Archaeology of masculinity

Posted on September 22, 2010

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When I began teaching archaeology of sex and gender as an interdisciplinary course, I had two expectations about who would take the course that simply have not held up over time.

The first was that I expected to see a lot of women’s and gender studies students take the course. In fact, students from these majors have barely been visible in the course. I have no specific explanation for this, still less a solution.

The other expectation I had was that the students taking the course would be overwhelmingly women. And that also turned out to be wrong, and in retrospect, pretty much evidence of my having been a student a long time ago in a universe far far away.

But even when I thought the student enrollment would primarily be women, I was concerned that the course not simply be about women in the past, and especially, that gender not be equated with female. The analogy I use is with whiteness: as long as race is treated as something white people don’t have, we are stuck with the model of norm and deviance. Males have genders as much as females do, and allowing maleness to stand as an unmarked category dooms you to treating femaleness as an exotic condition.

But the resources to teach about masculinity in archaeology have remained pretty limited. Much of what has been written about masculinity is about either hyper-masculine subjectivities– warriors, for example– or same-sex sexuality. Both of these are important subjects, but again, we end up leaving normative masculinities unquestioned and unexplored.

Which is why I have been waiting impatiently for the publication of Laurie Wilkie’s Lost Boys of Zeta Psi, out this year from the University of California Press. There is a great article about the book just posted today on Berkeley’s website.

The book is based on excavations on the site of the Zeta Psi fraternity at Berkeley. This happens to be the building where the archaeology faculty have our offices; the original excavations took place as the neighboring Law School was being expanded in what had been the yard of the fraternity, and a second phase of excavations were carried out when our building was being fitted to survive in an earthquake. Wilkie had students in courses work on the excavated material, on interviews with surviving members of the fraternity, and on archival research.

The resulting book looks at changing experiences of masculinity from the nineteenth and into the twentieth century. It examines how changing relationships between male and female students, changing attitudes about women’s education, and changes in class and racial relationships shaped the formation of the young men in the fraternity.

In the best anthropological tradition, Wilkie shows empathy to her subjects, which makes this an ideal text to use with college students. It is a great illustration of how documentary sources and material remains can be placed into dialogue.

Next time I teach this course, it will join Wilkie’s Archaeology of Mothering as a core text for the course. I will be surprised if others don’t make the same decision.