Gender archaeology is a field of study that encompasses different approaches in the study of gender. It developed in the 1980s at the time feminist movement emerged in many societies including America and Britain questioning the male bias of the mainstream archaeology. Gender plays a significant role in constructing society and its values, categorizing which are female or male roles, and creating meanings and identity.
However, studying the concept of gender is difficult as its meaning is influenced by many factors and relationships in the society. Arguments are raised that gender, unlike the biological sex, does not exist and complicated to test through archaeology. One of the traditional approaches in studying gender is through material culture where tangible evidences are correlated with the presence of men and women such as artefacts and tools excavated, suggesting a representation of the two genders and their activities (Shaw and Jameson 2000: 251).
The productive use of material culture is one of the most significant contributions of archaeologists unlike other disciplines which ignore the potentials of material and its symbolic representations and meaning construction of gender (Bintliff 2004:85). Scholars should recognize the relevance of material culture as it is able to correlate the objects and its physical realities and consequences to gender, allowing varied ways of exploring an object or material. It provides resources for reference and medium for practice of gender.
It aids the study of gender archaeology in all geographical regions, categories of material culture, and periods (Gilchrist 1999: 15). One of the research methods used in studying material culture is a case study, which is also commonly used in feminist archaeology, where archaeologist become ethnographers. They visit the site or region of analysis aiming to reconstruct the past societies with as much details as possible about the past people’s lifestyle, customs, traditions, beliefs, and other events (Nelson 2006: 45).
In this way, history of people and its meanings are identified through material evidences which represent relationship to gender. Numerous studies have revealed astounding facts and evidence leading to an understanding on how the meanings of gender and its facets are identified. Many pre-historical studies have been conducted around the world in knowing how men and women are represented, particularly in artefacts, and how these representations construct or deconstruct the roles of each gender.
In a study, Ungendering Archaeology: Concepts of Sex and Gender in Figurine Studies in Prehistory, Naomi Hamilton analysed and interpreted the prehistoric anthromorphic figurines from Eastern Europe and the Near East (Donald and Hurcombe 2000: 18). Hamilton devised as methodology to identify sex on the figures and analyse the stereotypes attached to it regarding Western gender roles. There were numerous figurines unearthed from Europe but the interpretations are different and sometimes contradicting. Some scholars argue that these figures, particularly those with women, represents ‘goddess worship’ but others did not agree.
According to Hamilton, there is a need for a theory on gender and gender relations that would at least provide better explanations than the traditional studies. For any unfamiliar figure, it would be easier to assume that a certain object represents a male or a female goddess or creature but others might interpret it differently. In Seklo group from Greece, for example, an excavator thought of the distorted figure with womanly shape as representation of female centaur while other objects resembling male figure are assumed as enthroned men.
Later, the female-like figure was interpreted in different views: seated figure, goddess, or female on a birth stool. These varied translations happen most of the times because, as Hamilton argued, archaeologists readily accept that aspects of human life have universal characteristics such that what is commonly associated with women in another region or era is assumed to be similar in another region of different period (Donald and Hurcombe 2000: 28).
Hamilton argued that the ambiguity the two mutually exclusive genders (male and female) and its resemblance to historical Western societies have not been questioned. Traditional assumptions on these figurines readily announced as representation of sex and gender roles and not other things. Besides, interpretations are based conservative view on gender. Archaeologists assumed that there is a standard gender division in culture but anthropologists say otherwise. In many historical figurines, most represent female as it was how assumed by archaeologists.
It must be that male is not so superior in the old times than now. Obviously, there are difficulties and contrasting views on identifying which gender figurines stand for. Hence it is important to consider not to identify each figure as sex symbol only but also gather other information on culture to avoid pre-conceive notions that men or women are represented in such matter for a period of time and also to avoid stereotypes on the roles of women. Research on gender might suffer if there is a strong bias on either gender or gender differences.
The assumption that every culture has standard or similar male-female divisions of characteristics might lead to building a gender based on stereotypes (Hamilton 2004). These might influence on how men and women are viewed today and how their roles are determined in every aspects of life such as family, politics, or academe. Hamilton’s study on figurines has a plausible argument that the traditional assumptions of archaeologists have made conclusions that are inaccurate and lacks credibility.
This is an important consideration since these kind of assumptions lead to opposing views damaging or overrating either gender especially women who has been, for a long time, regarded as subordinate to men. List of References Blintiff, J. L. (2004) A Companion to Archaeology. United Kingdom: Blackwell Publishing Ltd. Gilchrist, R. (1999) Gender and Archaeology: Contesting the Past. Taylor & Francis. Hamiton, S. M. (2004) Gender in Archaeology. Rowman Altamira. Nelson, S. M. (2006) Handbook of Gender in Archaeology. Rowman Altamira Shaw, I. and Jameson, R. (2000) A Dictionary of Archaeology. United Kingdom: Wiley-Blackwell