A Note on Sex and Sexism in Archaeology

Over-simplified black-and-white classifications can sometimes be detrimental to the understanding of past populations; Jessica Ryan-Despraz considers the roles sexism and preconceived notions of sex and gender play in archaeological research and data interpretation.

Throughout my PhD work in biological anthropology and prehistoric archaeology, I began to see the ubiquity of sexism, subtle though it may sometimes seem, in theoretical research. Sexism in archaeology, in particular field archaeology, has been at the forefront of many recent conversations, with several institutions attempting to make strides at improving inclusivity and mutual respect. However, sexism and preconceived notions of sex and gender in research and data interpretation requires continued discussion.

My particular research examined archery during the Bell Beaker period and the application of osteological analyses to identify specialized activity. This therefore involved investigating the possible links between an individiual’s physical biomechanical developement and his or her burial context. One primary object of interest was stone wristguards, which are interpreted as the protective equipement worn by archers, and first appear in the archaeological record during the Bell Beaker period. The appearance of these items in a funerary context immediately raised questions of their links to social prestige and a possible “archery” culture as well as drove parallel interpretations examining the appearance of copper daggers, which sometimes appeared in the same graves. My research problematic therefore revolved around using osteological analyses in order to determine whether or not the individuals in these burials were specialized archers and then using that data to better understand the possible link between archery and Bell Beaker social organization. One of my results was that not all “archer” burials contained likely specialized archers. However, a common theme to such analyses of course looks at sex and gender differentiation, especially in terms of labor practices, meaning this work also needed to address one large theoretical hurdle driven by a history of sexist interpretations in archaeology; mainly, the tendency in some past research to classify an individual’s sex based on interpretations of burial goods.

The problem went like this. Archery-related items are linked to warfare and hunting, and warriors and hunters are men; therefore “archer” burials are masculine and prestigious. However, osteological analyses determinging probable biological sex found that some “archer” burials contained females! These burials were immediately assumed to be either great exceptions of “Amazon” warrior women, or as a sign of familial links because a woman couldn’t possibly have been an archer, therefore it must have been the wristguard of a male family member, making the burial symbolic on a familial or societal level. From my perspective as a new researcher, one problem seemed to be a penchant in archaeology and anthropology to over-generalize and attempt to classify people (and cultures) into black-and-white categories that make academic definitions simpler, but perhaps at the expense of the individual.

One of the reasons why identifying specialized archery in Bell Beaker burials is so significant to Neolithic archaeology is because archaeological interpretations often require additional analyses from outside fields. Many areas of research, archaeology and anthropology included, often like to create classifications for each culture and society that can sometimes leave little room for exceptions and outside interpretations. In terms of my study, that was a problem when considering questions of warfare, occupation, and sex. Bell Beaker sites are classified according to pottery – if a site does not have this pottery, then it is not Bell Beaker. Likewise, warriors must have a particular grave context, otherwise he or she was not a warrior. Much work from archaeology, anthropology, and ethnology has argued that 1) women would not have been warriors, and 2) “archer” burials were warriors; but then this all becomes problematic when excavations uncover female “archer” burials. So which is it? Are females not warriors or are “archer” burials something else? And why does it have to be one or the other, with no room for nuance? This is problematic because trends are not rules, and each site and individual needs to be analyzed according to its own attributes in order to avoid sweeping generalizations, particularly those that fail to distinguish between sex and gender. One of my study’s findings was that an archery context does not always imply “archer”, just as “masculine” objects do not always imply male. In fact, in her PhD dissertation, Belard (2014) concluded that people were more often interred based on their social standing  rather than on their sex or gender.

For these reasons, collaboration between fields, specifically anthropology and archaeology, remains vital to interpreting these contexts. Just as differentiating between sex and gender has entered modern conversation, it should also be at the forefront of modern research interpretations of past populations. For research archaeology projects dealing with human remains, osteological analyses are necessary for determining biological sex, rather than relying solely on archaeological context and preconceived notions of male and female burial identity. As anthropological research continues to develop, it can also help provide assessments of occupation and specialization, and such analyses can contribute to archaeological interpretations of social position and community identity. The essence of this argument is that the research needs to continue moving beyond the paradigms — dagger presence does not equal man just like archery equipment does not equal archer. This also acts as another example for the value of individual analyses in addition to population analyses because they allow for specific identifications rather than sexist generalizations based on what women “would likely” have been doing. Some ethnoarchaeological findings, comparisons with societies throughout history and the modern era, and even several examples cited in “Practice and Prestige” suggest that a majority of warriors and leaders are men. However, just like everything else, this is not a black-and-white rule and treating it as such does a disservice to the women, past and present, who have helped shape the modern world. Here are a few examples from this work alone proving that the situation is not so simple:

  • Ethnoarchaeological findings from the Americas showing that women were not only warriors, but also sometimes war chiefs (Holliman, 2001; Koehler, 1997; Thorpe, 2003)
  • 18% of female Bell Beaker burials had a copper dagger and 10% had a stone wristguard (Müller, 2001)
  • The LBK site from Halberstadt (Germany) with the likely burial of a small band of warriors, one of whom was female (Meyer et al., 2018)
  • Sites of likely massacres, such as at Schöneck-Kilianstädten (Germany) and El Trocs (Spain), have young children and adults over the age of 30 but no teens or younger adults. This includes males and females. One theory[1] for this is because they were warriors away from the settlement
  • A cave painting of El Cingle de la Mola Remigia, which clearly depicts a battle scene, and possibly a female warrior[2]
  • With regard to conceptions of leadership, the presence of prestigious female burials (e.g. Hulín 1 grave 86 and Tišice 77/99) demonstrates that even this was not exclusive to men
  • A female burial from Durankulak, the Bulgarian Copper Age, contained a flint “super-blade” (sword?) likely measuring more than 30 cm, which was also the largest in the cemetery (Gurova, 2013; Stratton, 2016)

The point of all of this is not to say that women were just as likely as men to be warriors, because that is obviously not true. Much more evidence exists for mostly male warriors as well as for a patriarchy. The point is to say that modern research would do well to make habitual distinctions between sex and gender a regular part of each interpretation. Specifically, over-simplified black-and-white classifications can sometimes be detrimental to the understanding of past populations. While there is a need to define societies and cultures at the population level, thus necessitating some level of generalization, this should not be done at the expense of the individual. Individuals as well as cultures deserve thorough examinations based on their own unique attributes, and this is perhaps one of the most consequential takeaways from my own research – that analyses at the individual level are just as crucial as those at the population level.


Our sincerest thanks to Dr Ryan-Despraz for providing this article for the Archaeopress Blog, extrapolated from her new book Practice and Prestige: An Exploration of Neolithic Warfare, Bell Beaker Archery, and Social Stratification from an Anthropological Perspective, available in paperback (£34) and free to download in Open Access.

Print ISBN 9781803270524
Online ISBN 9781803270531
Available here.


Bibliography

Belard, C., 2014. Les femmes en Champagne pendant l’Age du fer et la notion de genre en archéologie funéraire : (derniers tiers du Vie – IIIe siècle av. J.-C.) (PhD thesis). Paris, EPHE.

Gurova, M., 2013. Towards the Meaning of Flint Grave Goods: A Case Study from Bulgaria, in: Comşa, A., Bonsall, C., Nikolova, L. (Eds.), Facets of the Past: The Challenge of the Balkan Neo-Eneolithic. Presented at the International Symposium Celebrating the 85th Birth Anniversary of Eugen Comşa 6-12 October 2008, Bucharest, Romania, The Publishing House of the Romanian Academy, Bucharest, pp. 375–393.

Holliman, S., 2001. Warfare and gender in the northern plains: osteological evidence of trauma reconsidered, in: Arnold, B., Wicker, N. (Eds.), Gender and the Archaeology of Death. Altamira Press, Walnut Creek, CA, pp. 179–193.

Koehler, L., 1997. Earth mothers, warriors, horticulturalists, artists, and chiefs: women among the Mississippian and Mississippian-Oneota peoples, A.D. 1000 to 1750, in: Claasen, C., Joyce, R.A. (Eds.), Women in Prehistory: North America and Mesoamerica. University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, pp. 211–226.

Meyer, C., Knipper, C., Nicklisch, N., Münster, A., Kürbis, O., Dresely, V., Meller, H., Alt, K.W., 2018. Early Neolithic executions indicated by clustered cranial trauma in the mass grave of Halberstadt. Nature Communications 9, 2472.

Müller, A., 2001. Gender Differentiation in burial rites and grave-goods in the Eastern or Bohemian-Moravian Group of the Bell Beaker Culture, in: Nicolis, F. (Ed.), Bell Beakers Today: Pottery, People, Culture, Symbols in Prehistoric Europe, Proceedings of the International Colloquium Riva Del Garda 11-16 May 1998. Provincia Autonoma di Trento Servizio Beni Culturali Ufficio Beni Archeologici, Trento, pp. 589–599.

Stratton, S., 2016. “Seek and you Shall Find.” How the Analysis of Gendered Patterns in Archaeology can Create False Binaries: a Case Study from Durankulak. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 23, 854–869.

Thorpe, I.J.N., 2003. Anthropology, Archaeology, and the Origin of Warfare. World Archaeology 35, 145–165.


[1]     Part 1 of “Practice and Prestige” discusses other theories.

[2]     The vast majority of cave paintings appear to depict men only, however this does not make it permissible to dismiss those of women.

Conversations in Human Evolution

Lucy Timbrell introduces an ongoing science communication project exploring the breadth and interdisciplinarity of human evolution research at a global scale.

Conversations in Human Evolution is an ongoing science communication project exploring the breadth and interdisciplinarity of human evolution research at a global scale. Through informal interviews (henceforth referred to as ‘conversations’), this project delves deeply into topics concerning the study of our species’ evolutionary history, covering the current advances in research, theory and methods as well as the socio-political issues rife within academia. This project also provides important insights into the history of human evolutionary studies. Overall, the Conversations in Human Evolution website has attracted around 8000 visitors from over 100 countries. Volume 1 (available from Archaeopress) is the result of the first twenty conversations, published online between March and June 2020. When we went to press, this subset of the conversations had been collectively viewed 6817 times since they were made available on the website.

The idea for Conversations in Human Evolution (CHE) arose in March 2020 during the escalation of the COVID-19 global pandemic. Following the cancellation and postponement of in-person events, CHE became a creative project to encourage engagement with human evolutionary research during this time of isolation and confinement. It was noticed that, whilst there is great public interest in this area of research, there are few freely accessible online resources about human evolutionary studies itself (though see the Smithsonian Human Origins Programme for a good example of a publicly available resource). What’s more, science engagement initiatives are almost always concerned with communicating exciting results and discoveries, and whilst this is obviously the most important aspect of science communication, it can lead to the neglection of the personal experiences of the scholars behind the science. Broader socio-political issues within subject-specific academic circles are also rarely discussed through publicly accessible communicative forums, somewhat depersonalising the science and perhaps even romanticising academia in certain ways. CHE fills this void by asking – what does it actually mean to study and research human evolution in the 21st century?

Human evolution studies, by definition, is a discipline concerned with the deep past. We explore the most pertinent questions about the evolution of humanity, such as the emergence of complex language and culture. The exploration of such issues allows researchers to look back into our species’ evolutionary history to better understand our present and our future. Yet, we rarely consider the role of history and personal experience in the shaping of human evolution research. Acknowledging that the history of our discipline and its historical figures deserve focus in their own right is a fundamental premise of CHE as, in the same way that human evolutionary research drives our understanding of our past, present and future selves, historical and personal contexts have driven modern approaches to the deep past. CHE bridges the gap between the research and the researcher, contextualising modern science with personal experience and historical reflection.

Themes:

Volume 1 is organised into five non mutually exclusive categories based on broad research areas: (1) quaternary and archaeological science, (2) Palaeolithic archaeology, (3) biological anthropology and palaeoanthropology, (4) primatology and evolutionary anthropology, and (5) evolutionary genetics. CHE features scholars at various different stages in their careers and from all over the world; in this volume alone, researchers are based at institutions in seven different countries (namely the United Kingdom, Australia, the United States of America, Germany, Denmark, India and China), covering four continents.

Quaternary and Archaeological Science

Section 1 features five conversations with quaternary and archaeological scientists, covering topics such as quantitative methods in archaeology, human-environment interactions, palaeoecology and geoarchaeology. Dr Enrico Crema discusses his research into evolutionary cultural change and prehistoric demography, with a particular focus on Japanese prehistory, as well as the importance of being a ‘π-shaped’ researcher with both domain-specific knowledge and analytical and computing skills. Professor Felix Riede builds on this idea, suggesting that ‘π-shaped’ researchers should learn how to ‘hold hands’ and work collaboratively. He also discusses his research projects attempting to understand how paleoclimates have interacted with past societies, and the role that archaeology can play in current discourse in contemporary climate change. Professor Ben Marwick details the importance of ‘open access archaeology’ as well as some of his many projects, mainly in Southeast Asia. Quaternary Scientist, Professor Chris Hunt recounts his work at the ongoing Shanidar Cave Project in Iraqi Kurdistan (among his many other projects), which has recently published fascinating results on Neanderthal mortuary practises. Professor Andy Herries also reviews his recent publications, such as the dating of the DNH 134 Homo erectus fossil. As well as discussion about his ongoing work in geoarchaeology and geochronology, he stresses the importance of working with local collaborators and communities.

A cartoon of π-shaped researchers that boast both knowledge (K) breadth and depth as well as statistical acumen learning to ‘hold hands’ and do archaeological team science, also with colleagues of other shapes. Image by Felix Riede.

Palaeolithic Archaeology

Section 2 features five conversations with Palaeolithic archaeologists working all over the world. This section highlights the ongoing research that is being carried out to further understand prehistoric human behaviour over a huge geographic area. Starting in Asia, Professor Shanti Pappu recounts her experiences of researching the Indian Palaeolithic, drawing special attention to the importance of her outreach programmes with local schools during excavation. Professor Michael Petraglia details his interdisciplinary work in South Asia and East Asia –  as well as Arabia and eastern Africa –  which has the overarching focus of understanding the origin and dispersal of our own species. Dr Shi-Xia Yang describes her recent work on the stone tools of Palaeolithic in East Asia, making links between hominin behaviours and climatic change in the region. Moving into African Stone Age archaeology, Professor John Gowlett explores his experiences working in eastern Africa, illustrated with amazing pictures from his personal archive. Professor Eleanor Scerri next describes her ongoing work in northern and western Africa. Like others in this volume, she encourages the development of new quantitative and computational methods for interpreting patterns in the archaeological record. Finally, coming into the European Palaeolithic, Dr Rob Davies describes his work at the British Museum looking at the archaeology of ancient Great Britain. As a mature student coming into archaeological research later in life, he provides an invaluable account of his experiences within academia.

The research team at the Sharma Centre for Heritage Education in action. Image by Shanti Pappu.

Biological Anthropology and Palaeoanthropology

Four biological anthropologists and paleoanthropologists are featured in Section 3, covering topics such as evolutionary medicine, comparative anatomy and the significance of new fossil discoveries. Dr Emma Pomeroy first describes some of her latest work in evolutionary medicine on the osteological indicators of body fatness (among other projects, such as the excavation of Neanderthal remains at Shanidar Cave), discussing the implications of her work on modern health. Professor Chris Stringer talks us through his expansive career in physical anthropology, including his PhD at the University of Bristol which led to the establishment of the Out of Africa hypothesis. Professor Katerina Harvati describes some of her most recent research at Apidima Cave on some of the oldest Homo sapiens fossils outside of Africa. She goes on to discuss some of the technological and methodological advancements that have revolutionized modern anthropological science as well as some of academia’s socio-political issues that still require attention, like the representation of women and ethnic minorities in human evolution research as well as sexual harassment. Finally, Professor Bernard Wood recounts his experiences working with Richard Leakey and other well-known paleoanthropologists during the ‘golden era’ of fossil discoveries.

Chris Stringer on his PhD trip around Europe (1971). Image by Chris Stringer.
Bernard Wood looking at newly recovered hominin fossils with colleagues, brought down to Nairobi by Don Johanson from Hadar in 1973, at the old Center for Prehistory and Palaeontology at the National Museums of Kenya. From left to right, Tim White, Richard Leakey, Bernard Wood and Don Johanson. Image by Bob Campbell.

Primatology and Evolutionary Anthropology

Section 4 includes three conversations with researchers working within primatology and evolutionary anthropology. First, Professor Susana Carvalho describes how she helped to establish the field of ‘primate archaeology’. She also outlines the progression of the Gorongosa Field School and Palaeo-Primate Project in Mozambique which she directs. Like many others, she also strongly advocates the training of local students to lead research in these areas. Then, Dr Isabelle Winder, a self-proclaimed ‘question-led researcher’, discusses the broad nature of her past and present projects, including some very interesting work in the modelling of non-primate species distributions in response to climate change. Finally, Professor Fiona Jordan discusses her work on the VariKin project which uses data, methods and theory from anthropology, biology, linguistics and psychology to explore kinship system diversity. Interestingly, in this conversation, she reflects on her experiences working in academic institutions all over the world.

Susana Carvalho with Rene Bobe and Zeray Alemseged at Gorongosa (2017). Image by Luke Stalley.

Evolutionary Genetics

The final section focuses on individuals working on evolutionary genetics as it features conversations with two population geneticists. First, Professor Eske Willerslev discusses the significance of environmental DNA for understanding biological activity in the past, a field within evolutionary genetics that he founded. He also discusses some of his biggest achievements, such as the first whole-genome sequencing of an ancient human genome and proposes some of the most promising avenues of future research for human evolution studies, such as proteomics. Second, Dr Pontus Skoglund addresses the interaction between archaeology and genetics, discussing some of the contentious issues between the two, such as the definition of ancestry. He also describes his research into the links between population migrations and the global transition to agriculture, archaic gene flow, early human evolution in Africa and more.

Eske Willerslev visiting the Northern Cheyenne Reserve in Montana, talking to members of the Cheyenne and Crow Native American Tribes. Image by Eske Willerslev.

About the author

Lucy Timbrell is an AHRC-funded PhD researcher in the Archaeology of Human Origins Research Group at the University of Liverpool. She was awarded her BSc in Evolutionary Anthropology from the University of Liverpool in 2018 and her MPhil in Biological Anthropological Science from Clare College, University of Cambridge, in 2020. Broadly, she is interested in the evolution of modern human diversity, with her doctoral research focussing on quantifying the population structure of early Homo sapiens in Late-Middle Pleistocene Africa. Alongside her PhD research, she organises the widely known University of Liverpool Evolutionary Anthropology seminar series. She has previously published and organised international workshops on the application of geometric morphometrics methods in biological anthropology and archaeology, and was awarded a global prize in 2018 for her undergraduate research that utilized these techniques. Lucy is also an advocate for open science and public engagement with human evolutionary studies.

Available Now!

Conversations in Human Evolution: Volume 1 is available now in paperback (£30) and as a FREE PDF download here.

Sincerest thanks to Lucy Timbrell for supplying this blog post. If you would be interested in submitting something for the Archaeopress Blog – please contact Patrick Harris.

An Educator’s Handbook For Teaching About the Ancient World

Dr Pinar Durgun discusses the context and background behind her innovative new handbook presenting ‘recipes’ for teaching about the ancient world.

How did the book come about?

The world has changed so quickly and so drastically around us in 2020. So has our teaching: online and open-access resources have often been the only way students and educators can access and share information, when libraries, schools, and cultural organizations have been closed for much of the year, and in many cases remain so. Even when they have re-opened, educators have been forced to teach in entirely new or hybrid formats.

Teachers (inspired by ancient Assyrian, Mayan, and Greek depictions holding teaching tools)  and students (holding various school supplies) in a classroom. The image imitates the style of painted ancient stone reliefs. The colors and details are worn. Cover artwork by Hannah M. Herrick.

Now that many of us are required to teach over digital platforms, can we expect our students to listen to us lecture for two hours and give us their undivided attention? The instructional designers I work with in preparing my online courses suggest that online lectures should be 10 minutes maximum. So do many other educators. This is how long your students can focus on your lecturing voice and your ‘floating head talking’ video. In the physical classroom, the maximum is around 15-20 minutes. So how do we communicate information and teach content for longer stretches of time while still enabling students to interact and engage?

Interactive classroom activities make learning undeniably more engaging and fun, in addition to providing students with physical dexterity, collaboration, critical-thinking, problem-solving, and analytical skills. There are very creative educators among us who have been teaching about the ancient world in exciting ways using hands-on, project-based, and experiential activities. I wanted to use these activities in my classes. And based on dozens of activity exchanges with my educator friends, I was sure that other educators were also looking for new strategies to engage their students with the ancient world. This is why I created An Educator’s Handbook for Teaching About the Ancient World.

‘Live like it’s 3000 BC: Experimental Archaeology; students are flintknapping to produce an Acheulean hand axe. Brown University, 2018.

What is in the book?

The initial idea was to format the lesson plans into a cookbook, with teaching ‘recipes’, which include the materials, budget, preparation time, and level of students so that any educator could replicate these recipes in their classes. Some of these activities require materials, some do not. Some need to be prepared before class, some require no preparation. Some of the activities are very much tied to the culture, time period, or place, but some can be applied to any content. Some of the activities were written by a single educator, and some are a product of collaborative teaching. All of the activities, however, are tested in the classroom and peer-reviewed by other educators. More importantly, all activities are engaging, hands-on, immersive, and/or experiential. They are only a small portion of the endless possibilities of making teaching and learning about the ancient world fun, meaningful, and informative.

An example of the ‘recipe’ format: ‘Making Lions at Babylon’ by Anastasia Amrhein and Elizabeth Knott

In addition to these teaching recipes, this book also addresses some important issues in ancient world pedagogy: Why should we publish educational resources as open access? How can we effectively make use of museums and ancient objects in our teaching? Why should our research and pedagogy be collaborative? Our teaching has broader implications. These essays address such implications and provide great examples and case studies for educators to apply these methods and ways of thinking to their own teaching. I hope this book will be a resource where we can learn from each other about ancient world pedagogy regardless of the time periods, cultural or geographical areas, and subjects we teach.

Who is this book for?

Educators teaching about the ancient world. Students and parents learning how to teach about ancient world. Anyone who is interested in the ancient world and pedagogy. The activities in this book can be implemented online or in-person, in school, university, library, museum, or home classrooms. Every activity specifies the age/grade level of students for which the activity is appropriate. Many activities also have optional steps to make the activity work for other ages/levels. The activities and essays were written by school teachers, university instructors, and museum educators who teach about ancient objects, materials, peoples, and cultures.

Some of the activities were also written in different languages. Contributors and educators Leticia Rovira and Cecilia Molla from Argentina, who wrote their activity both in English and Spanish, say that this book is:

“a novel contribution to the didactics of ancient societies’ teaching. The main objective is challenging and enthralling: to go beyond the thresholds of academy and reach another very important audience –students at different levels- and try to capture their interest, drawing their attention towards our fields of study through a wide diversity of appealing didactic proposals.”

You can find out more about the Contributors here: https://pinardurgunpd.wixsite.com/teachancient

One of the goals of this book was to open up the conversation about ancient world pedagogy and create a hub for more collaboration. I encourage you to try out the teaching activities and share your photos and observations with other educators: https://pinardurgunpd.wixsite.com/teachancient/gallery 

You can also explore further pedagogical resources about ancient world pedagogy here: https://pinardurgunpd.wixsite.com/teachancient/copy-of-about

About the Author

Dr Pınar Durgun is an art historically-trained archaeologist with a background in anthropology, cultural heritage, and museums, passionate about outreach and education. She received her Ph.D. from Brown University and has been teaching for about a decade in universities, museums, and school classrooms about archaeology and the ancient world. As a dedicated public scholar and educator, Dr Durgun hopes to make academic information about the ancient world accessible, fun, and inclusive. Find out more about her work here: https://pinardurgunpd.wixsite.com/pinardurgun

Grab it and spread the word!

The eBook version of my book is FREE to download in Open Access. To download the free eBook or to purchase a printed hardback copy, please click on the cover image below:

Sincerest thanks to Dr Durgun for writing this article for the Archaeopress Blog. To submit an article, please send your proposal to Patrick Harris: patrick@archaeopress.com