There’s been an interesting discussion on twitter this evening about gender, the question was asked:

“What does ‘being a woman’ actually *mean* to you? How would you define ‘woman’?” 

My thoughts on gender range from the personal the ‘how does it feel?’ to the more academic. I’m going to focus on the more academic in this post as I’m not quite sure how I feel about gender, how I feel being a woman and if I can disconnect this enough from how I feel being me as an individual enough to give any meaning on my feelings of being a woman as opposed to my feelings on just be me.

I’m going to focus on gender and how it is constructed or perhaps more accurately, guessed at or deduced, in archaeology. I trained as an archaeologist and find the area of gender in archaeology fascinating, it’s one of my pet academic niches so to speak.

Gender through Archaeology

I think it is interesting to study gender, and issues of identity in general, through archaeology as it offers a detached perspective, which has as many pitfalls as bonuses. You cannot ask a long dead person, especially an anonymous one who left no writings on their lives, how they define themselves. It is especially fascinating in dealing with ‘unknown’ societies, cultures that are effectively dead. We can never truly know what people thought, how their society perceived gender and we have to piece it together through bits and bobs lefts behind, with the inevitable huge gaps in knowledge.

There is also the difference between sex and gender. Often, especially in our society, we see these two as one and the same. They are not. Sex is biological sex, whether one’s body is deemed biologically ‘male or ‘female’, Gender is whether a person conforms in some way or other to a societies perception of gender roles, i.e what men and women do, act, look and behave.

They are also , imho, not binary. The existence of intersex people and non gender binary identifying people  as well as trans* people testifies to this. The interesting thing is, which is not surprising really but certain types would argue otherwise, there is evidence for the existence of non gender binary people and trans* people in many societies, past and present.

Archaeologically a person is ‘sexed’ predominately by osteological remains, the skeleton or by evidence pointing to a known identity, for example an inscription with the persons name on ‘her lies so and so’.  Unless there has been evidence of tampering or body swapping or other evidence to indicate the person may not be who they are assumed to be,  it’s pretty much taken as a firm indicator that they are who they are labelled as. This is important as it means we are taking someone’s identity on their own words, we are identifying someone by how they and the society they loved in identified them. This is different to imposing an identity on someone, which is what sexing and gendering an unknown person through scientific means such as osteoarchaeological analysis essentially is.
Ventral arc, sexing a skeletonDespite what Time Team and the like tell you there is no ‘definite’ test to ascertain if a skeleton is male or female. There is a variety of skeletal traits, such as pelvis size and shape, sciatic notch shape (see picture), the ventral arc,  general ‘build’ etc on a scale of ‘extremely likely to be male to extremely likely to be female’. The assertion that someone is ‘definitely’ male or female is an just that, an assertion. As far as I can remember there is a scale of typically male and female features, on certain bones such as the pelvis or sciatic knotch (see picture above). On the picture above ‘1’ represent the ‘most female’ and ‘5’ the ‘most male’ and bones are compared to these examples to make the best possible guess. Obviously this allows for people to be in the middle, neither obviously ‘male’ nor ‘female’ and this analysis is not used on those who have not gone through puberty, children’s skeletons are pretty much the same regardless of sex.

Gender wise – unless they indentify themselves, people are ‘gendered’ through a series of assumptions. Grave goods, were the objects buried with the person typically ‘male’ or ‘female’ in that society? Are they buried in a particular place, were burials segregated by gender? Does nay clothing or jewellery etc remain, is this typically ‘male’ or ‘female’?  etc etc etc. Also, one does not always need a body. People are identified by names, occupations, portraits etc left on various material remains, letters, inscriptions, in books etc etc etc.


One interesting example I came across during my dissertation was the mis-gendereing, mistakenly , of a woman as a man. The text was a translation of a Sumerian text, the Sumerian language is not gendered, the person was named (my dissertation is on my external hd I cant be bothered to dig out & I can’t remember her name, sorry!)  had been translated as ‘son of so and so’. The translator, a male working in the early 20th century in western Europe, had assumed she was a he due to her high status role as a priestess, which in the non gendered sumerian would have been a gender neutral title, such the term ‘actor’ for instance. Those assumptions reflect the importance of a society’s gender roles and assumptions about gender on how we view gender identity, essentially we all have cultural baggage and even if we are aware of it we often unwillingly and unknowingly impose it on interpretations. I knew she was a woman as I had researched the role which was held by women and I knew her name from other sources where she had been identified as a woman, as well as in connection with her father and brother who were also listed in this source.

Changing Gender Roles & Non Gender Binary Roles

Gender roles and those societal and cultural markers which mark out gender change and morph through time, one famous example is the switch between pink and blue as male and female colours in our society. Our society is pretty much gender binary in the way we express gender roles, however not all societies are or were. In Sumerian literature and mythology there exists a concept of non gender binary, of a ‘third sex’ and/or androgyny. Gwendolyn Leick in her book Sex and Eroticism in Mesopotamian Literature has an interesting chapter on ‘liminal sexuality’ where she discusses depictions of non gender binary individuals in Sumerian literature. She interprets textual sources as evidence for the existence, and acceptance as a defined group who she asserts were divinely decreed by their association with the goddess Inanna, of intersex individuals. One such group, called ‘sag-ur-sag’ , were said to emphasise their androgynous appearance and ambiguous gender with clothing and accessories. There are also mentions of other probable gender identities throughout Sumerian and Akkadian literature, such as ‘assinu’ which roughly translates as ‘feminine man'; there are references to them being unable to achieve sexual satisfaction and being ‘only half’. Whilst these identities existed and were recognised in Mesopotamian society, it does not mean these people were not always socially accepted and often suffered prejudice, however Leick (p161) suggests there was some form of social integration of asexual, homosexual and intersex people.

There is also evidence from calcolithic europe of a ‘third gender’ person, a skeleton believed to be biologically male buried with typically female grave goods. However as far as I know there is no definite evidence the skeleton is male and after an initial media storm about a ‘gay cavemen’ the archaeologists involved are cautious about assigning a definitive gender identity to this person. Importantly without any evidence, such an inscription, identifying the person any gender identity would be on imposed upon them by modern researchers. This story is a good example of how complicated assigning gender archaeologically can be and I think it offers some food for thought on how we view gender ourselves.

A conclusion, of sorts

Anyway back on track, what does this all mean? To me this means gender is not absolute, gender roles exist in pretty much every society; however they are not concrete. Identity is formed two fold, both how by we define ourselves and how others define us. These two do not always work in harmony, one can be a woman or man, identify as such but this identity is not always accepted by others and it can cause problems. Similarly if one does not fit into the accepted ‘gender binary’ it is problematic, the lack of gender neutral pronouns in our language, as well as the lack of a pronoun for non gender binary, for example. people have tried to rectify this through creating new words such as ‘hir’ or ‘ze’, however these are not widely known or used.  My personal views on the matter are ‘identify yourself as you wish and sod anyone else saying otherwise’, but in the wider context this isn’t always possible and it all depends on who we define ‘identity'; is it solely how you define yourself? Or does the imposed identity of the society you live in also count? I suppose it’s the conflict between the private and pubic self, in a way we all have many identities and sometimes even personalities etc depending on the environment we’re in. Are we the strict boss today? the carefree weekend you? the lover? the parent?

In short identity is really complex and no one has come up with, as far as I know, a concrete definition of what is actually is, no arguments. The same applies to gender.

We have a vague idea of what it is, we know what it is, but can we pin it down to an absolute, define it as ‘absolutely, definitely this?’. I’m not sure I can, though others may feel more confident.

So there you go a long waffle on gender. TL:DR I’m still non the wiser.



Feel free to comment, I do love a good debate

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