Marcia-Anne Dobres – also known as MA (and as Marcie, but only to family and childhood friends) – has left us seven months after being diagnosed with anaplastic thyroid cancer, which is always fatal. She passed away comfortably at her home in Randolph, Maine on May 14, 2021 with her sister at her side and her cat sleeping at her feet.
From the day of her diagnosis, Marcia-Anne’s goal was to finish teaching her spring semester Anthropology courses at the University of Southern Maine. With the help of a very supportive department chair, Lydia Savage, who provided many accommodations and completed grading for two of MA’s classes, Marcia-Anne was able to do just that, although she was virtually unable to speak due to a tracheostomy. She finished teaching an advanced course on de-colonizing museums by emailing lectures and discussion questions to the students and facilitating their discussions on Zoom, typing her comments into the Chat feature as the students discussed the course material.
It was ironic, frustrating, and mildly comical to her that, as a scholar and a person with such strong opinions who could hold forth with gusto in the classroom and at family gatherings, Marcia-Anne was without a voice during her illness. But she still managed to make her views known!
After a successful career performing in regional theater and on national tours of Broadway musicals, Marcia-Anne rewarded herself with a scholar-led tour of the Yucatan. It changed her life by introducing her to world-wide and ancient cultures. She went back to college, completed her undergraduate degree summa cum laude at New York University, her M.A. at Binghamton University, and her Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley. She was then awarded a prestigious one-year residency at the School of American Research in Santa Fe, New Mexico to develop her doctoral dissertation into a book on Technology and Social Agency: Outlining a Practice Framework for Archeology, which has been influential in her field, particularly in Europe. Her research focused primarily on the confluence of gender, agency, and technology.
Archeology, anthropology, and teaching students to think, speak, and write critically were Marcia-Anne’s passions. She taught at the University of Arkansas, University of South Carolina, University of Virginia, and University of Maine, as well as USM. Marcia-Anne was a demanding teacher who taught students to think for themselves, express themselves clearly, and support their views carefully.
Her research focused on the materiality of identity; on gender, agency, and technology; on Ice Age art; and on the history and sociopolitics of archaeology. These interests came together in her dissertation on the engendering of Magdalenian technology and personhood in the French Pyrénées, ca. 14,000 years ago. Another facet of her work explored the intersection of archaeology, anthropology, and pop culture (for example in Hollywood films, cartoons, fiction, and even museum gift shops) and with how cultures (past and present) are portrayed in museums of natural history. She used the lens of philosophy and critical theory to understand how the technoscientific project of capitalism shapes our understandings and our representations of the past. Her archaeological research was conducted primarily in France and South Africa, while her museum research allowed her to travel the world.
She was involved in ongoing research in Epi-Palaeolithic/Mesolithic transition in the eastern French Midi-Pyrénées and had analyzed the curated collections at Musée de l'Homme (Paris), Musée des Antiquités Nationales (Saint Germain-en-Laye), Institute de Paléontologie Humaine (Paris), Musée d'Histoire Naturelle (Toulouse), Musée Départemental de l'Ariège (Foix), Musée de Menton (Menton, France) and enjoyed excavation experiences in Les Trois Frères; Enlène; Verbérie; Grotte XVI; La Micoque.
Her academic work was honored with Fellowships from the National Endowment of the Humanities, the UC Berkeley Chancellors Fund, the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, Phi Beta Kappa, Sigma Xi and James A. Swan Fund awards at Oxford University. She was also an elected member of Phi Beta Kappa and Sigma Xi.
Her dissertation became a book in 2000 titled Technology and Social Agency: Outlining a Practice Framework for Archaeology. Blackwell: Oxford and numerous journal articles and book chapters. She gave extensive conference presentations and was invited to speak all over the world – including France, South Africa, Norway, Sweden and the United Kingdom - about her research and continued to develop her personal and professional relationships.
Despite her global research and travels, Marcia-Anne stayed connected to Maine with teaching and research affiliations at Bowdoin College, University of Maine, and the University of Southern Maine where she was most recently appointed in Geography-Anthropology.
She was a dedicated faculty member and taught courses in Introduction to Cultural Anthropology, Anthropology and Pop Culture, Anthropology and the Museum, Anthropology of Sex and Gender, Science, Technology, and Society, Human Origins, Origins of Civilization, Prehistoric Art for Geography-Anthropology and served as an important mentor for many students. Just before the COVID pandemic, MA drove a van full of students from both the USM Portland and Gorham campus to the Abbe Museum in Bar Harbor and introduced us all to her favorite pizza place in Machias - a day to treasure.
Marcia-Anne acknowledged loving her series of short-hair black cats more than she cared for most human beings. Her one regret in dying was leaving behind the cat she named Squeaky (because he never learned to meow), who she adopted from a no-skill shelter just before the start of the COVID pandemic. Needless to say, they bonded intensely during the next 15 months of pandemic life. She insisted that her sister promise to give the cat a home, never part with or overfeed him, and envelop him with as much love as she did. The latter demand is impossible to fulfill.
Marcia-Anne bought her home 15 years ago and threw herself into improving and maintaining it like she committed herself intensely to everything else she did. Just a few days before her death, she was touching up the paint on baseboards around the house, and giving orders to her sister about spreading a load of mulch on the gardens and washing green scum off the siding.
In addition to Squeaky, Marcia-Anne’s human family, dear friends, and colleagues will miss her and her tough form of love. Family include sister Sally Dobres, niece and nephew Katie Dobres-Spang and Matt Dobres-Spang, great-nephew Cameron Mazon, and brother-in-law Bruce Spang and his husband, Myles Rightmire. She has donated her body to the training of medical students at the University of New England. A Zoom gathering of family, friends, and colleagues will be planned later this year to share memories. If you would like to do something to honor Marcia-Anne’s life, please consider a donation to Maine Public (Maine’s public broadcasting network), Heifer International, World Kitchen, or Habitat for Humanity, to which she made bequests because of the difference they make in people’s lives.
We’ll miss you, Marcia-Anne!