So I don't think I've ever written about gender explicitly on this blog before, but, like, I think about gender a lot. A lot, a lot. I'm also currently taking an undergraduate course in archaeological theory, and this week I've been reading up on it. I've arranged this blog post into stages, which is a way I find helpful for thinking about my thought processes.
N.B.: "Gender" archaeology" and "feminist archaeology" aren't actually synonyms. However, many parts of the discipline do treat them as synonymous, and moreover, everyone kinda just knows that "gender" actually means "women", even when studies of masculinity clearly exist. I'm going to be talking chiefly about gender archaeology, but due to the nature of the work already done, and the way it is perceived, that means I'm chiefly going to be talking about women.
So, you wanna be a gender archaeologist?
1. Acknowledgement of the androcentrism of archaeology (and indeed, academia).
I'm specifically only talking here about androcentric views of the past, but it's important to recognise that female archaeologists working today often face greater barriers to success than men, both in the field and in the library.
The first ever archaeology conference about gender was held in Norway in 1979, and entitled "Were they all men?". It's worth noting that it took until 1987 for the papers to be published, due to academic gatekeeping. The same core question was asked of a BBC documentary series on the Celts, in a review by Rachel Pope in History Today:
"I always wonder when I encounter these utopian masculinist visions of my period, how these men reproduced. I resolved, on watching this programme, that perhaps they do it as worms do. Anyway, I think we should be told."
It's not facile to compare academia with "popular" history in this way; academics are drenched in the same toxic messages of the kyriarchy as the rest of us, as we shouldn't try to pretend otherwise.
Consider, for example, Hodges, 1989, who describes how women were part of gift exchange between Anglo-Saxon England and Frankish Europe. This is deeply androcentric. Even if high-status women did cross the channel to be married, this framing completely ignores the agency of the women in building political alliances and initiating cultural exchange- even though we know that's something high-status women of the age did!
Or how about Johnson, 1993, who studied medieval houses in Suffolk and, with no theortical justification or discussion, designated the central parts of the house as the domain of Man and the peripheral areas as those of Woman?
Feinmann and Price's 2001 "Archaeology at the Millenium. A Sourcebook" barely mentions gender.
In Revell's 2010 critique of Romanization, she remarks that "we generally either depopulate [the questions we ask of the past] or repopulate them with an under theorised adult male (the simulacrum of the majority of researchers)"
A particularly egregious example of how the gender binary and gender roles can distort the record, is Butler's 1987 piece on gravestone imagery in the Medieval period: books, chalices and weapons are identified as "male" images, keys, buckles, purses and shears are "female". When his study encountered a grave with both shears and book, rather than considering, say, the possibility of a subject who was not gendered male or female, or that perhaps his categories were wrong, he simply changed the parameters. There couldn't be such a non-normative person. Perhaps, it was a bale of cloth, not a book, so the person was a male cloth worker. Or maybe it was a sewing box, and the person was a woman. Either way, his study literally could not sustain any grey area, even where it "really existed" (bearing in mind that his categories themselves were constructs). Consequently, he distorted the evidence, to fit it into his gender norms. And he didn't even know he was doing it.
(If anyone's worried about the fact that some of these studies are twenty years old or more, they're probably a scientist! In archaeology, our wheels grind slowly, and it wouldn't be at all unusual to reference things from the 80s in a modern piece of work.)
One really interesting thing about this androcentrism is how it also de-genders men. The man becomes the default, the obvious, and (let's be honest) the mental stand in for a lot of researchers. In this way, he takes on a lot of modern gendered ideas in ways that are a little less obvious and more insidious than the "Man The Hunter" ideal of the 1960s. For instance, there is little discussion of the suggestion that a man was the head of a household, in almost all archaeological contexts I can think of. For someone to suggest a matrilocal society (where men leave their homes/ villages and move to those of their wives/ wives' families) or a matrilineal society (one where property, prestige, rank are passed down through the mother's line, not the father's), extraordinary evidence is called for. Consider, for instance, the controversies over Çatalhöyük. Yet when someone explains movement of, say, a type of spindle whorl through women moving for marriage (invoking patrilocality) (Mytum, 1992) no-one bats an eyelid. There is little room to think about movement or activities of men, unless they are doing the default things imagined by archaeologists, like being in charge of things, and having weapons.
Phew. That section went on a little long, and in my opinion is far more about feminist archaeology than gender archaeology. I suppose the two are more intertwined than I gave them credit for.
2. Pushback from men and "cool women".
So. You've decided to bust this androcentrism thing wide open. You're gonna write about how masculinity and femininity are constructed by archaeologists looking at grave goods. You're going to point out how deeply problematic it is to assume "man" or "woman" as an identity on the basis of a sexed skeleton! (For basic problems with osteological sexing, please see Walker 1995. A PDF may be available here, please let me know if the link is universities-only. If you think gender and biological sex are the same thing, you have a lot of reading to do, but this seems like a good start. Please let me know if you found this article problematic!)
Maybe you'll organise a conference panel, or submit an abstract.
Be prepared for pushback. This comes in many forms. As we saw above, in the 80s especially, the academics in charge of what could be published in the major journals acted as gatekeepers. They did not consider gender archaeology to be a "real" topic worthy of study, and rejected articles because of that. Consequently, many conference publications were significantly delayed, and much ended up circulating as "grey literature"- not quite published work. I'm sure the same thing happens now with other areas of work (queer theory maybe?) but it's harder to do now, since the internet exists.
It can also come in the suggestion that gender in archaeology just isn't that important. You get this from men, obviously, but also from the academic equivalent of the "cool girl". You may not have heard the term, but you've definitely met one. The cool female academic doesn't let her gender, like, define her. She's a woman, sure, but that doesn't mean she has to study women! I mean, come on, we all know that's not real archaeology. She studies wars and subsistence and pots, she doesn't have time for all that feminist bullshit about gender archaeology. And besides, isn't it kinda sexist that all these man-hating feminists want to privilege women over men? Surely that's just as bad! The cool academic probably also reckons they've never seen any of this institutional sexism anyway, and that feminists are probably just being paranoid. I've done a bit of a parody here, but as an undergraduate, another female undergrad definitely told me it was really offensive to assume women might be more interested in studying oppression in the past than their (white) (straight) (able-bodied) male colleagues. This line of thinking contends that only hard-core (and therefore man-hating) feminists want to study gender because it's a fringe subject. It's not "real" archaeology (whatever that is) and so it can safely be ignored.
[Edited to add: Being the "cool girl" academic is often something of a survival strategy employed by women when they realise that their peers who seem to have most of the power are all men. I understand that, but I do find it damaging and unnecessary, and I wish they wouldn't /end edit]
Probably the only good push back is the claim that studying gender is just too hard. Let's look at that now.
3. On the circularity of excavating gender
Just how, exactly, can one see gender in the archaeological record? If Christopher Hawkes had ever thought seriously about gender (and he probably didn't because he was a man in the 1950s) he would have put it right at the top of his ladder of inference. This was a system he used to describe how much guesswork, or inference, archaeologists need to make statements about stuff. So describing a technology like pottery production he ranked as quite easy, but describing religious practice was much harder and required more assumptions.
If you read the Walton paper, you know that there's a lot of grey area in the sexing of skeletons, even just to make a judgement about biological sex. Moreover, once you take into account the fact that someone's primary sexual characteristics (e.g. height, pelvis shape, genitals) may not actually match their gender (as it doesn't for many transgender people, as well as plenty of intersex people) you've got a bit of a problem. What else might you have with the body to help you know what gender it is?
Usually it's grave goods. Unfortunately, the gendering of these goods happens in the eye of the archaeologist! As with Butler, it's usually swords equal men and "domestic" equipment equals women. Even though plenty of people buried with weapons would never have been able to use them- there's plenty of children buried with weapons (and sexing of children is much harder, but usually these are assumed to be boys rather than girls), and some people with disabilities that meant they could never have fought, such as the Amesbury Archer. These assumptions often come from the archaeologists themselves. In some cases, we have literary or visual evidence to recourse to, but in the case of the Archer, they are well pre-literacy, and we have no images of people from that time.
So what can we do? While I don't think we have any good statistics, I do think it is fair to say that in the majority of human cultures, the majority of people have been cisgender rather than transgender. One way to go, then, might be to look broadly at what kinds of objects are generally associated with a particular sex of skeleton (sexed through osteology or DNA where possible), and use these to draw conclusions. However, these models would then need to make allowances for people who do not fit them, and be prepared to accept that they may well be viewing a non-gendered or differently gendered individual. The "male/ female" binary has to go. One option for breaking the binary that has been proposed is the use of stereotype theory. Since my lecturer's paper on it hasn't yet been published, I think I'll leave that there.
However we go about it, we can certainly see that gender archaeology problematises the manner in which a lot of archaeology of gender is done. It may not be impossible to excavate gender, but it's certainly a lot harder than many archaeologists would believe, and that's just one more thing gender archaeology needs to contend with. When so much of archaeology is currently paid for by developers trying to maximise a profit, it can be very hard to convince them of all this "extra" work you want to do.
The final thing a gender archaeologist, especially an early career one, especially a woman, needs to contend with is attrition. Being told day in and day out, in the academia that we consume that men did things and women stayed home. When almost every reference to women or gender you come across simply reifies the stereotypes that surround you at every turn, in all media, it gets kinda hard to keep fighting it. Maybe you're the one who's distorting the evidence! Maybe in your crazy feminist quest to notice women and gender in the past, you're the one seeing what's simply not there. Maybe men have always done everything. Maybe men are smarter, stronger, keener, better.
I don't believe that's true, but sometimes it can seem like I'm the only one.