Gender And Feminism In Archaeology Research Paper

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An important new field within archaeology, often referred to as the archaeology of gender, archaeology and gender, or gender archaeology, combines a critical feminist study of gender, sex, and sexuality with a feminist analysis and examination of central concepts within archaeology, and the ways in which archaeological knowledge is produced, presented, and represented. Although there are many different kinds of feminism, it is taken here in its broadest sense, with its major goal being a critique of the determination of women’s lives by nature biology, reducing their multifaceted lives to an essentialist category ‘woman.’ Rather, gender, sex, and sexuality are not constrained by essentialist and narrowly defined categories, but are seen as being historically constituted and varied categories, changing over time. The aims of feminist archaeology are to both investigate and challenge the assumed content of, and relationships between, gender categories such as women and men, femininity and masculinity; and to study gender divisions and sexuality over time and in different social and cultural contexts in the past. Archaeology is a way of knowing and investigating the past that is based on a particular androcentric understanding of objectivity that is historically constituted Euro-American. Feminist archaeology, using feminist critiques of science, challenges this traditional construction of archaeological knowledge.

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1. A Slow Start

Although tied to the goals of Second Wave feminism, which not only critiqued gender relations in contemporary society, but also began very specifically to investigate how assumptions about the ‘naturalness’ of sex and gender affected the production of knowledge, feminism was slow in coming to archaeology. In the mid-1970s the first feminist critiques of equity issues in archaeology started in Scandinavia, particularly Norway. This concern quickly expanded to critiques of analyses and presentations of women in the past, and resulted in the founding of the first, and as yet only, feminist archaeology journal, KAN: K inner i Arkeologi i Norge (KAN: Women in Archaeology in Norway) in 1985. The previous year, Margaret Conkey and Janet Spector’s groundbreaking article critiquing and rocentrism in archaeology and discussing the possibilities of studying gender in the past was published in the United States. It was, however, at the beginning of the 1990s that the archaeology of gender and feminist critiques exploded on the archaeological scene.

During the course of the 1990s there were numerous publications on the archaeology of gender, particularly edited volumes of symposia and conference papers, as well as a few monographs. Few of these publications use the word ‘feminist’ in their titles, preferring various combinations of the words ‘gender’ and ‘archaeology.’ However, the majority are feminist in content and intention, and in their interpretations of the past.

Feminist archaeology in its beginnings was particularly an Anglo-American, Australian, and Scandinavian phenomenon, but expanded in the 1990s to other European countries, particularly Germany and Spain. The slow development of feminist archaeology in some countries can be explained partially by how archaeology is viewed within the different academic systems. Archaeology and anthropology in North America are closely linked, and feminist archaeology benefited from its close connection with feminist anthropology. In many European countries, however, archaeology is not a social science but a discipline in the humanities, and thus society and social relations were not in the forefront of many archaeological studies. At the same time archaeology is one of the few humanities that works with material culture, rather than texts, and has thus been relatively isolated from the intense feminist discussions within the humanities.

This basic disciplinary difference between the North American and the European archaeology of gender is probably one reason for the different perspectives these two archaeologies had initially. North American gender archaeology has been concerned more with social processes while European gender archaeology continued with traditional interests in cultural (now gender) identity and distinctions. However, as the archaeology of gender has developed and changed, this tendency is now minimalized as not only anthropology but social theory, post-structuralism, post-processualism, and feminist theory have become important elements of archaeological thinking in all areas.

The feminist philosopher of science Alison Wylie (1991) has considered why it took so long for feminist critiques to reach archaeology and emphasizes the essentialist assumptions in archaeological theorizing tied to macro-scale analyses. Since these essentialist assumptions were based on biological determinism it was vital in the beginning to make a distinction between sex, a biological construct, and gender, a social construct. Here one must note the difference between the English language separation of sex and gender, and the fact that many other languages have but one word for both. Recent work in feminist archaeology, both in English and non-English-speaking countries, resurrects sex and sexuality from the merely biological, but while viewing sex sexuality as a social construction associated with gender, this work does not neglect changing biological processes.

2. Back To Basics

Much feminist work in the 1980s and 1990s concentrated on gender rather than sex and sexuality. As with feminism in general, this was necessary in order to negate the importance of previous biological determinism and essentialism in placing women in a subordinate position in the past. Androcentric archaeology considered women essentially the lesser part of the male–female, masculine–feminine, man– woman dichotomies. Women were often reduced conceptually to their biological function of giving birth. This also placed women on the lesser side of a whole series of related hierarchical dichotomies, such as public–domestic, public–private, powerful–dominated, active–passive, etc., thus giving biological reasons for social differences and social formations. For example, the origins of the nuclear family were tied closely tied to stable binary sex and gender distinctions which were seen as beginning almost 4 million years ago. This pattern was established in the archaeological literature before feminist critiques turned this set of universal hierarchical dichotomies into a problem to be investigated rather than assumed.

However, the classic feminist concern with the universal subordination of women played a peripheral role in feminist studies of the past. It was obvious that women were given a subordinated role in archaeologists’ textual and visual presentations, and feminists critiqued such androcentric and essentialist assumptions. Conkey and Spector (1984) noted that despite its professed objectivity and neutrality, archaeology was ‘neither objective nor inclusive on the subject of gender.’ This false notion of objectivity contributed to making women invisible. The gender paradigms implicitly treated women and men differently, consistently linked certain activities to each gender sex, and made men central and active in all societies in the past, while women were passive and ‘at home.’

Feminist interpretations of the same past critiqued the subordinate role given to women in archaeological texts, exhibits, and illustrations. Feminist archaeologists have worked from the premise that universal subordination was not necessarily the case in the past, that gender ideologies and women’s roles varied and were given different statuses over time and space, again emphasizing that these concepts are something to be investigated rather than assumed. In the 1980s both feminist theoretical and empirical work assumed that gender categories were not necessarily exclusive and that women were an active part of culture and society in the past. Studies were concerned with defining women’s various roles, contributions, and activities. Task differentiation was developed as a framework and methodology by Janet Spector in order to study the various dimensions of women’s and men’s activities in past societies. Some form of this method is still often used in current analyses in the archaeology of gender, and is one of many contemporary efforts to put women back into our understanding of the past.

Following feminist critiques of science, feminist archaeologists examined critically the basic assumptions behind previous understandings of the past. The majority of articles on gender have as implicit but important goals the examination of what counts as data, what counts as interpretation of that data, and what is considered acceptable interpretation and theory in the male-dominated archaeological community. Thus they examine the selective processes which determine relevant data for interpretation, and how this over-determines interpretations and results in ignoring gendered processes and structures. Why are ‘men’s’ artifacts simply assumed to be of primary interest? Why did important interpretational frameworks consider only men to be the prime movers of social and cultural change? In addition, they examine androcentric theoretical concepts which were previously, and often currently, considered to be the only reasonably legitimate and, indeed, the only ‘natural’ and ‘rational,’ theoretical frameworks. Engendering the past not only redefines and extends what is considered as data, interpretation and theory, but also challenges many taken-for-granted concepts and models.

3. Approaches To Gender And Sexuality

As with all feminist projects, the archaeology of gender is grounded in the analysis and understanding of women’s lives. Women’s lives are reflected in archaeological remains of the past, in the material culture (objects and structures) of past societies. Richly detailed empirical studies, which put women (and children) back in to our understanding of the past, abound. These are tied to differing theoretical views of gender as a structuring principle, and examine how material culture was used to express and construct gender roles, differences, ideologies and gendered identities in past societies. Foregrounding gender effects changes in traditional archaeological thinking and leads to an interest in social relations between genders and between gendered individuals of differing ages, classes, ethnicity, and race.

Engendered studies of Stone Age archaeology have gone further than a concern with ecology and technology by considering the wider perspective of social relations between individuals and groups which leads to a restructuring of traditional archaeological understandings, offering new insights into social relations, ideologies, and sociocultural institutions. Margaret Conkey (1991) considers the wider contexts in which tools were made, used and reused at a Magdalenian site where several families lived (‘aggregation sites’). By viewing tools not as single objects, but as objects representing a complex set of technological, productive, and engendered social relations, she is able to show the changing contexts of action and contexts for power in which people and objects were involved. Gender is always in process, and the sexual gender division of labor is being changed and negotiated constantly. These changing contexts of action are associated with the renegotiation of power relations and structures. This type of analysis challenges traditional views of stable and exclusive gender categories and opens up possibilities for analyses of archaeological material that can reveal that there can be different models of gender in one society, that these models may change in relation to particular contexts and changes in the lives of individuals.

European archaeologists have made considerable use of burial material in discussions of the construction of gender. In her study of the Viking period Oseberg burial, a rich grave with the burial of two women in a ship, Elisabeth Arwill-Nordbladh (1998) uses M. Conkey’s ‘context of action,’ here relating to textile production, farm economy, communication, and ritual performance. Artifacts in the grave were analyzed in order to see how gender could have been constructed through the various contexts of action of which these objects were a part. Gender construction is not seen as following a strict set of gender categories, but as a process that can be maintained, changed, negotiated, or resisted through practice or performative acts. In this manner gender is seen as a difference between, and as a difference within, gender categories, so that the complexity of gender dynamics comes to the forefront.

Marie Louise Stig Sørensen (1991), working with grave material from the North European Bronze Age, has done a series of studies on how objects are active in expressing gendered identity. She examines especially how gender is constructed through appearance by examining the composition and placement of grave goods in relation to the body (skeleton) and in relation to their wider sociocultural contexts of use and meaning. In this manner it is possible to analyze not only gender but also cross-cutting social categories such as age, ethnicity and status.

Concentration on gender leads to an initial neglect of sex and sexuality. However, as feminism and feminist theory developed and was increasingly concerned with difference, rather than solely with the binary distinctions of gender, and view sexuality and the body as both socially constructed and historically constituted, so too has feminist archaeology newly expanded its interest to these previously neglected areas. Sexuality as an expression of desire is not limited to the heterosexual body, but is examined in its variety of expression, including homosexuality. Much of this work is on representations of the body in art, particularly in classical Mediterranean cultures, but also in studies of prehistoric rock art.

As can be seen from this short overview, there are two threads in feminist archaeology. One is the ‘archaeology of gender,’ while the other is ‘gendered archaeology’ (Roberts 1993), what I have referred to as feminist archaeology. The archaeology of gender, while often premised on a feminist perspective and concerned with putting women and children back into our understanding of the past, reiterates traditional archaeological concepts and principles of interpretation. A gendered archaeology is explicitly feminist and tied closely to feminist critiques of science in an effort to generate new engendered ways of thinking, doing, and presenting archaeology. A gendered archaeology/feminist archaeology does not simply add women’s contribution to past societies, but is concerned with interrogating and reworking our unquestioned starting premises and taken-for-granted concepts.

4. Feminist Practice

Although often considered to be neutral and objective, archaeological practice is highly gendered, and often implicitly so. Feminist interests include archaeological practice, particularly fieldwork and analysis, workplace issues, pedagogy, cultural heritage management, including museums, new ways of writing and presenting archaeology, and concern for the local communities in which one works.

Joan Gero (1996) has examined how fieldwork, particularly excavations and artifact analysis, is gendered. Gero has shown that observation and documentation are not neutral, objective processes but always contain an element of interpretation. Her work on excavations in Argentina show that there are gender differences in documentation, and these are often combined with differences in class and age. In addition, the gender of the person who typically does particular kinds of archaeological work varies. In North America men often lead large fieldwork projects, while women analyze extant collections. In other countries these tendencies take other forms, as in Australia, where men dominate in the universities while women dominate the work of cultural heritage management.

The status of women and equity issues in the archaeological workplace are continuing major concerns of feminists. Although there were some prominent women archaeologists in the past, these had little status and recognition in the profession. There is still a chilly climate for women in archaeology which not only slows down the advancement of female archaeologists but also seems to be preventing the full acceptance of feminist archaeology.

While an important aspect of feminism in archaeology is a concern with the institutional structure and workplace dynamics which hinder women from participating fully in the discipline, feminist archaeologists are also concerned with archaeology’s relationship to the communities within which they work. In Australia, Laurajane Smith (1995) has written about the dominance of women in work with cultural heritage, or cultural resource management. Feminists have been particularly open to the importance and meaning that local communities and aboriginal peoples place on their past.

Much standard archaeological methodology is used in feminist archaeology. It is, however, reworked, because feminists ask different questions of the data. Instead of an interest in macro processes and population groups, typical, for example, of the systems approach, they ask questions at a microlevel, and are concerned more with social relations and processes, ideologies, and symbolism. Thus methods are combined in alternative manners. For example, emphasis is placed on entire artifact assemblages, and site assemblages, rather than tightly-defined typological categories (where the ‘important’ and ‘interesting’ types are often tools presumed to have been used by men), and comparisons over and between large regions. Ambiguous objects, often considered to be merely ‘noise’ in strict typological terms, are included in analyses since they are one way of analyzing the variety of social relations found at a site. In addition, interest is not placed on type of artifacts alone, but on the relationship between different kinds of artifacts and the processes involved in their production and use. This in turn emphasizes the variety of social relations involved in these processes and de-emphasizes the need to attribute the production and use of tools to an individual or group of the same sex.

5. From Margin To Center

Women have been invisible in archaeological interpretations of the past, but recent work grounded in feminist critiques, principles and perspectives have not only made women visible but have also shown the diversity of their lives and relations to others. Gendered archaeology/feminist archaeology has developed and changed considerably during its short existence. Feminist archaeology is exceptionally dynamic, drawing on new theoretical insights from other feminist disciplines, and expanding the scope and direction of archaeological analyses of gendered relations and ideologies in the past.

In a review article, Conkey and Gero (1997) note the lack of explicit feminist theorizing and critique of basic archaeological concepts in much of gender archaeology. There is little archaeological theorizing on gender/sexuality and there is little use of feminist theory in the archaeology of gender. Detailed empirical analyses are, of course, a necessary complement to theoretical work, but too much of the archaeology of gender continues within this arena. Feminist archaeology must move beyond this implicit essentialism. The lack of theory only marginalizes the archaeology of gender, not only in relation to mainstream archaeology but also in relation to other feminist disciplines. Future work must continue to include women in our construction of knowledge about the past, but it will also need to grapple with the fundamentals of archaeological interpretation and theorizing, and incorporate feminist theoretical insights on gender and sexuality. Feminist archaeology is dynamic and constantly expanding its areas of interest, and is well on it way to realizing its critical and reconstructive potential.


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