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A Companion to Gender Prehistory

A Companion to Gender Prehistory

Edited by Diane Bolger (Blackwell Companions to Anthropology). Pp. xxiii + 642, figs. 39, tables 5. Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester, England 2013. $195. ISBN 978-0-470-65536-8 (cloth).

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There is a crisis in gender archaeology. This book highlights the facets of that crisis. This was not the aim of the book, of course. The aim, according to Bolger’s introduction, was “to provide students, scholars, and the interested public with a comprehensive and accessible overview of the major theoretical developments, methodological approaches, and political debates in the field of gender prehistory.... Each chapter is intended to furnish a compressive and concise overview of research in a particular region or theme; to provide a critical analysis of those developments; and to outline fruitful directions for future research” (11). In this, the book does not disappoint, although I would state at the beginning that readers are expected to have a background in both feminist theory and the basics of archaeology to comprehend the chapters fully. For example, Bolger discusses contrasts, conflicts, and possible rapprochements between “Second” and “Third Wave” feminism(s), without ever defining for the reader what these terms mean, or, for that matter, what “First Wave” might be (7–10). These terms are defined later in the book, in Stig Sørensen’s chapter, “The History of Gender Archaeology in Northern Europe” (which really should have come earlier in the text), but there is no reason one would know to go there for this information. Terms such as “processual,” “post-processual,” and “social-historical theory” appear, also with no clear definitions. So the book is definitely aimed not just at a highly educated public, but one with a background in both fields pertaining to the book’s subject matter.

The book is divided into two parts containing six sections, totaling 29 chapters. Part 1, “Thematic Perspectives in Gender Prehistory,” consists of the chapters “Current Themes and Debates,” “Gender and Prehistoric Material Culture,” and “Gendered Bodies and Identities in Prehistory.” Part 2, “Regional Perspectives in Gender Prehistory,” is organized geographically.

The book’s real strengths are in part 2. Divided into three units (Africa and Asia; Europe; the Americas and South Pacific), these 16 chapters provide exactly what Bolger called for in her introduction: a quick and comprehensive survey of prehistoric archaeology with a focus on the historical context of research, relevant methodologies, data, debates in analysis, and aims of future research. The range and expertise in these chapters are delightful and encouraging. To give just a few examples: Nelson, in “Gender and Archaeology in Coastal East Asia,” pulls together matters of kinship, pottery technology, and status in Thailand, looking at burial complexes and osteological isotope analysis and carefully showing how these data combined lead to the suggestion that women entering the Khok Phanom Di community through marriage achieved high status by bringing superior pottery technologies with them (337). In “Gender in Southwest Asian Prehistory,” Bolger and Wright note the complex interactions between social complexity, domicile structures, and concomitant effects on women’s location and status in Early/Middle Bronze Age Cypriot Marki-Alonia (377–78). Brumfiel, in “Archaeology of Gender in Meso­america,” uses domestic and mortuary evidence to show that a gendered division of labor did not occur in Central America (567–69), contrary to many essentializing notions that a gender-based division of labor, with the female innately attached to the domestic unit, characterized all humanity. Linduff and Rubinson offer an archaeology of the Eurasian “Amazons” that should be required reading for anyone studying Herodotus’ Scythian narratives (359–66).

There are, of course, some aspects with which one might wish to quibble in these chapters. In Hitchcock and Nikolaidou’s “Gender in Greek and Aegean Prehistory,” the authors claim that “[t]he relatively inaccessible locations of weaving and storage facilities seen in the interior of Minoan and Helladic houses indicates the material, social, and conceptual importance of these activities—and thus the authority of those in charge” (508). This would perhaps run counter to Bolger and Wright’s argument that the farther within the domestic unit one is placed, the farther one is from social interaction, networks, and social status. But such debates are healthy and beneficial.

Part 1, “Thematic Perspectives in Gender Prehistory,” is where that crisis appears. The first problem is one of methodology: What should count as evidence for prehistoric archaeology? Several authors, including Bolger, Conkey, and Finlay, argue that anything relating to biological essentialism must be avoided (e.g., women must coordinate work with child care), along with ethnographic parallels (e.g., using ethnographies of hunter-gatherers to study Paleolithic cultures). In addition, considering the prehistoric orientation of the book, textual materials should also technically be discounted, as these pertain to later protohistoric and historic periods. When these three sources of data are removed, though, some authors find themselves incapable of engendering their topics. For example, in “Gender, Labor, and Pottery Production in Prehistory,” Bolger shows why previous theories attributing small-scale pottery production to females are methodologically unsound. However, in “Ethnographic Models of Pottery Production: Limitations and Gender Bias,” the only positive data for gender in the production of pottery (as opposed to negating previous hypotheses) in the article come from ethnographic parallels, especially the Lapita of the South Pacific. When avoiding ethnographies, Bolger gives three case studies: Dolni Věstonice, Franchthi Cave, and Tell Sabi Abyad (168–69). The first and last make no reference to gender. The second does, but suggests that “[o]n the basis of women’s traditional involvement with plant foods, Vitelli proposes that female shamans are likely to have been the inventors and earliest users of pots” (169). Not only does this resort to essentialism (“traditional involvement”), but it is outrageously speculative. A similar problem emerges for Finlay in “Gender and Lithic Studies in Prehistoric Archaeology.” Having condemned ethnography and essentialisms, she goes on to use ethnographies as her major source of engendered data. In the end, although Finlay offers fascinating evidence about the age of possible flint knappers, thus pulling children into the archaeological record, she can say nothing about the adults and their sex. The topic cannot be engendered.

In contrast, Hays-Gilpin’s chapter on prehistoric rock art and Costin’s chapter on textile production are excellent surveys, providing primary data, histories of the disciplines, and useful case studies. The first is almost entirely dependent on modern ethnographies for analysis and engendering, while Costin, in her survey of the New World, Mesopotamia, Greece, and China, makes extensive use of documentary evidence. It would be difficult to argue that Costin’s chapter counts as “prehistory.”

Methodologies notwithstanding, many articles in this part are extremely well written and highly informative. Zihlman’s chapter, “Engendering Human Evolution,” covers the history of the gender debate, sources of data, models, case studies, and current conflicts, and it should become mandatory in all introductory anthropology classes. Sofaer’s “Bioarchaeological Approaches to the Gendered Body” should also be required reading, and not just for physical anthropologists. She deals with the physical realia of the human body from the DNA up, using case studies to show how osteological analysis can answer questions about ancient gender. For example, she notes how the change to agriculture in the Levant is accompanied by greater musculoskeletal stress markers on both men and women, suggesting that many economic activities were not divided by sex (233).

Several chapters engage the “goddess debate,” starting with Morris and Goodison’s “Goddesses in Prehistory.” Once again, this is an excellent introduction to the issue of goddesses in ancient religions and problems with the notion of “the” goddess. Using case studies from Çatalhöyük, Syria, and Crete, they explore iconographic, archaeological, and embodied aspects of ancient religion and gender issues. Other authors, such as Chapman and Palincaş in “Gender in Eastern European Prehistory,” and Whitehouse in “Gender in Central Mediterranean Prehistory,” confront the Gimbutas debate quite directly, offering clear evidence and argumentation for why the “goddess” hypothesis must be laid to rest already.

The real, critical crisis highlighted in the book, however, is Judith Butler. Butler’s extreme notion, that gender and biological sex are not physical facts but merely performance, runs wild through several chapters, ranging from mild panic to full-scale incoherence and creating a discourse more commonly associated with cults, or George Orwell, than the academy. In some chapters, this merely manifests as a need to express, somewhere, the party line that sex or gender is “fluid” or “fleeting.” Thus, in their chapter on gender, complexity, and power, Hutson, Hanks, and Pyburn claim that “[i]n some cases, the fleeting categories—male, female, androgynous, other—established by gender practices may be unimportant compared with other kinds of difference” (51). However, there is no evidence for androgynous or “other” in their chapter; the statement appears to derive more from fear of third-wave criticism than data on their topic. The problem becomes especially acute when the authors, writing on gender and emerging complexity, refuse to define the word “state” on the grounds that traditional definitions have all involved the suppression of women: “Inadequate patriarchy is a sign of a lack of political centralization” (61). Not necessarily, to be sure, but an improved, gender-informed working definition/model would have been useful.

Alberti, in his chapter “Queer Prehistory,” also has quite a time trying to define queer theory. Some moments are perfectly lucid: “If queer has a principle, it is the counter-hegemonic position that challenges and resists dominant cultural forms” (90). Excellent, but then why does he discuss the politics of lesbians and gay men in the academy (94)? What has queer theory to do with homosexuality, one could well ask after reading his chapter.

As Alberti later notes, “Butler’s work supports the notion that a ‘body’ per se does not exist: all we have is access to bodies through their positioning in one or another discourse” (96). This (anti-)logic infects several other chapters. Marshall provides an utterly baffling “Personhood in Prehistory: A Feminist Archaeology in Ten Persons.” After discussing a 20th-century boy named David Reimer whose penis was accidentally cut off, thus creating lifelong gender confusion for him, she presents some anthropological theories of personhood, tells the story of an African-American midwife, discusses pottery with gendered representations, and ends with a discussion about the manufacture of Celtic mirrors. Her “Ten Persons” are David, a Celtic mirror, ceramic figurines, Argentinian body pots, Lucrecia Perryman (the midwife), Northwest Coast stone bodies, Bronze Age burials, a bone awl, Awá men and arrows, and herself (220–21). There is no definition of “person” in the chapter.

Most painful is Bailey’s “Figurines, Corporeality, and the Origins of the Gendered Body,” which reads as a neophyte’s testimonial to the cult of Butler, including a confession of his past blindness. He testifies that “in light of what is now uncontroversial anthropological, sociological, and other social science research, the assumption that concepts such as male and female were static across time and space is unsupportable” (248). “Uncontroversial” is jarring, considering that his chapter immediately follows Sofaer’s, who claims, “At present, the majority of bioarchaeological research favors an understanding of sex as a physical rather than culturally constructed feature and gender as the cultural elaboration of natural sex differences ... [a]lthough some commentators regard this as old-fashioned and symptomatic of bioarchaeologists’ lack of engagement with social theory” (231). Bailey’s article continues with a distressing lack of coherence. He argues that what is absent on a figurine is actually what is emphasized (thus, presumably, gender on the Temple-period Malta figurines with no sexual characteristics, but not on Bronze Age Syrian figurines with large breasts and giant pubic triangles), that Neolithic Europeans had no idea where their bodies ended and other objects began, or that they even necessarily understood that they had bodies.

So there is a radical fringe to gender archaeology, and readers can make of it what they will. Hopefully the queer theorists will challenge it soon. But this does not discount the excellent essays presented in Bolger’s volume, including those on Africa and the New World, which I did not feel qualified to address, although I enjoyed reading them very much. The volume is extremely useful, and much of it should become standard classroom reading.

Stephanie Lynn Budin

Book Review of A Companion to Gender Prehistory, edited by Diane Bolger

Reviewed by Stephanie Lynn Budin

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 117, No. 4 (October 2013)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1174.Budin

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