over 150 different sites within Newfoundland and Labrador, researching the role of material culture in traditional small-scale societies, and the interactions between people and their environments.

Priscilla was awarded a Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in North Atlantic Archaeology in 2001. She was a member of the founding board of directors at the Canadian Museum of Civilization (now the Canadian Museum of History). In 2003, she became Chair of the founding board of directors of The Rooms Corporation of Newfoundland and Labrador. When she became a faculty member at Memorial in 1981, Arctic archaeology was a particularly male-dominated specialty within an already male-dominated discipline. Although not writing from a feminist perspective per se, Priscilla opened space for other women in this realm. Her presence and formidable research output proved an example to students and younger colleagues that Arctic archaeologists did not have to be burly men with beards: women could run major northern field projects and become highly respected researchers in the field. She cared deeply about her students. Lisa Hodgetts and Patty Wells wrote that:

All sites in Newfoundland and Labrador that Dr. Renouf worked on throughout her career.

Her respect for her students, fairness, and confidence in their abilities were an inspiration to them. None wanted to disappoint her, and all endeavored to meet the standard she had set through her own example. Priscilla saw her students through to completion using a mixture of firmness and humour. We recall her thorough and meticulous edits of our written work, which often included witty illustrations of trash cans filled with jargon and guns aimed at poorly worded phases.

Another student, Steve Hull, has calculated some of her impact:

Depending on the research she would have a team of about six students assisting her. So, after nearly 30 years of work that would be 120 to 150 students she directly influenced with her fieldwork. This doesn’t include students she had working in other areas of the Province off the Northern Peninsula like Tim Rast at Burgeo or Lisa Fogt at Cape Ray. It also doesn’t include the thousands of students she would have taught during her university teaching career. The impact she had on Newfoundland and Labrador archaeology just through her students is immeasurable.

She was married to Roger Pickervance, a biologist and chef who supported her career at home as resident editor, and accompanied her into the field, where he participated in her research and conducted his own. On occasion, he also filled in as cook, much to the delight of hungry field crews used to plainer fare. More significantly, with her beloved Roger, Priscilla realized the joys of a balanced life. As Lisa Hodgetts and Patty Wells have written: “To Priscilla, Queen of the Dorset, who helped us discover Sivullirmiut archaeology, inspired us to persist through adversity, and made us laugh. We are better scholars for having worked with her, and better people for having known her.”

With thanks to Lisa Hodgetts, Patricia Wells, Tim Rast, and Steve Hull. Hodgetts, Lisa and Patricia Wells.

Additional Articles:
Priscilla Renouf Remembered: An Introduction to the Special Issue with a Note on Renaming the Palaeoeskimo Tradition. Arctic, 69(5), Supplement 1. https://journalhosting.ucalgary.ca/index.php/arctic/article/view/67716/51612

Hull, Stephen. 2014. Dr Priscilla Renouf. Inside Archaeology. https://nlarchaeology.wordpress.com/2014/04/14/dr-priscilla-renouf/

Rast, Tim. 2014. Dr. Priscilla Renouf. Elfshot. http://elfshotgallery.blogspot.com/2014/04/dr-priscilla-renouf.html

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