Today is International Women’s Day. From their site, they describe this as “a global day celebrating the economic, political and social achievements of women past, present and future. It has been observed since the early 1900s, celebrating and empowering women the world over. Annually on 8 March, thousands of events are held throughout the world to inspire women and celebrate achievements. A global community of rich and diverse local activity connects women from all around the planet ranging from political rallies, business conferences, government activities, networking events and live performances through to local markets, informal get-togethers, fashion parades and more.”
Gender is a socially constructed category used to describe an individual’s behavior, activities, division of labor, access to resources, production and reproduction. In modern Western societies, and many cultures in the past, gender has and continues to play a major role in the shaping of our identities and social persona. It is one of the primary ways we define ourselves in comparison with others. While women have come a long way from the 1950’s house wife stereotype, there is still a clear definition of what it considered appropriate to our society. Despite best efforts there is still bias and societal norms that shape our behavior and perceptions, including our analysis of the past.
Material objects, space, and the human body also contribute to the construction of social identity but are unique in that they are preserved in the archaeological record (Hastorf 1991:133). The items we use, where we use them, and how we discard them both produce and reproduce gender roles. It is because materials are used in the construction of identities that we can identify gender in the past through archaeology. Consider what you are using on a daily basis and how that relates to gender: choices in what colors you wear, the place you store your wallet and phone, the cover on your laptop, the tools you use to style your hair or do your makeup, or the style of handwriting your have all are material evidence that potential is related to gender.
While the prehistoric and historic expression of gender shapes the appearance of the archaeological record, it is only within last twenty years that it has it been integrated into the discipline. This is not to say that gender was not a part of archaeological analysis, but rather it was implicit and often biased in favor of the Western male perspective (Conkey and Spector 1986). While it is most obvious in articles like Man the Hunter, ethnographies and archaeological reports from the early 20th century discuss culture as a whole, but have special sections for women (the interpretation here being that women aren’t part of what makes ‘culture’). Throughout analyses there is an assumption of male dominance and technological skill, contrasted against female subordinance and domesticity.
However, new studies in archaeology look at the way in which gender plays a role in identity without the assumption of dominance. Studies like Bruck (2009), Sullivan (2006) and Crown and Fish (1996) examine gender as representing two different identity tracks, whereby men and women have different lifecycles and roles they play in society. This leads to heterarchical (horizontal differentiation) rather than hierarchical (vertical differentiation) social structure. Mortuary sites and bioarchaeology play an important role in the interpretation of gender. Mortuary sites are one of the primary ways of understanding social structure. By looking at the variation in materials individuals are buried with, we can begin to interpret division of gender roles. For example, Crown and Fish (1996) discuss the presence of ritual artifacts with males and domestic artifacts with females in the Hohokham culture, which shows that they were involved in vastly different spheres. Bioarchaeology is also important because it can show differences in the use of the physical body. A number of studies have looked at differences in pathology, work related stress, or trauma found on skeletal remains in order to understand differences in the way that males and females were treated in the past. One example is Redfern and DeWitte (2011) who note that males were more prone to pathologies during Romanization of Britain, likely relating to change in lifestyle that made them more susceptible or a female immunity. A problem of mortuary studies, and one that is difficult to resolve is the conflation of gender and sex. Gender is cultural, but the body that is used in analysis is biological. This requires us to pay careful attention to gender outside of the mortuary sphere and be careful in our analysis.
As archaeological theory and method progresses we are getting better at including women and assessing gender more carefully. We are now in an era of great change in the way that women are perceived, and its important as archaeologists that we continue to portray them accurately, without falling to modern bias.
Sullivan 2006 Gendered Contexts of Mississippian Leadership in Southern Appalachia. In Leadership and Polity in Mississippian Society, Butler and Welch, eds. Southern Illinois University.
Hastorf 1991 Gender, Space, and Food in Prehistory. In Engendering Archaeology: Women in Prehistory. Gero and Conkey, eds. Pp. 132-159.
Conkey and Spector 1984 Archaeology and the study of gender. In Advances in Archaeological Method and Theory 7: 1-38.
Redfern, R., & DeWitte, S. (2011a). A new approach to the study of Romanization in Britain: A regional perspective of cultural change in late Iron Age and Roman Dorset using the Siler and Gompertz-Makeham models of mortality American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 144 (2), 269-285 DOI: 10.1002/ajpa.21400
Brück, J. (2009). Women, Death and Social Change in the British Bronze Age Norwegian Archaeological Review, 42 (1), 1-23 DOI: 10.1080/00293650902907151
Crown, P., & Fish, S. (1996). Gender and Status in the Hohokam Pre-Classic to Classic Transition American Anthropologist, 98 (4), 803-817 DOI: 10.1525/aa.1996.98.4.02a00100