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.


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.