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Exploring Sex and Gender in Bioarchaeology

April 2018 (122.2)

Book Review

Exploring Sex and Gender in Bioarchaeology

Edited by Sabrina C. Agarwal and Julie K. Wesp. Pp. x + 295. University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque 2017. $85. ISBN 978-0-8263-5258-3 (cloth).

Reviewed by

This edited volume grew out of a session at the 2011 Annual Meeting of the Society for American Archaeologists that focused on the role of gender and sex in bioarchaeological analyses, the utilization of these concepts to gain insights into past lives, and the limitations of our current implementations. One of the underlying themes in this work is the need to further interrogate how we address sex and gender issues and the ability to observe intersex and nonbinary genders in archaeological contexts. Joyce, in her introduction, focuses on sex and gender theory, particularly how cultural anthropology and sociology have deepened the discourse in this area and how broader theoretical perspectives can be developed and integrated into bioarchaeological analyses. She notes that “unlike ethnographers, bioarchaeologists normally present little or no reflection in their texts from the perspective of the persons whose lives they represent” (3). Seeking novel and meaningful ways of interpreting skeletal biological data and the difficulty of getting at sex and gender in the past as it was conceptualized by the individuals that bioarchaeologists examine are the cruxes of this book.

Agarwal and Wesp have structured the volume in two parts. Part 1, “Theoretical Approaches to Sex and Gender in the Past,” focuses on theoretical approaches to sex and gender in bioarchaeological contexts and how these concepts are understood, misunderstood, and contested. Part 2, “Bioarchaeological Reconstructions of Gendered Identity, Health, and Disease,” presents case studies in which sex and gender play a prominent role in the interpretations of bioarchaeological data.

One of the main goals of part 1 is to show that questions of sex and gender, in modern and ancient contexts, are far from easily defined; rather, they are continually contested and variously conceptualized in different cultural contexts. Papers in this section include discussion of the proposed trade-off between bipedality and pelvis shape in females, also known as “the obstetrical dilemma” (Walrath); nonbinary sex and gender in the archaeological record (Hollimon); aDNA and sex (Geller); and embodiment and the sexed and gendered body as material culture (Wesp). The reader comes away with an understanding that sex and gender lack clear and universal definitions and to a greater extent are socially mitigated areas of classification that have multiple definitions that are neither exclusive nor readily interchangeable. Part 1 entreats bioarchaeologists to consider more critically the sexing of skeletal remains, the role of sex in bioarchaeological analyses, and the assignation of gender and gendered roles to human remains in archaeological contexts.

The need for greater theorization of sex and gender as topics of intersection and interrogation in bioarchaeology is not novel. Previous works, such as Gero and Conkey’s edited volume Engendering Archaeology: Women in Prehistory (Oxford 1991), and Grauer and Stuart-Macadam’s edited volume Sex and Gender in Paleopathological Perspective (Cambridge 1998), have engaged with what it means to be a male man and a female woman in ancient cultural contexts. This volume furthers the dialogue on sex and gender through culturally grounded explications for examining male men and female women as well as introducing greater theorization for identifying and integrating nonbinary and intersexed individuals in discussions of the past. Exploring Sex and Gender in Bioarchaeology questions what it means to be male or female, providing the challenge that even at the biological level there are multifold examples of intersex (e.g., XXY) bodies, as well as nonbinary gender identities. The theorization and argumentation presented in this book extends the discourse initiated by Fausto-Sterling (Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality [New York 2000]) into bioarchaeology, arguing that if we can move away from seeing binary biological sex as unquestionably categorical and translatable to intuited gender, we might be able to more readily get at instances of intersex biology and nonbinary gender identities in antiquity, providing for increasingly robust interpretations and analyses.

The chapter by Wesp discusses the typical five-category scale in which individuals are sexed as “male,” “probable male,” “indeterminate,” “probable female,” and “female.” Most analyses exclude indeterminate individuals. Wesp advocates that we should consider who skeletally indeterminate individuals may have been rather than simply excluding them from analyses. Similarly, Hollimon proposes that with broader cultural contextualization it may be possible to identify third- and fourth-gendered individuals, based on sex in tandem with perceptibly gendered burial and skeletal indicators. Hollimon provides examples from precontact California and the Northern Plains, where combat (typically understood as a male domain) trauma was present in biological females—a discovery that, in conjunction with ethnographic evidence, may indicate a fourth gender within these cultural regions. Such a rationale for nonbinary gender identification opens a new area of bioarchaeological research for critical consideration and implementation. One caveat of the argument for identifying third, fourth, or more genders is that such analyses seem limited in the absence of substantiating evidence, typically ethnographic in nature. Without such supporting evidence, researchers may run the risk of identifying nonbinary genders that were not in fact part of the original cultural landscape, the same risk that is run by assuming an inherently binary landscape of sex and gender.

Part 2 turns to case studies that interrogate their subject matter through the use of sex and gender theory and analyses. Chapters in this section consider gendered violence in the Mountain Meadows massacre (Novak); sex- and gender-related bone loss at Çatalhöyük (Agarwal); a comparison of sex-based frailty between the Black Death cemetery at East Smithfield in London and the contemporary nonepidemic medieval Danish cemeteries of St. Albani Church in Odense and St. Mikkel Church in Viborg (DeWitte); exposure to mercury for syphilis treatment in post-Medieval England (Zuckerman); and a uniformitarian analysis of sex and gender differences in oral health from bioarchaeological and ethnographic contexts (Lukacs).

Novak discusses variation in means of execution by age and sex in her analysis of the 11 September 1857 Mountain Meadows massacres that saw members of the Baker-Fancher wagon train heading west from Arkansas executed by Mormon militiamen in what is today Utah. After their capture, male members of the wagon train were separated from women and children and were executed by gunfire, while the women and children were bludgeoned to death by “Indians,” who were in reality Mormon militiamen. This role of the “Indians” touches on an interesting intersection of sex and gender, as if to say that by inhabiting the role of the “Other” these militiamen could transgress social norms allowing themselves to murder women and children, while at the same time, ostensibly, divesting their guilt for undertaking such brutal actions. No such Othering of the self was required for the massacre of the male population of the wagon party, suggesting that even though all in the party were viewed as enemies of the Mormon enclave, biological sex–based boundaries still existed in regard to how men and women were to be treated, even in regard to murder. The culturally contextualized analysis provided by Novak presents an ideal scenario—due in large part to abundant textual and historical documentation of the 1857 massacre and good skeletal preservation—for implementing the types of theorization of sex and gender presented in the book.

The reader of this edited volume will also find it of great use as a general reference source. The respective authors offer extensive citations of the substantiating literature—although the book could have been enhanced as a reference work had the bibliography been collected together at the end of the volume rather than isolated on a chapter-by-chapter basis. In terms of readership, the main audience will be academic researchers interested in theory and method in bioarchaeology in general and those interested in sex and gender theory in past cultural contexts more specifically.

Robert James Stark
McMaster University

Book Review of Exploring Sex and Gender in Bioarchaeology, edited by Sabrina C. Agarwal and Julie K. Wesp

Reviewed by Robert James Stark

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 122, No. 2 (April 2018)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1222.stark

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