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Archaeologies of Gender and Violence

Archaeologies of Gender and Violence

Edited by Uroš Matić and Bo Jensen. Oxford: Oxbow 2017. Pp. 284. $55. ISBN 9781785706882 (paper).

Reviewed by

In cultures as hierarchical as European and Mediterranean prehistory, the Graeco-Roman world, the Anglo-Saxon and Viking periods, and Prehistoric Peru, it is probably impossible to discuss the role of violence without understanding underlying gender politics. This new edited volume is a collection of 13 papers (three theoretical discussions and 10 archaeological case studies) that present the interwoven nature of gender and violence in the ancient world.

Chapter 1, “Introduction: Why Do We Need Archaeologies of Gender and Violence and Why Now?,” opens with a direct explanation for the relevancy of research into gendered spheres of activities and their intersection within hierarchies of gender. After briefly explaining the definitions of violence and gender, the editors discuss the thematic cross-section of the volume by summarizing: “Gender is a very widespread cultural categorisation system; hierarchy is another very widespread cultural categorisation; hierarchy is inherently violent; therefore, in hierarchical societies, gender is frequently entangled with violence” (8). The editors proceed to draw on examples spanning all of human history, from our evolutionary ancestors to the present day, and their choices are meant to underscore the pervasiveness of gender violence. Nevertheless, the rapid-fire delivery of these examples and the vast jumps across cultures are dizzying, which undercuts the utility of the introduction as a commentary on thematic unity.

Clearly, the editors have a nuanced series of ideas when they reference The Walking Dead and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in the same sentence (14), but the frenetic pace and unpredictability of successive examples leave the reader questioning the significance of each chosen illustration rather than reflecting on the wider point. In the rush to present a great swath of evidence, the deeper implications of gendered violence—such as the instrumental use of symbolic violence, or the impact of gendered violence for those at the top of the social hierarchy, traditionally males (12)—are buried in the middles of paragraphs. Similarly rich topics, like the patriarchal nature of violence, “real” violence as opposed to the imagery of violence, and the archetype of a bloodthirsty woman (Judith, Medea, Lady Macbeth), are listed off but not explored. Deep thematic issues within the anthropology of violence are mentioned only in passing (5–6) rather than referring the reader either to a later chapter in the edited volume or to outside sources. Moreover, presenting the overview of the chapters late in the introduction (15–18) divorces them from discussion of the topic itself, undercutting the significance of the chapters in offering their own input on the state of the discipline and isolating each chapter from the others. Thus, rather than providing a firm theoretical foundation for the rest of the volume, the introduction brings disorder to the topic at hand.

The lack of focus in the introductory chapter resonates throughout the rest of the volume. A more useful way of organizing the chapters would have been to group them loosely according to the predominant type of evidence under study. In its current form, there is no clear order for the chapters, but if they had been arranged by iconography (chs. 5, 6, 8), human remains (chs. 3, 4, 11, 12), and textual evidence (chs. 7, 9, 10), it might have been possible to provoke discussion on useful methodologies for the study of various categories of evidence. Alternatively, the chapters could have been arranged by theme or focus (e.g., brutalized children, female aggressors, warrior men), which would have been a little less neat in terms of clearly grouping the chapters, but at least would have invited some dialogue between them.

In “Revisiting the Myth of Matriarchy, Rethinking Determinism, Seeing Anew” (ch. 2), Stephanie Koerner adopts a similar hurried pace through a century’s worth of influential writings in anthropology (less so in archaeology). It is hard to see how subsequent archaeological examples could situate themselves within this hard-to-navigate theoretical foundation. To offer one critique, Koerner charts the rise of interdisciplinary approaches to gender and violence (37–38), and yet the focus on countering sweeping theories of the early 20th century has put Koerner in the position of only offering binary approaches. The criticism that these early theories are too reliant on myth and paradigm, and are less reflective of the archaeological or historical record, falls flat when the author herself counters every argument with a binary, equal, and opposite critique. To my knowledge, the pervasiveness of patriarchal systems is not in dispute in the literature; moreover, nonbinary people live in patriarchies (and presumably in matriarchies), which indicates that people who fall outside the networks of traditional power have been making lives for themselves in spite of these conditions. Yet the black-and-white tone that Koerner adopts in discussing male/female, patriarchal/matriarchal, sacred/profane, objective/relative, and masked/unmasked leaves no room for anything that falls outside these strict categories; the author describes genders ossified into structures that rigidly identify with one side of a binary pair, with no room for flexibility or contextual definition.

Many of the chapters approach their respective subject with both an eye to judging the ancient world as patently patriarchal yet bring little new theoretical scholarship to understanding the evidence under study. Lisbeth Skogstrand (“The Role of Violence in the Construction of Prehistoric Masculinities,” ch. 4) traces shifting portrayals of violent masculinity through burial evidence from three areas of various dates: Funen, Denmark (1100–500 BCE); eastern Norway (1–400 CE); and Østfold, at the coast of eastern Norway (200–400 CE). The author notes that the chapter is drawn from her dissertation research in which she conducted an osteological examination of more than 800 specimens (78), but this corpus of data is only lightly discussed in the body of the chapter. The author then moves to burials that included tweezers and razors, but where these graves are located, how many are under discussion, and their precise dating (the graves are said to date from 1100–500 BCE) are not addressed (82–84). Skogstrand notes that cremation was “the universal burial custom” but then says that tombs with razors and tweezers were from “burials of individuals osteologically estimated as males” (82), a claim made with no discussion of the physical remains. Proportional amounts are offered—for example, “one-third of the analysed Late Bronze Age male burials in Funen contain razors, and sometimes tweezers” (82)—but the sample size (10? 100?) is not given. Also, the inherent bias of the sample seem to go unrecognized by the author. Were not the osteological remains of individuals buried in graves with notable grave gifts more likely to be selected to be analyzed, particularly since these individuals were more frequently buried in substantially larger mounds (82)? This brief overview of the Funen graves is the last mention of archaeological evidence for many pages. When the author again pivots to interpreting the archaeological remains, the presentation of evidence is cursory and speculative: “Hill forts are often strategically placed along roads and rivers. . . . Their existence suggests turbulent times with frequent armed conflicts and a need for defence against raiding warrior bands” (87).  The author takes an accepting stance of old interpretations of Bronze and Iron Age masculinity drawn from Roman authors (e.g., Caesar and Tacitus, 90–92) through Thomas Hobbes in the 17th century (81), offering conclusions as if they are self-evident, rather than archaeologically informed.

Other chapters adopt a modern, etic viewpoint that is equally ill-suited to the societies under study. In chapter 7, “Violence against Women in Graeco-Roman Egypt: The Contribution of Demotic Documents,” Christine Hue-Arcé’s stated thesis is “whether the sort of violence that was directed against women was different from that directed against men”; specifically, “were there differences in the expression, use, treatment, and perception of violence in Graeco-Roman Egypt based on the gender of the victim?” (134). What is not clear, however, is whether this is even a suitable research question for the ancient culture under study. If ancient Egyptian society observed a strict hierarchy, it is counterproductive to consider the data as if men and women were considered equals—indeed, the author presents evidence on this point, noting the status differences between individuals determined the amount aggressors were fined in punishment codes (139). Hue-Arcé only tentatively comes to this conclusion toward the end of the chapter (142). Other issues are brought up, including social honor (145), but whether Graeco-Roman Egypt was an honor society is not discussed. The comparisons are made solely against how interpersonal violence is discussed for men, with no status differentiation or clear indication of the norms of a clearly patriarchal society. The author notes that the same words are used to record beatings against men and against women, but it is unclear whether we should even expect gendered language differentiating spousal and domestic abuse from assault and battery. The fraught nature of an etic viewpoint can be seen in the short discussion of sexual consent (137–38). What consent was likely to mean in an ancient Egyptian context is not explained; instead, it seems just as likely from the given examples that the crime of rape may very well have been understood as despoiling a man’s female relative, in which the injured party is the male.

In “Death and the Maiden: Late Antique Images of Nubile Females as Agents and Victims of Lethal Violence” (ch. 8), Susanne Moraw compares scenes of violence toward women (by men, by animals, by other females), as well as female-on-male violence, with modern studies of pornography (152–53). The author’s introduction should openly state that what follows are direct comparisons with pornographic images published in Playboy magazine as well as quotes from pornography studies which include expletives. This chapter lacks a close contextual analysis that considers how Graeco-Roman and Christian myths were typically depicted in art over the centuries preceding late antiquity. The case studies presented here are plucked from the canon and presented as if each scene was for the elite male gaze to be viewed in private settings, thus setting up a scholarly comparison with pornography. Yet art historians and archaeologists of the Bronze Age, Classical period, and early Roman period will be extremely familiar with gestures of domination such as grabbing the hair of a victim, the aggressor looming over a prostrate victim, and the abduction of a mortal female by a Greek god; moreover these scenes appeared on both private and public art, art intended to be consumed by both men and women. The fact that most of the examples studied here are iconographic tropes is never mentioned; thus, much is made of physical beauty, the nudity or diaphanous gowns and jewelry of the women, and the physiques of the men. This is not to say that these scenes did not carry gendered overtones, of course they did. But how these vignettes were manifest of a specifically Late Roman view of the relationships between unequals (fathers and daughters, gods and mortals, men and women) is unclear. Moreover, the focus on both Roman and pagan scenes and Christian scenes is extremely problematic, as they are not compared carefully, such as in Moraw’s discussion of the martyr Thecla: “Unlike most female victims of male sexual aggression discussed before, [Thecla] is finally rescued from her male aggressor because she had been smart enough to ally herself with the ultimate authority, the Christian god. Daphne, for her part, had had only a pagan river god to pray to—hence the far less pleasant mode of escape that was open to her” (166). Instead of providing a contextual analysis based on the gender politics of the Late Roman world, the author adopts an etic viewpoint, portraying Thecla’s exposed body as one would describe a Playboy centerfold.

It is frustrating that many of the chapters adopt a position of social awareness toward gender inequality and work to provide evidence of how patriarchal the ancient world was, while also remaining blithely unaware of the growing corpus of queer scholarship on the performance of gender in patriarchal societies. Instead, the chapters in this volume adopt a binary viewpoint of gender, treating gender as ascribed rather than achieved status. By way of contrast, one excellent example of how gender was defined in a patriarchal society is Susan Langdon’s research on the burial of subadults and young adults in the Greek Early Iron Age. In Art and Identity in Dark Age Greece, 1100–700 B.C.E. (Cambridge University Press 2008), Langdon examined how sexed offerings (dolls, hair and dress ornaments, various types of pottery, all items also found dedicated to goddesses during female maturation and premarriage rituals) in the graves of young and presumably unmarried girls suggest that “death cheated them of their ultimate purpose” (Langdon 2008, 143); death before marriage left female personhood unfulfilled. By contrast, the graves of young men of comparable age are conspicuously empty of gifts, suggesting that “boys’ lives were validated all along and needed less symbolic funerary compensation” (Langdon 2008, 143). Moreover, Langdon’s research through the longue durée allows her to detect a change some centuries later, in which maleness defined through warriorhood became an achieved status (2008, 234–50). Both the earlier and later Greek Iron Age were completely patriarchal with two identifiable genders. Yet how genders were defined, the forms they took, and whether they were ascribed or achieved were all in flux, even if many of the same structural institutions, such as rulership or religious cult, remained in place. Moreover, these differences in characterizing and achieving gender definitions governed aspects ranging from marriage and kinship patterns, mobility, ownership, and inheritance down to whether marriages involved dowries or bride prices.

After reading Archaeologies of Gender and Violence, I am not sure that the best approach is to take a stereotype head on. Every culture views gender, its various distinctions and expectations, as composed of complex categories, each of which rely on their own sources of legitimacy as well as on certain definitions drawn from what other genders are not: that is, self-definition in the face of the other. Moreover, what 21st-century academics understand as gender and what cultures in the ancient world understood as gender are likely to be different. It is our job to become informed about the former via reference to anthropology, gender theory, and queer studies, and offer our best assessments of the latter based on the archaeology. We encounter the same epistemological barriers when studying violence: what academics understand as violence and what ancient cultures understood as violence arise from two different cultural viewpoints. Yet these are challenges, not barriers. I do completely agree with the authors of this volume in their unanimously emphatic stance that gender violence is an important theme for scholarly attention. More work needs to be done.

Kate Harrell

Book Review of Archaeologies of Gender and Violence, edited by Uroš Matić and Bo Jensen
Reviewed by Kate Harrell
American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 124, No. 4 (October 2020)
Published online at
DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1244.Harrell

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