Approaching sex through archaeology: becoming male and female

Posted on May 6, 2010

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When you move away from the idea that sex/gender is an inherent essence, something predefined at (or even before) birth, towards a performative, iterative, idea of sex/gender as something that you do, an ongoing process of acting in a particular way, the conversation shifts from “being” to “becoming”.

Because the act of becoming, performing, enacting, shaping, and reshaping sex/gender is enabled by objects and built spaces, it is possible to draw on a wide range of archaeological works to explore how material culture actively fosters experiences of sex and gender. The one article I use in this section of my course that is not archaeology, Furth’s discussion of sex/gender concepts in 16th and 17th China, exemplifies the way that documentary histories can be read as evidence for material practices through which sex/gender was shaped.

A second emphasis in this part of my course is a turn away from the easy route of collapsing the study of women in the past with the study of sex/gender, by introducing works specifically focused on masculinities. Finally, taking a “becoming” view of sex/gender also raises the question of changes or development over the life course, introducing children into the debate.

Articles discussed by individual student panels:

Alberti, B. 2006: “Archaeology, Men, and Masculinities”. Pp. 401-434 in Handbook of Gender in Archaeology, Sarah Nelson, ed. Lanham, MD: AltaMira.

Clark, B. J. and L. A. Wilkie. 2006: “The prism of self: Gender and Personhood”. Pp. 333-364 in Handbook of Gender in Archaeology, Sarah Nelson, ed. Lanham, MD: AltaMira.

Furth, C. 1993: “Androgynous Males and Deficient Females: Biology and gender boundaries in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century China” Pp. 479-497 in The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, H. Abelove, M. A. Barale, and D. M. Halperin, eds. New York: Routledge.

Joyce, Rosemary A. 2000b: Girling the girl and boying the boy: The production of adulthood in ancient Mesoamerica. World Archaeology 31:473-483.

Wilkie, L. A. 1998: The Other Gender: The Archaeology of an Early 20th Century Fraternity, Proceedings of the Society for California Archaeology 11, pp. 7-11.

[Note that Wilkie's work on fraternity life is now available in book-length, as The Lost Boys of Zeta Psi (University of California Press, 2010).]