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Robert Schuyler (bottom right) interrupted Liz Quinlan (second from top left) and used a Nazi phrase and salute during the opening plenary of a virtual archaeology conference last week.

Liz Quinlan

Public use of Nazi salute rocks archaeology conference

Attendees at last week’s annual meeting of the Society for Historical Archaeology (SHA) were shocked by a public, online altercation that included a past president of the organization using a Nazi salute and phrase during the conference’s opening plenary session.

Liz Quinlan, a doctoral student at the University of York, was thrilled to be an invited speaker at the plenary on Wednesday, 6 January. She served as the accessibility and inclusion coordinator of both the January 2020 conference, held in person in Boston, and this year’s virtual conference. As she was talking about her work, which included an LGBTQ+ guide to Boston in 2020 and a push to provide live closed captioning and transcripts of the virtual sessions this year, she was interrupted by attendee Robert Schuyler, an archaeologist at the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) and SHA president in 1982. Schuyler unmuted himself on Zoom and asked for the floor. He urged members to attend 2022’s in-person meeting in Philadelphia, then asked how the pandemic had affected SHA’s membership renewal numbers.

“This is not the place for you to bring this up,” Quinlan responded. Schuyler then raised his voice and said, “I’m sorry, but I have freedom of speech and you’re not going to tell me this is not the place for me to bring this up.”

“I am attempting to utilize the position the SHA gave me to speak about important topics [of accessibility and inclusion],” Quinlan said.

Schuyler then thrust his arm in the air and said, “Sieg heil to you.”

Quinlan told Science in an interview that she immediately realized that Schuyler had used a gesture and words associated with Nazism to express his displeasure at her trying to hold the floor. But other attendees, including SHA leadership and this reporter, did not hear Schuyler’s words clearly because two people were talking at once on Zoom.

Karen Hutchison, SHA’s executive director, then answered Schuyler’s question and noted that renewals were on track with previous years. Quinlan, who identifies as disabled and queer, was asked to continue. Holding back tears, she said her being interrupted by a senior member of the society highlighted the importance of continued work on accessibility and inclusion, especially in virtual spaces. She briefly left the session to collect herself and the discussion moved on. Quinlan received an outpouring of support from other attendees in Zoom’s chat function, but no one at the time mentioned Schuyler’s use of a Nazi gesture and phrase.

Quinlan says she wondered whether she had somehow imagined the Nazi gesture. But 2 days later, on Friday evening, she reviewed the video of the plenary posted to the conference website and confirmed Schuyler’s words and actions. She filed a harassment complaint with SHA, as well with the Register of Professional Archaeologists, of which Schuyler is a member. “The fact that this was recorded made it so much more viable in terms of [filing] a complaint,” Quinlan says. She asked SHA to officially censure Schuyler, consider barring him from the 2022 conference, and take steps to ensure no similar interruption during a virtual conference can happen in the future.

News of the altercation spread Saturday after Kristina Killgrove, an archaeologist at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, posted a Twitter thread, with Quinlan’s permission, describing the incident and including a video clip.

Schuyler did not respond to Science’s requests for comment. In an article published Sunday in The Daily Pennsylvanian, UPenn's student newspaper, he confirmed that he had used the salute and Nazi phrase, but said he regrets his choice of words and does not endorse Nazism. He added that he believed he owed Quinlan an apology but hadn’t yet reached out. He also said he did not think he should be disciplined, but instead “yelled at.”

“We are deeply sorry that our conference became a place where people felt threatened, unwelcome, and diminished by the actions of an individual,” SHA President Barbara Heath said in a statement. “There is no place for such behavior in the SHA.” She said “actions have been taken internally” but declined to share the outcomes because SHA’s harassment reporting process is confidential. SHA also removed the video of the plenary from the conference website to edit out what it called “offensive content.”

“I’m very satisfied with the way the SHA has responded so far,” Quinlan says.

The Register of Professional Archaeologists said it has received three complaints about the incident and begun an investigation.

Kathleen Morrison, chair of UPenn’s anthropology department, says although university officials are still discussing the next steps, “Dr. Schuyler will not be in the classroom this semester” because of his actions at the conference. She said a statement from the dean’s office is forthcoming.

This was the second public harassment scandal to occur at a recent archaeology conference. In 2019, the Society for American Archaeology was criticized for its handling of events when an archaeologist sanctioned by his university for sexual harassment attended its annual meeting. Quinlan expressed relief that she felt supported by SHA. “In the most blunt way, [the events at the plenary] drive home the point about needing more diverse voices in the field [of archaeology.”