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Gender archaeology is a method of studying past societies through their material culture by closely examining the social construction of gender identities and relations. Gender archaeology itself is based on the ideas that even though nearly all individuals are naturally born to a biological sex (usually either male or female, although also intersex), there is nothing natural about gender, which is actually a social construct which varies between cultures and changes through time.
Gender archaeologists examine the relative positions in society of men, women, and children through identifying and studying the differences in power and authority they held, as they are manifested in material (and skeletal) remains. These differences can survive in the physical record although they are not always immediately apparent and are often open to interpretation. The relationship between the genders can also inform relationships between other social groups such as families, different classes, ages and religions.
Archaeologist Bruce Trigger noted that gender archaeology differed from other variants of the discipline that developed around the same time, such as working-class archaeology, indigenous archaeology and community archaeology, in that "instead of simply representing an alternate focus of research, it has established itself as a necessary and integral part of all other archaeologies."
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Gender archaeology studies began in the last three decades within the English-speaking archaeological community. Margaret Conkey and Janet D. Spector (1984) are considered the first in the Anglo-American field to examine the application of feminist approaches and insights to archaeological practice and theory. However, Scandinavian, and specifically Norwegian, archaeologists had already in the early seventies started to follow a processual recipe for studying gender relations both within (pre)history and the profession itself. This resulted in a workshop titled "Were they all men?" arranged by the Norwegian Archaeological Association in 1979, and a dedicated journal for feminist and gender studies in Archaeology; K.A.N. Kvinner i Arkeologi i Norge [transl. Women in Archaeology in Norway] that published from 1985 until 2005.
Some archaeologists have openly criticised gender archaeology. One of those responsible was Paul Bahn, who in 1992 published a statement declaring that:
- The latest outbreak - which bears a great resemblance to the good old days of the new archaeology (primarily a racket for the boys) - is gender archaeology, which is actually feminist archaeology (a new racket for the girls). Yes, folks, sisters are doing it for themselves... Hardly a month goes by without another conference on 'gender archaeology' being held somewhere by a host of female archaeologists (plus a few brave or trendy males who aspire to political correctness). Some of its aims are laudable, but the bandwagon shouldn't be allowed to roll too far, as the new archaeology did, before the empresses' lack of clothes is pointed out by gleeful cynics.
Gender archaeology in cross cultural studies
It has been argued that gender is not genetically inherited but a process of structuring subjectivities, whereas sex is biologically determinate and static (Claassen 1992, Gilchrist 1991, Nelson 1997). To some professionals in the field, however, sex is not “the ground upon which culture elaborates gender” (Morris 1995, 568-569) and “sexing biases have been identified among the methods used in sexing skeletons… When sex is assigned to a skeleton of unknown sex, it is a cultural act” (Claassen 1992, 4), pointing out the bigger cultural biases in the field of archaeology. These philosophies make Western biological anthropological methods of determining sex of fossils, not appropriate for cross-cultural studies given that not the same physical characteristics are used by all cultures to determine an individual’s sex. This approach of sexual fluidity, meaning that sex is not a cross-cultural concept and it is mostly culturally assigned, has been undermined by the wide application of DNA analysis to skeletal remains in Western Archaeology. The conclusions drawn from such studies performed by Western archaeologists, will be biased by their cultural influences and concepts of sex, biology and DNA.
Hoping that analysis of both the material culture and ethnographic studies of the ancient society will provide a clearer picture of the role gender plays/played in that society, archaeologists are using more diverse types of data and incorporating other aspects of the collected data that they did not include before. Gender studies have often analyzed both males and females (Gilchrist 1991, Leick 2003), however, recent fieldwork has challenged the notion of this particular male-female dichotomy by expanding the categories to include a third or fourth gender in some non-Western societies that are explored (Herdt 1994, Hollimon 1997). Another way in which the fieldwork has challenged the usual study of gender archaeology is by analyzing more material culture like objects, activities and spatial arrangements in the landscape (Nelson 1997).
- Trigger 2007. p. 14.
- Is the archaeology of gender necessarily a feminist archaeology? Antiquity of Man.
- Hays-Gilpin, 2000:92. Feminist Scholarship in Archaeology. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 571:89-106.
- Sørensen, Marie Louise Stig (2000). Gender Archaeology. Cambridge: Polity Press.
- Geller, Pamela L. (2009). "Identity and Difference:Complicating Gender in Archaeology". Annu. Rev. Anthropol. 38: 65–81.
- Engelstad, Ericka (2001). "Gender, feminism, and sexuality in archaeological studies". International encyclopedia of the social & behavioral sciences: 6002–6006.
- Bahn 1992. p. 321.
- Bahn, Paul (1992). "Bores, Bluffers and Wankas: Some thoughts on archaeology and humour". Archaeological Review from Cambridge 11 (2). Cambridge.
- Claassen, C. 1992. Questioning Gender: An Introduction. In Claassen, C. (ed.) Exploring Gender Through Archaeology. Selected Papers from the 1991 Boone Conference. Madison: Prehistory Press, 1-32.
- Morris, R. 1995. All Made Up: Performance Theory and the New Anthropology of Sex and Gender. Annual Review of Anthropology 24, 567-592.
- Trigger, Bruce G. (2007). A History of Archaeological Thought (Second Edition). New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-60049-1.
- Gero, J., Conkey, W.(Eds). 1991. Engendering Archaeology. Oxford: Blackwell.
- Joyce, R.A. 2008. Ancient Bodies, Ancient Lives: Sex, Gender, and Archaeology. London: Thames & Hudson.
- Wright, R.P., 1996. Gender and Archaeology. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
- Gilchrist, Roberta 1999 "Gender and archaeology : contesting the past" London ; New York : Routledge
- Hamilton, Sue. Whitehouse,Ruth D and Wright, Katherine I. (EDs.) 2007. "Archaeology and women : ancient and modern issues" Walnut Creek, Calif. : Left Coast Press
- Milledge Nelson, Sarah (Ed.) 2006 "Handbook of gender in archaeology" Lanham, MD ; Oxford : AltaMira Press
- Milledge Nelson, Sarahand Myriam Rosen-Ayalon (Eds.) 2002 "In pursuit of gender : worldwide archaeological approaches." Walnut Creek, CA : AltaMira Press.
- Sørensen, Marie Louise Stig. 2000. Gender Archaeology. Cambridge: Polity Press