Murder at Harvard: why Jane Britton killing matters, 50 years on

The hard-drinking machismo of anthropology, the silencing of women and the dangers of life on remote digs are unearthed and explored anew

December 16, 2020
Jane Britton
Archaeology graduate student Jane Britton

It was while Becky Cooper was an undergraduate at Harvard in 2009 that she first heard about Jane Britton, a graduate student in archaeology who had been murdered 40 years earlier.

The victim, found raped and bludgeoned to death in her bed, was said to have been covered in red ochre, perhaps suggesting a kind of ritual only archaeologists were likely to be familiar with. Although a professor had indeed been questioned, the university had reportedly applied pressure to ensure a cover-up.

Despite the story being “outlandish and obviously embroidered”, Ms Cooper writes in her new book, We Keep the Dead Close: A Murder at Harvard and a Half Century of Silence, it continued to intrigue her. When she mentioned the killing in 2010, she was astonished to learn that the professor under suspicion was still working at Harvard.

In order to investigate further, Ms Cooper took advantage of a strange Harvard tradition offering board and lodging to recent graduates in return for assisting one of the faculty deans; she secured a three-year position. She was known as an “elf”, she explained to Times Higher Education, “because really all you do is bake cookies” for undergraduates’ monthly teas, which left her plenty of time for research.

What she discovered was that nearly half a century after the event, dozens of people were still willing to accuse one of three men – a graduate student and two faculty members in Harvard’s anthropology department at the time of the murder – of having been the perpetrator. In the case of the main suspect, possible motives included an affair that had gone wrong or that Ms Britton had threatened to report him, just when he was seeking tenure, either for bad behaviour while on a dig at Tepe Yahya in Iran or for overhyping the site’s claims to be Alexander the Great’s lost citadel of Carmania.

There is a whole genre of detective fiction set in universities, and much talk about the cut-throat nature of academic politics, but it is surely safe to assume that few professors have slit any throats on their way to the top. When in 2018 the police, largely because Ms Cooper and others were still looking into the case, finally tested the surviving fragments of DNA from the crime scene, they announced a plausible theory that completely exonerated Harvard and its researchers. So what had given such longevity to all the rumours?

In Ms Cooper’s view, “Jane [Britton]’s story had become a kind of cautionary tale, both about a particular professor with a reputation for being Machiavellian but also about the larger treatment of women in academia. It wasn’t just the silencing of one woman on one particular night but a broader systemic silencing of women.”

In May 2020, The Harvard Crimson published an article titled “Protected by decades-old power structures, three renowned Harvard anthropologists face allegations of sexual harassment”, claiming that senior members of Harvard’s anthropology faculty, including two former heads of department, had managed to “weather allegations of sexual harassment”. It added that “dozens of people who passed through the department over the last two decades told The Crimson that the problems women face there stretch beyond the allegations against individual professors”.

Although such issues are hardly confined to anthropology, Ms Cooper believes that specific factors such as “a culture of extensive drinking” and a kind of swaggering machismo made it “a discipline which in many ways still fails to imagine women as part of it”. She cited a study by Kathryn Clancy and others indicating that 70 per cent of the women and 40 per cent of the men surveyed “reported having experienced sexual harassment” on field sites, while a quarter of the women had experienced sexual assault, usually from superiors rather than peers. She also pointed to “the ways in which the vulnerabilities of graduate students and non-tenured people are exacerbated on digs because people are remote and you are dependent on someone for housing, food and the ability to get home”.

Equally crucial, in Ms Cooper’s view, were the “decades-old power structures” of Harvard and its peers. She described, for example, the “very black-boxy, subjective and obscure eight-step tenure process where the last step is an ad hoc committee where you don’t know who the experts are and you don’t get any feedback”. Given research evidence that “people find it easier to see promise in male candidates”, the lack of transparency tended to preclude “efforts to counter those implicit biases”.

Becoming an elf and unpicking the complex mythology that has grown up around Ms Britton’s murder, as Ms Cooper saw it, also enabled her to illuminate how “the structured hierarchy leaves people voiceless and vulnerable. Harvard’s fight for diversity, which is exemplified by its undergraduate population, does not really expand up the ranks…There need to be larger systemic changes beyond the demographics of the undergraduates.”


Print headline: Murder at Harvard: why 1969 killing still matters

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Reader's comments (2)

"When in 2018 the police, largely because Ms Cooper and others were still looking into the case, finally tested the surviving fragments of DNA from the crime scene, they announced a plausible theory that completely exonerated Harvard and its researchers." And yet Ms Cooper prefers to talk about abusive and misogonistic male professors in sweeping generalisations than to explore what really took place 40-odd years ago.
Although I happened on this comment almost a year after it was written, I'm still going to reply. I strongly suggest reading the book. The statement, though accurate, doesn't begin to explore the book's larger context. I say this as a person who appears in the book.