Prior to the 1980’s, individual attributes like gender, age and ethnicity were assumed to be biological traits that manifested themselves in different cultural ways. In archaeology this meant that if we found a grave filled with weapons, but the skeleton too degraded to do an analysis of sex, we could assume it was male. Regardless of the belongings found with a skeleton aged 7 to 10 years, we knew it was an immature child. But these aren’t necessarily true, and archaeologists were making a major assumption about the nature of biology and culture. Like arguments of nature and nurture, the evidence presented only natural biological traits in the skeletal remains, so archaeologists inferred completely on that basis.
Landmark articles like Conkey and Spector (1984) revealed the problems with equating sex and gender in archaeological studies. Sex is the biological makeup of one’s reproductive organs (male or female), whereas gender is a culturally learned identity and lifestyle (masculine or feminine or other). In Western societies it has long been traditional that female = feminine and male = masculine. Now this configuration is more flexible and we understand better that culture makes these correlations. In some cultures it is possible to have a third gender which people can inhabit. In India the Hijra are often biological male, eunuchs or intersex and dress in feminine attire, they are considered a separate gender. In archaeology the search for gender means carefully looking at artifact groupings and discarding in settlements, and patterns of artifact deposition and grave orientation in cemeteries; not trying to match sexed skeletons to objects. In fact, some archaeological investigations have shown that gender may not have been as important in the past and other factors like profession may have been the key divider of society. Weglian (2001) argues that Viking burials fit a two gender system, but sometimes females have swords and men have spindles, indicating that gender didn’t always match sex- it was about profession and actions in life.
Another category that doesn’t always match biology is age. There is chronological age, the number of years one is from birth, and there is social age or life course age, the stage that one is at in life that separates you from others. For example, puberty is an important sign of reaching a new stage of maturity, but this occurs at different times in different individuals. Marriage can be an important change in social age, but likewise varies drastically over time, between cultures and even within cultures. Stoodley (2000) discusses the importance of social age in Anglo-Saxon society. While based broadly around years, it is more important that individuals go through specific stages of life such as immaturity, womanhood, wife, and caretaker/mother. For many societies, like Anglo-Saxon, childhood is simply a young adult, not a separate phase of life. Sub-adults are treated as adults who haven’t achieved anything yet.
Stoodley (2000) further discusses how both gender and social age are important when analyzing Anglo-Saxon graves. By analyzing patterns of grave goods in three different Anglo-Saxon cemeteries dating to the 6th and 7th centuries AD, he is able to determine that there are sets of artifacts that loosely correlate to age and gender groups. These would then correlate to life stages that the individuals would have gone through. For example, there are drastic differences between female burials that are between 5-10 years old and those that are 10-13 years old. Since this fits with the onset of puberty, it is likely that this is when gender is more strongly expressed. Another drastic change in material goods happens for both males and females in the late teens and early twenties, possibly when the individual is considered to be an adult. While these life stage divisions do correlate to some extent with sex and biological age, there are exceptions showing that they aren’t biologically determined. Some individuals lack strong gender associated grave goods, and others are given life stage artifacts at quite a younger biological age. Life stage and gender, he argues, is based strongly on the culture and the actions of the individual. If a female doesn’t reproduce but is at the biological age where others are, she won’t be recognized in the same manner as others in her age group. If a male participates in battle at a much younger age he may be ushered into adulthood years before his peers.
What does this mean for archaeologists? It means we need to be careful when interpreting gender and age in the past. We need to examine these cultural categories not based on biology or our own cultural standards. A 13 year old female found with a complete set of weapons may have been socially considered an adult man based on their behavior and achievements. We need to carefully look at patterns of funerary artifacts and grave orientation, and not rely on biological traits to inform our analysis of culture. It does make analysis more difficult, but it allows us to address more complex questions and produce more nuanced interpretations.
Stoodley, Nick (2000). From the cradle to the grave: age organization and the early Anglo-Saxon burial rite World Archaeology, 31 DOI: 10.1080/00438240009696932
Weglian. 2001. Grave goods do not a gender make. In Gender and the Archaeology of Death. Arnold and Wicker, eds. Altamira Press. Pp. 137-158.