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Gender Through Time in the Ancient Near East

Gender Through Time in the Ancient Near East

Edited by Diane Bolger. Pp. xviii + 373, figs. 139, tables 8. AltaMira press, Lanham, Md. 2008. $80. ISBN 978-0-7591-1092-2 (cloth).

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The authors in this volume present a series of case studies showing how the incorporation of gender into archaeological research enriches our understanding of the ancient Near East. The introductory chapter by Bolger sets the stage for the rest of the volume by highlighting several unifying themes. It is followed by nine chapters composed of case studies drawn from Iran, Mesopotamia (parts of Syria, Iraq, Turkey), the Levant, and Cyprus, spanning periods from the Neolithic to the Cypriot Archaic. A final chapter examines the contemporary gendered sociopolitics of Near Eastern archaeology.

Bolger’s introduction frames the book’s project. Placing gender front and center in a discipline like Near Eastern archaeology, which has as yet shown only limited interest, is certainly welcome. Yet I regret that Bolger did not seize the opportunity to argue explicitly for a feminist perspective, one that takes on board not just gender but also other sorts of socioculturally constructed difference such as class, sexuality, and ethnicity. Indeed, Bolger mentions that gender “interfaces with other factors such as age, rank, class, and ethnicity” (15), and many of the papers do in fact embrace the notion that gender cannot be examined in isolation from other forms of difference. So, for example, Serwint attends to the significance of ethnicity and class in affecting the form of votive objects in a Cypriot Archaic-period sanctuary. Both McCaffrey and Wright give explicit consideration to the ways gender was inflected by class in third-millennium B.C.E. southern Mesopotamia. Other authors argue that the salience of gender itself needs to be scrutinized in particular historical contexts. Campbell asks to what extent gender was referenced when negotiating identities and social relations in Late Neolithic northern Mesopotamia. Croucher argues that gender was not a decisive criterion in determining which remains were to be interred in the Halaf-period “Death Pit” at Domuztepe.

Does it matter, then, that the volume’s approach is not explicitly stated as feminist? Yes and no. A reluctance to do so may be primarily a strategic decision to avoid a contentious label. Yet it also tends to downplay the potential contributions that a more direct engagement with feminist theory could make to the subjects of this book. A clearer statement of feminist politics would help tie the final chapter on gendered practices in Near Eastern archaeology today to other contributions in the book. Examples would include McCaffrey’s claim that contemporary gender assumptions shape scholars’ interpretations of the burials in the Ur Royal Tombs, or Wright’s discussion of how Weber’s patrimonial household model has led to the exclusion of women from analyses of the political economy of the Ur III state.

A hallmark of the volume is its insistence on time and temporal units of analysis as crucial elements of our gendered understandings of the past. Bolger urges us to consider emic understandings of time, rather than thinking of time solely as an abstract measure. She argues that a gendered perspective needs to be attentive both to changes over long periods of time and to the temporal span of a person’s life. I was particularly intrigued by her reference (8) to the idea that time itself may be gendered, being experienced differently by women and men. This contention reminded me of a paper written more than three decades ago by the historian Joan Kelly-Gadol (“The Social Relation of the Sexes: Methodological Implications of Women’s History,” Signs 1 [1976] 809–23), in which she argues for the need to rethink the way that history is periodized when the goal of the inquiry is to study changes relevant to women. To my knowledge, this fascinating notion—albeit in need of some updating—has not been taken up in archaeology. Although it is not addressed in these case studies, I remain hopeful that Bolger has planted a seed that will encourage others to address this challenge.

Contributors to the book demonstrate some of the ways in which adopting multiple temporal scales can enrich understandings of gender while remaining attentive to specific historical contexts. One of the most intriguing cases is Lorentz’s study of gendered differences in head shaping in the Near East and Cyprus. She combines an analysis of these practices over the long term with a consideration of how decisions about head shaping early in an infant’s life articulate expectations and possibilities for whom that infant may become as an adult. In this way, she makes a compelling case that specific practices of bodily modification contributed to particular constructs of gender in a person’s lifetime, as well as being part of changing notions about gender over the long term. Daems also weaves together multiple temporal strands, examining the changing gendered composition of figurine assemblages in prehistoric Mesopotamia and Iran from the Aceramic Neolithic to Ubaid times, while also attending to evidence for representations of changes over the course of women’s lives, from youth to the reproductive stage to postreproductive age.

Some chapters would have benefited from more careful attention to the use of language, in particular to avoid the conflation of sex and gender. Odd heterosexist assumptions have occasionally crept in: for example, the notion that depictions of two people attending a banquet or engaged in lovemaking are enough to identify the participants as a man and a woman (138). One production issue is disturbing: many illustrations are reproduced at much too small a scale for legibility. In some cases, this is just a minor irritation; in others it detracts from the reader’s ability to follow closely an author’s argument.

Overall, this book offers the attentive reader a wealth of possibilities for thinking about gender in the ancient Near East. Papers are written in styles accessible to students, without talking down to professionals. One can only hope that the book’s thought-provoking studies will stimulate further engagement with gender and feminist theory among scholars working in this part of the world.

Susan Pollock
Department of Anthropology
Binghamton University
Binghamton, New York 13902

Book Review of Gender Through Time in the Ancient Near East, edited by Diane Bolger

Reviewed by Susan Pollock

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 113, No. 2 (April 2009)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1132.Pollock

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