Sex in the Mesolithic (and beyond…)

Posted on August 13, 2010

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Summer being busy and for me filled with travel, and the world press apparently having certain filters about exactly how far they are willing to go in covering archaeology that pushes the envelope, I almost missed this: on July 21, MSNBC posted a story by Clara Moskowitz about a carved antler object recovered at Motala in Sweden, whose shape inspired the headline “Stone Age carving may be ancient sex toy“.

The article itself is almost as interesting as the object for the discomfort it betrays with actual sex– which, of course, is one of the few things we can be absolutely certain was taking place at the site (or any other one, for that matter):

“Your mind and my mind wanders away to make this interpretation about what it looks like — for you and me, it signals this erected-penis-like shape,” said archaeologist Gšran Gruber of the National Heritage Board in Sweden, who worked on the excavation. “But if that’s the way the Stone Age people thought about it, I can’t say.”

Martin Rundkvist, whose blog post on the object is cited by Moskowitz, has no problem getting to the point (pardon the pun):

Measuring twelve by two centimetres, its size is perhaps not very impressive, and there are many non-dildoish uses for which it may have been intended. But without doubt anyone alive at the time of its making would have seen the penile similarities just as easily as we do today.

See for yourself: Rundkvist’s photo is in some ways the better one, and it has the advantage of showing the entire artifact, including the fact that it has a differently worked end, whereas MSNBC presents it in a more dramatic rising pose, but without the ambiguous other end.

And it is that other end that appears to offer alternative possibilities that would allow us to insist “No sex please, its the Mesolithic”.

Gšran Gruber is quoted as saying:

“If it’s a tool and it’s also shaped like a penis, it could be an item where you want to discuss gender questions.”

Rundkvist makes a similar comment:

If it is actually a pressure-flaker for fine flint knapping, then this would tell us something about how such work was conceptualised in terms of gender.

I’m not so sure the questions raised are about gender so much as about sexuality.

If we take as given that the resemblance to an aroused penis was intended and would have been perceived by Mesolithic viewers, and also accept the suggestion that the opposite end was used in pressure flaking, then a flint knapper would have appeared to be giving the penis/handle a hand job. I am reminded of a 20th century South American drinking vessel, used to serve beer at feasts, also in the form of an erect penis, that created a similar effect, apparently to great hilarity among the partiers.

Of course, the characterization of the object as a dildo in both the article and the blog post implies a somewhat different sexual performance. While the MSNBC article mentions only one other comparable artifact, in fact, there is quite a lot of evidence from many times and places for simulacra of the same type.

Paul Vasey, in an article in World Archaeology in 1997, argued that some of the bone and antler objects labeled “batons” in European Palaeolithic sites should be considered as “artifacts which may have existed solely to mediate sexual pleasure”. But the resemblances cited, and even the implication of sexual practices, may still prove elusive when we try to understand what they tell us about broader sexuality.

This is made beautifully clear in a discussion of the Greek Classic, where dildos are depicted in vase painting and referenced in texts, and have been the subject of several analyses. Page DuBois, in her book Slaves and Other Objects, provides a discussion that underlines the difficulty of making sense of objects like these when in the modern world, they figure either as the image of the Freudian sexual fetish, or as a tool of “liberatory sexual practices”: the “sex toy” of the MSNBC article.

Instead, DuBois gives us a “reading of the dildo within ancient Greek society” that centers on the sexual ideology that defined sex in terms of penetrator and penetrated, thus requiring an object of the kind for same-sex relations between women. The argument is too long to summarize and too elegant to simplify, but fundamentally, she reminds us that even when we (think) we know that an object was used as a sexual aid, and even when we (think) we know who used it, we may still not know what to think about the sexual attitudes that surrounded the practices and the people who engaged in them.

Posted in: gender