Sex and gender in the past: Using regional traditions

Posted on April 27, 2010


Because archaeology means prehistory to many people, students often come to my course expecting it to be a kind of world survey of sex and gender in the past. This would be a daunting task, and it is not what I am trying to do. So: how not to disappoint while engaging students in my goals, to explore different kinds of evidence that can be brought to bear on understanding the diversity of past experiences of sex/gender.

My solution: use groups of articles that relate to specific world areas to advance the central goals of the course. As Karina Croucher noted in her review of Ancient Bodies, Ancient Lives, “rather than attempting an encyclopedic account” I offer “examples of methodology and interpretation”.

This second section of the course is a turning point. In it, I need to persuade students to read works not as simple sources of pre-packaged knowledge, but as examples of how different analysts use specific materials as evidence for sex/gender as categorical, or as essential, or as dichotomous.

I begin with the European historical tradition, which I find is the one world area students do not expect to hear about in an anthropology course. I want them to become self-conscious about what they may be taking for granted before we move on to other times and places. With the wealth of work on gender and sexuality around the world, additional regional traditions could vary with the interests of students, or reflect the specific competence of the instructor. I use ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, Classical Greece and Rome, the Classic Maya, native North America and the archaeology of the 19th-20th century US.

The core approach to teaching that I take is based on research on peer-to-peer learning. I usually teach the course in two 90 minute classes each week. The first of these is organized around panels of students who are responsible for representing the perspectives of each article. Other students are assigned the role of thinking about questions the articles raised for them. The dialogue between students gives me insight into how they are thinking about the readings, and allows me to identify emerging interpretations, including those that need to be challenged or questioned.

By requiring students to represent the views of the authors of articles, rather than take the easier position of criticism, I give students a reason to seek to understand the goals of the researchers. Only after the student panels have discussed their understandings of the readings do I present my lectures, which focus on the general frameworks, assumptions, use of evidence, and clarifying points that emerged in discussion. In both class sessions, I encourage citation of specific passages, encouraging the development of a scholarly practice of close reading.

Goals: examining ideas archaeologists, art historians, and historians have proposed, based on the use of different forms of evidence (documents, visual representation, and objects), about sex and gender in regional traditions from Europe to the Americas. To denaturalize assumptions about modern America/European understandings being long-established within Europe; including discussion of masculinity and same-sex relations and sexuality in classical antiquity. To illustrate how thinking about gender as categorical gets problematic when analyzing cultures in the Americas that treat sex as a continuum, and sex/gender as relational, not essentialized individual qualities; to critically examine the two-sex/two-gender model, and models of sex as innate biological essence.