Approaching sex through archaeology: methods and theories

Posted on May 4, 2010


My Discovery course at Berkeley, “Archaeology of Sex and Gender”, is taught over a 15 week semester. The first two sections of the course, “Thinking about sex and gender: disciplinary approaches” andSex and gender in the past: regional traditions” can stand alone as a one-quarter course at colleges that use the quarter system. Together, they introduce students to the entire range of questions that archaeologists have addressed. In a short version of the course, Ancient Bodies, Ancient Lives can serve as a unifying thread in what might otherwise be a lot of diverse information. Chapter 1, “Ways of Knowing the Past”, is designed to give students a clear idea of how archaeologists think and use things as evidence. Chapter 2 “Goddessess, matriarchs, and manly-hearted women: troubling categorical approaches to gender”, and Chapter 3, “Amazons, queens, and sequestered women: gender and hierarchy”, touch on the same cultures and societies as we consider in more depth, based on primary research articles, in the second section of the course.

In the semester-long version of the course I am able to go further. Much of what we do is recursive, returning to the same times and places to deepen understanding of specific methods and theories. This third section of my course is paralleled by the last two chapters of the book, Chapter 4, “Lovers, celibates and sex-workers: thinking about sex in the past”, and Chapter 5, “Living as men and women”, where I introduce a direct challenge to the correspondence model of sex, explore how archaeologists think about past sexuality, and talk about how archaeologists can move to provide more realistic (fuller, complex) visions of life in the past.

Goals: to deepen understanding of the range of evidence that can be used to talk about gender/sex in the past, particularly from an archaeological approach. To further foreground sex as a continuum/process; to explore the range of variation within masculinity and femininity; to explicitly consider the range of recognized genders and how these might relate to sex and to sexuality; to explore ambiguity, duality, and androgeny; to consider the role of ethnographic analogy and its multiple forms; to explore how sexuality and sex/gender statuses relate to each other along the dimension of sexual practice and abstinence.