Burials are a result of individual and group identity, social relationships and the construction of social memory. Therefore we can examine social structures of the past by looking at burial forms; with differentiation in burial practice indicative of social statuses, whether individual, vertical hierarchy or horizontal group distinctions (Joyce 2001). It is because of this that gender studies in archaeology frequently use burial material. Mortuary patterns are not a direct reflection of social structure, but can be revealing about roles and ideology. However, when trying to determine power and social relations, it is important to combine mortuary data with information from other locations, such as domestic areas in order to see a wider expression of the ideology (Sullivan 2006). In a new article from the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, Rodning examines mortuary patterns from the Coweeta Creek site in order to determine gender ideology and leadership roles. By comparing changes in domestic settlements and burial practices, he argues that there was a change in prestige systems resulting in an emphasis on male roles.
The site of Coweeta Creek in south west North Carolina inhabited by the Cherokee from 1400-1715 CE. During the 18th century, ethnographers noted that there was a gender duality present in which men are associated with public leadership, and women are associated with households and family. Women were heads of the matrilocal families and were farmers. Men however gained prestige from trade with Europeans and through warfare. Clan membership is extremely important and one of the primary identites of the Cherokee. Each town consisted of a number of clans. While both men and women participated in town rituals in the center of the village, the dances and activities reinforced the ideology of men as public and women as household, although there were notable women who acted as warriors in the public sphere. Ethnographic reports note that individuals of high status were mourned by the entire community and buried with goods that were meant for the ancestors, not necessarily for the deceased individual. This is supported by burials dating to this period where men are found in public areas around the community townhouse with high numbers of grave goods, and women are found buried around dwellings with lower amounts of goods.
However, Rodning argues that these interpretations may be more reflective of temporal change occurring from contact with the colonists. He argues that from the proto-historic (1400-1540) to the historic (1540-1715) periods there was a change in the treatment of the dead and domestic space suggestive of larger ideological change. The precontact period lacks the ethnographic information that has been pivotal in making interpretations. Burial evidence shows that during this period women were buried with more grave goods than men. Prior to the 1600’s there are no townhouse structures, so all individuals are buried around or within households.
From this evidence, Rodning argues that during the 17th century men became more important in public roles that entitled them to special burials outside of their clan houses and associated with the new townhouse structures. However, women are found centrally located within households with grave goods throughout this period. This suggests that for the most part there were complementary power structures divided by gender. While there is a change to more public structures and focus, this doesn’t diminish women’s power. They continue to function as the heads of the households and hold roles within public rituals. What changes is an increased participationg of men in trading and warfare with European which makes their prestige more public than before. While there is a distinctive divison of labor it is a dynamic balance rather than domination of one over the other.
Rodning’s study is interesting because it constructs gender ideology and discerns divisions by looking at changes in both mortuary patterns and domestic structures. Mortuary patterns are important in that they can reveal large amounts of political, economic and social information, but this is only valid within the larger cultural context. Death is part of the culture as a whole and must be considered from this perspective. Studies of gender especially require multiple lines of evidence to show how the ideology that structure burial patterns was pervasive throughout the society. One of the problems with doing gender based studies on burials is that sex is conflated with gender. Gender is a socially constructed set of ideas and expectations of groups within a community, and is not necessarily directly based on an individual’s biological sex. While Rodning does mention that there was some fluidity in roles we don’t see how this occurs in the archaeological evidence. Rodning does a good job of including arguments for female warriors, however there does seem to be a conflation of sex and gender within the actual analysis of the archaeological material.
Rodning, C. (2011). Mortuary practices, gender ideology, and the Cherokee town at the Coweeta Creek site Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, 30 (2), 145-173 DOI: 10.1016/j.jaa.2010.12.006
Joyce 2001 Burying the Dead at Tlatilco: Social memory and Social Identities. In Social Memory, Identity, and Death: Anthropological Perspectives on Mortuary Rituals (M.S. Chesson, ed.). Archaeological Papers of the American Anthropological Association, Vol. 10, pp. 12-26. Arlington, VA.
Sullivan 2006 Gendered Contexts of Mississippian Leadership in Southern Appalachia, in Leadership and Polity in Mississippian Society B.M. Butler and P.D. Welch, eds.). Center for Archaeological Investigations, Occasional Paper No. 33, Southern Illinois University; pp. 264-285.