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Ancient Bodies, Ancient Lives: Sex, Gender, and Archaeology

Ancient Bodies, Ancient Lives: Sex, Gender, and Archaeology

By Rosemary A. Joyce. Pp. 152, figs. 35. Thames & Hudson, New York 2008. $29.95. ISBN 978-0-500-05153-5 (cloth).

Reviewed by

Joyce’s Ancient Bodies, Ancient Lives provides an engaging introduction to the topic of sex and gender in the past, offering insights into the struggles and achievements made by archaeologists in their interpretations of gender, sex, and identity. Joyce’s writing style is fluid, interesting, and accessible, and the text is accompanied by good-quality photographs and illustrations.

The book is structured into an introduction and five chapters that cover various thematic areas. The author challenges constructions of sex and gender categories, addresses aspects of power and hierarchy, discusses different types of sexual and gendered identities in the past, and concludes with an evaluation of the role of studies of sex and gender in archaeology in contemporary society. The chapters draw on case studies from Joyce’s own work, as well as works by other scholars, including Yates’ analysis of Scandinavian rock art, Davis-Kimball’s examination of tombs in Central Asia, and Wilkie’s research into African American archaeology. Various categories of evidence are considered, including mortuary data, adornment, figurines, rock art, architecture, and textual sources. Case studies are chosen for their thematic relevance rather than geographic or temporal location; rather than attempting an encyclopedic account, Joyce offers tangible and insightful examples of methodology and interpretation. For instance, in chapter 4, a discussion of Gilchrist’s research into convents in medieval England is preceded by an examination of celibacy in Aztec households and followed by an account of excavations of late 19th-century brothels in the United States.

Any reader interested in gender and archaeology will already be familiar with the quantity of literature on the subject produced during the 1990s and early 2000s. Joyce’s volume naturally includes a synthesis of the history of the study of gender in archaeology, from the assumptions of processualism to the “add women and stir” approach of many early gender studies in archaeology, followed by consideration of the more recent challenges to binary gender categories. Ancient Bodies, Ancient Lives takes up the mantle of questioning the nature of gender construction and sexual identities. For instance, in discussing gender and sex (ch. 1), the biological problems with a simple male/female dichotomy are clearly emphasized; Joyce uses medical statistics as well as sound reasoning to explain how “anatomy, chromosomes, and hormones do not form two simple packages” (45). Given the problems with our categorization, it becomes clear that our presumed binary models of sex and gender may not necessarily underlie social organization in the past—a fundamental point explained well by Joyce over the first three chapters. She goes on to demonstrate that, rather than simply sex and gender constructions, concepts of age, status, kinship, or other factors were often more dominant categories influencing understanding and portrayals of identity. For example, the author uses analyses of grave goods to argue that among Tlatilco burials from Mexico, gender was far less significant than age (ch. 2), and in the case of Classic Maya society, social standing played a greater role than sex in determining a person’s position in life (chs. 3, 5). Joyce’s work has recently been joined by others in this vein, including publications by Casella and Fowler (The Archaeology of Plural and Changing Identities: Beyond Identification [New York 2005]); Geller and Stockett (Feminist Anthropology: Past, Present, and Future [Philadelphia 2006]); Hamilton, Whitehouse, and Wright (Archaeology and Women: Ancient and Modern Issues [Walnut Creek, Calif. 2007]); Bolger (Gender Through Time in the Ancient Near East [Lanham, Md. 2008]); and Voss (“Sexuality Studies in Archaeology,” Annual Review of Anthropology 37 [2008] 317–36). Many of these works draw on comparable points to those discussed by Joyce, working beyond our categorizations of sex and gender in constructions and experiences of identity.

Chapter 4 focuses more specifically on sexuality, challenging the projection of modern heteronormative values onto the past. Joyce does not use the term “queer theory” or reference it directly (e.g., T.A. Dowson, “Why Queer Archaeology? An Introduction,” WorldArch 32[2] [2000] 161–65; WorldArch 37[4] [2005]; B.L. Voss, “Feminisms, Queer Theories, and the Archaeological Study of Past Sexualities,” WorldArch 32[2] [2000] 180–89). However, her arguments in chapters 4 and 5 appear to accord with proponents of queer theory in archaeology. It therefore would have been beneficial to hear more explicitly Joyce’s perspectives on this topic. Nevertheless, Joyce’s discussion on heteronormativity plays a valuable role in this volume.

In chapter 5, drawing on research by Lopiparo and Butler, Joyce examines the roles of figurines in peoples’ lives (and deaths), and the performances of making, firing, using, and discarding these objects—rather than simply analyzing them in terms of identifying male/female representations. The role of material culture is considered, focusing on daily life and household levels of analysis. This approach recognizes the varying and changing nature of identities in everyday lives and relationships in the past.

In concluding, Joyce brings her observations and arguments back to the present day, contextualizing her research with the role of archaeologists to use and communicate the past responsibly. With this responsibility comes the demonstration that inequalities based on sex are not inevitable in the past and consequently should not be accepted as natural in the present.

In Ancient Bodies, Ancient Minds, Joyce draws a narrative arc from the basics of archaeological discovery to the more complex challenges and philosophies facing specialists today. It thus accommodates the novice to archaeological practice while also containing material relevant to academics. The book will be especially valuable to students of archaeology, where Joyce’s accessible and engaging style produces a work that educates and enlightens. Ultimately, Joyce captivates the reader with the interplay between the past and the present, an achievement demonstrating her position as a leader in her field and highlighting the value of archaeology to contemporary attitudes, politics, and epistemologies.

Karina Croucher
University of Manchester
Manchester M13 9PL
United Kingdom

Book Review of Ancient Bodies, Ancient Lives: Sex, Gender, and Archaeology, by Rosemary A. Joyce

Reviewed by Karina Croucher

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 114, No. 2 (April 2010)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1142.Croucher

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