Approaching sex through archaeology: third genders and beyond

Posted on May 5, 2010


Returning to a theme from the previous week, third genders, I begin my discussion of method and theory and how they change what archaeologists think we can do with a reconsideration rooted in Sandra Hollimon’s work on Chumash society of California. In Ancient Bodies, Ancient Lives, I describe what Hollimon sketches out in a series of articles:

gender was linked to sexuality. But this was not simply a case of having two sexes based on the role each played in heterosexual sexuality. It is not even enough to propose that there were three or four genders corresponding to heterosexual men and women, and homosexual men and women. Instead, gender was fluid, the product of specific kinds of actions rather than an innate form of subjectivity. Gender was related to reproduction, but reproduction itself was more than simply fathering or mothering a child. Undertakers had a place in a sophisticated vision of creation in which burial was part of the processes of regeneration of life. Their own sexuality was critical to their ability to mediate this transition for others.

This reconceptualization of sex/gender as a field that might be related to quite distinct visions of sex and reproduction is supported by similarly complex arguments relating multiple gender statuses to sacredness, one by art historian Cecilia Klein, and a second by archaeologist Rob Schmidt. The latter article is especially effective as it moves away from the easy use of human skeletal remains or artistic representations as sources for identifying male/female categories. It is the first of a series of articles in this section of the course that challenge the assumption that archaeology of sex and gender needs to be based on a specific set of objects or features that “reflect” sex/gender and thus can be taken as an archaeological indicator of sex.

Joyce 2008: Ancient Bodies, Ancient Lives Ch. 2

Voss, B. 2008: Sexuality Studies in Archaeology. Annual Review of Anthropology 37: 317-336.

Articles discussed by individual student panels:

Hollimon, S. E. 2000: Archaeology of the ‘aqi: gender and sexuality in prehistoric Chumash society, in Archaeologies of Sexuality, pp. 179-196.

Klein, Cecelia F. 2001: None of the above: gender ambiguity in Nahua ideology. In Gender in Pre-Hispanic America, edited by Cecelia Klein, pp. 183-253. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks.

Schmidt, R. 2000: Shamans and northern cosmology: the direct historical approach to Mesolithic sexuality, in Archaeologies of Sexuality, pp. 220-235.