Two Examples of Gender and Mortuary Archaeology

Since the feminist movement, incorporating gender into archaeological studies has been extremely important. Historical texts in the past have ignored the women’s roles in history, and archaeology has been vital in placing them back in. Mortuary archaeology offers a way to look at both biological sex and socially constructed gender. It also is a unique time when sex can be directly connected to artifacts due to the grave goods found with the deceased. The two case studies presented here aim to reinterpret past gender roles by taking gender-conscious perspectives.

Case Study One: Aubrey Cannon and Gender Trends in Victorian Mortuary Fashion

Cannon argues that mortuary trends in archaeology have been too focused in looking at the long-term structural variation rather than individual choice. Only in the context of elite burials was individuals considered important, and these were mostly men. He argues that when studying long term changes in mortuary fashion, there should be a focus on women as the agents of change regarding the differential mortuary treatments of men (Cannon 2005:42). Cannon applies this perspective to the study of Victorian grave monuments. His study included 3,553 headstones from fifty different villages in Rural England. Cannon found that the upper class was more fashion conscious, and that popular styles would often trickle down through the lower classes in order to emulate those above them. Male graves were consistently more fashion forward, while women lagged behind. Previous studies have attributed these types of correlations to the evidence of the lesser status of women in relation to men. Cannon disagrees with this analysis, and instead focuses not on the individual in the burial, but the one who commissioned that making of the gravestone.


Cannon argues instead that we must be aware that “the dead are unlikely to be the primary agents responsible for their own mode of burial” (2005:47). Cannon instead proposes that the agent behind the deceased’s commemoration was likely to be the widow; therefore the gravestones of men are a reflection of the choices of his wife. “Women initially were either more aware of or more inclined to adopt these new prestige-associated styles and to select them for the commemoration of men, which is why they are found in greater association with the graves of men” (Cannon 2005:50). He uses ethnographic evidence from modern studies of language in order to show that women are often the first to use more prestigious language, and therefore their ‘fashion forwardness’ can be highly assumed in other cases as well. Cannon’s case study is able to reveal the both gender and agency of the living into the study of the fashion of the deceased.

By looking at the wider context of fashion change throughout the Victorian Era, he is able to pinpoint the women as the agents of fashion and eschew the andocentric conclusion of female gravestones correlating to female subordination. The question is whether this approach is applicable to non-historic and non-European sites. In order to test this, Cannon looks at 17th and 18th century graves of the Seneca. He finds that the Victorian model reveals that it is likely that women played a more active role in manipulating the graves of their spouses, while men would follow the trends, causing women’s burials to again lag in fashion.  The problem with Cannon’s work is that the focus is almost too strongly set on women as agents of change. In his final case study where women are ahead in fashions, he eschews the hypothesis about agency coming from the spouse. In this case, women are proposed to have agency in their own graves by being buried with the items they have amassed. This is problematic and shows the importance of looking to the broader cultural context. While it is important to consider the agency of the survivors and their gender, Cannon (2005:65) admits that “the active role of women… may be only one factor among several responsible for change…” We must consider the wider social factors that may have been involved in internment.

Case Study Two: Emily Stalsberg and the Identification of Viking Women

Stalsberg (2001) argues that there is a noticeable lack of women in the historic literature on the Varangians, a Scandinavian group of Vikings. She interprets grave goods in order to gain insight on what women’s roles were during the Viking Age, approximately the eighth to eleventh centuries AD. The important artifact under consideration is a piece of weighing equipment that consists of small folding balance scales and the associated weights. According to historical text, these belonged to male tradesmen, and women were highly constrained and not allowed to participate in things ‘outside the house’. However, Stalsberg (2001:73) notes that these ‘men’s tools’ are often found in women’s graves. From the analysis of three cemeteries, she finds that from 17-32 percent of the weighing equipment is associated with female graves. Previous explanations for these findings argue that the women buried with weighing equipment are widows of tradesmen, and that they are an exception. Stalsberg argues that the percentages are too high for this conclusion. She argued that if a connection can be made between men and their grave goods as indications of status, then this must too be applied to women. “Based on this premise, the women had a right to be buried with the weighing equipment… [and] they constitute the tools of women’s economic unit, household or family” (Stalsberg 2001:74). This would mean that females were involved in the trade, and likely that it was a family run business.

Stalsberg uses this data in conjunction with the known medieval laws from the region to create a new understanding of the past. She argues that while women may have been restricted to their homes, they held the legal rights over the farms and were the responsible guardians over their family, even if they required men to represent them in public (Stalsberg 2001:75). Women in the Viking world were not invisible, and the divide between the written material and archaeological record show this inconsistency. In conclusion, Stalsberg notes that it is “understandable that chroniclers and historians have left out women in writings about politics, but it is less understandable how women who are so visible in the archaeological record have been overlooked… in both archaeological and historical reconstructions” (2001:77).

The advantage of Stalsberg’s perspective is that it corrects these reconstructions by making women in the Viking age ‘visible’ again. By applying the same theory that had been applied to male graves, namely the direct correlation between grave goods and status, she is able to show not just that women were involved in trade, but also the bias of earlier archaeologists in their interpretations. However, this is also the problem with Stalsberg’s approach. As was noted earlier, one of the critiques of the post-processualists was the one to one relationship between grave goods and status. Stalsberg does not attempt to consider the multiple processes that may be acting on the individuals found with the weighing equipment. Stalsberg did not look at the wider context of the burial to consider that the scales may have an explanation not related to occupation. She also does not consider the differences between sex and gender, and whether this may have affected the outcome of her analysis. Stalsberg’s analysis does add women back into Viking history, but is very limited and does not consider a wide enough range of possible explanations.

Works Cited

Cannon, Aubrey. 2005 Gender and Agency in Mortuary Fashion. In Interacting with the Dead: Perspectives on Mortuary Archaeology for the New Millenium. Gordon F.M. Rakita, Jane E. Buikstra, Lane A. Beck and Sloan R. Williams, eds. Pp. 41-65.

Stalsberg, Anne. 2001 Visible Women Made Invisible: Interpreting Varangian Women in Old Russia. In Gender and the Archaeology of Death. Bettine Arnold and Nancy L. Wicker, eds. Pp. 65-80. New York: Altamira Press.

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