“Exploring Sex and Gender in Bioarchaeology”: Some comments

Posted on April 2, 2011

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Just back from the annual meeting of the Society for American Archaeology, where I had the pleasure of being a discussant on a session organized by Sabrina Agarwal and Julie Wesp. Since my comments run to 2200 words, no way to post them and no point either– who would read them?

But here are some highlights. Thinking of it as a reading list… and I hope, a hint at a book that might be coming from these researchers.

The archaeology of sex and gender has at times had an uneasy relationship with biological anthropology– one we might characterize as co-dependency. The universal biological identification of two sexes might be considered the ultimate in universalisms that should block our ability to recognize the multiple ways that people in past societies experienced being embodied, sexual, persons. Yet for archaeology of sex and gender, the ability to begin with a group of people whose bodies indicate a possible common sexual identity has been critical to many analyses.

It has been bioarchaeologists, like Sandra Holliman, who have given us the tools to identify genders beyond the normative assumed male and female in burial populations, and bioarchaeologists like Rebecca Storey who have had the guts to propose that a particular skeleton might be that of an intersexed person.

Bioarchaeologists are witness to the actual existence of less certainty and less dualism than the “folk model” that grounds the western dichotomous gender system in two natural sexes. The papers presented show where a commitment to empirical examination of what biological variability really is like leads: rich studies that call for implementation of intersectionality and development models in place of assumptions about generic male and female experience.

Sabrina Agarwal’s discussion of the intersection of sex and age in bone health and aging illustrates the transformative effect of taking intersectionality seriously. She argues that if gendering is understood as fluid, then the first step of separating males and females in analysis may mislead us or obscure more salient aspects of shared embodied experience. Illustrating her argument with osteoporosis– assumed in the modern imagination to be an inevitable disease of women’s aging– vividly illustrates why studies like these matter: the way we think about embodied experience, about what is natural, normal, or given, affects our understanding of the physical experiences of people today.

Lori Hager’s discussion of the influence of sex on determination of age and age on determination of sex, and in particular, her discussion of the “sexism of sexing”, brings us the challenge of older women, like an individual from Çatal Hüyuk she discussed, who experience skeletal remodeling that changes their bodily form away from the European model of normative female.

Following Joanna Sofaer, Julie Wesp speaks of “incorporation”, literally the corporealization of experience. The developmental history of each living being is a product of a complex interplay of biological potential and environmental and historical experiences. Occupational stress markers illustrate the way that repetitive practices– gender performance, in Judith Butler’s terms, or bodily hexis, in Pierre Bourdieu’s– leave their distinctive traces, creating bodies that are not only shaped differently but lived distinctly.

Wesp also argues that we need to include in analyses skeletal remains that might otherwise be excluded as ambiguous in terms of a two sex model. Sandra Holliman reminds us that the recognition of genders that are less common in ethnographic populations can only take place archaeologically if we allow for the possibility of diverse performances of gender within what we have always treated biologically as a single sex.

Pamela Geller argues that using ancient DNA to assign gender needs to be considered as an ethical challenge. We know that chromosomal sex is no single binary– but will we resist the urge to lump variability into two categories, as abnormal or deviant variants, rather than consider the reality that some of the ancient remains we study come from societies that did not impose a binary grid on sex? Because we have the power to naturalize overly simplistic accounts of bodily difference that affect people’s lives today, we must take responsibility by resisting the desire to over-simplify.

Joanna Sofaer rethinks the procedures of bioarchaeology as a kind of performance, through which by physically following scripts, the analyst learns to reproduce a tactile tracery of identification. If, as she has demonstrated, we do not as modern analysts visually inspect and come to disengaged judgments of bodily sex, age, or pathology, how much more might we want to consider that the people whose bodies we are engaged with might not have based their understanding of embodied lives strictly, solely, or primarily on the visual display of difference?

I want to insist that embodied sexuality be seen in terms of, among other things, the way bodies fit together, what I have elsewhere called performances of identification and disidentification, mediated by sexual encounters. If there is one thing I still see missing in bioarchaeology of sex and gender it is consideration of the body as an instrument of desire and pleasure, experiences that are not inconsequential for physicality as humans shape crania, modify teeth, feet, or rib cage, and manipulate body weight for ideals of beauty.

Still, we are witnessing the consolidation of a new bioarchaeology at the beginning of the 21st century, with a combination of mature research that results from decades of robust empirical studies, informed by new research questions about difference and how it is registered in the human body, and the perspectives of second- and even third-generation students encouraged to view human skeletal remains as points of connection to irreducible differences.