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Gender archaeology is a method of studying past societies through their material culture by closely examining the social construction of gender identities and relations. Gender archaeology itself is based on the idea that nearly all individuals are naturally born to a biological sex (usually either male or female, although also intersex).
Gender archaeologists examine the relative positions in society of men, women, and children through identifying and studying the differences in power and authority they held, as they are manifested in material (and skeletal) remains. These differences can survive in the physical record although they are not always immediately apparent and are often open to interpretation. The relationship between the genders can also inform relationships between other social groups such as families, different classes, ages and religions.
Feminist theory in gender archaeology has presented a new perspective and introduced some biases in the overall archaeological theory. This new perspective that focused on feminist viewpoint in archaeology was initiated by the rapid evolution in the 20th century, of the Western Societies outlook and interpretation of gender. The development of this perspective commenced from the late 1960s feminist movement.
Archaeologist Bruce Trigger noted that gender archaeology differed from other variants of the discipline that developed around the same time, such as working-class archaeology, indigenous archaeology, and community archaeology, in that "instead of simply representing an alternate focus of research, it has established itself as a necessary and integral part of all other archaeologies."
The feminist theory of Gender archaeology gave archaeologists a new perspective of the past. This modern structure for theoretical perspective addressed many of the patriarchal biases instilled in the interpretation and excavation of past archaeology. Modern methods "treat gender as a process, not a thing". The new gender studies introduced biases in archaeological theory. This shift of focus is theorized to be from the increase in women in the archaeological field and from the change in the social interpretation of gender. Women archaeologists began in the last twenty years, focusing on how the gender roles of our ancestors are not being represented correctly and also the gender roles were not as rigid as once believed. The theory supports that prior archaeologists were not equipped to differentiate between the sex and gender of our ancestors. Due to this lack of technology, scientists made assumptions about a variety of topics including the division of labor between the sexes and past societies's views of sexual anatomy and desires. This caused a gap in our understanding of past social structures. Gender archaeology pushes for theories that are gender inclusive, unbiased, and factual.
Archaeology used to be a mostly male-dominated field that discouraged gender research. But, in the last few decades with the rise of the 2nd feminist movement, female archaeology students began rejecting prior assumptions about gender and experiences in the past because they believed these assumptions distorted societies perception. The ongoing feminist movement that began in the late 1960s provoked the conception of a modern, feminized outlook on archaeology. Archaeology students were not satisfied with the limited information available about past women's roles and experiences, and the assumptions that were made for decades. So they took it upon themselves to use new technology and research how women in the past lived. Began focusing on the difference between sexuality and gender, and the importance of Intersectionality. Margaret Conkey and Janet D. Spector (1984) are considered the first in the Anglo-American field to examine the application of feminist approaches and insights to archaeological practice and theory. However, Scandinavian, and specifically Norwegian, archaeologists had already in the early seventies started to follow a processual recipe for studying gender relations both within (pre)history and the profession itself. This resulted in a workshop titled "Were they all men?" arranged by the Norwegian Archaeological Association in 1979, and a dedicated journal for feminist and gender studies in Archaeology; K.A.N. Kvinner i Arkeologi i Norge [transl. Women in Archaeology in Norway] that published from 1985 until 2005.
Although the new feminized outlook on archeology addressed detrimental biases in the analysis of past societies and made progress in the study of gender, the feminist theory created a new set of criticisms about archeological research. Some archaeologists have openly criticized gender archaeology. One of those responsible was Paul Bahn, who in 1992 published a statement declaring that:
- The latest outbreak - which bears a great resemblance to the good old days of the new archaeology (primarily a racket for the boys) - is gender archaeology, which is actually feminist archaeology (a new racket for the girls). Yes, folks, sisters are doing it for themselves... Hardly a month goes by without another conference on 'gender archaeology' being held somewhere by a host of female archaeologists (plus a few brave or trendy males who aspire to political correctness). Some of its aims are laudable, but the bandwagon shouldn't be allowed to roll too far, as the new archaeology did, before the empresses' lack of clothes is pointed out by gleeful cynics.
Gender archaeology in cross cultural studies
It has been argued that gender is not genetically inherited but a process of structuring subjectivities, whereas sex is biologically determinate and static (Claassen 1992, Gilchrist 1991, Nelson 1997). To some professionals in the field, however, sex is not “the ground upon which culture elaborates gender” (Morris 1995, 568-569) and “sexing biases have been identified among the methods used in sexing skeletons… When sex is assigned to a skeleton of unknown sex, it is a cultural act” (Claassen 1992, 4), pointing out the more prominent cultural biases in the field of archaeology. These philosophies make Western biological anthropological methods of determining sex of fossils, not appropriate for cross-cultural studies given that not the same physical characteristics are used by all cultures to determine an individual’s sex. This approach of sexual fluidity, meaning that sex is not a cross-cultural concept and it is mostly culturally assigned, has been undermined by the wide application of DNA analysis to skeletal remains in Western Archaeology. The conclusions drawn from such studies performed by Western archaeologists, will be biased by their cultural influences and concepts of sex, biology and DNA.
Hoping that analysis of both the material culture and ethnographic studies of the ancient society will provide a clearer picture of the role gender plays/played in that society, archaeologists are using more diverse types of data and incorporating other aspects of the collected data that they did not include before. Gender studies have often analyzed both males and females (Gilchrist 1991, Leick 2003), however, recent fieldwork has challenged the notion of this particular male-female dichotomy by expanding the categories to include a third or fourth gender in some non-Western societies that are explored (Herdt 1994, Hollimon 1997). Another way in which the fieldwork has challenged the usual study of gender archaeology is by analyzing more material culture like objects, activities and spatial arrangements in the landscape (Nelson 1997).
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