Gender and burials: Prehistory version

Congratulations! It’s a boy…. uh, girl?…… um, it’s – it’s a skeleton!

Burial archaeology largely depends on being able to make clear, neat little categories. Age, sex, grave goods, large and important graves, or little and insignificant graves. These are the sorts of things you can make charts on and draw up a population estimate from. They’re the sort of things that you can use to make conclusions about the sort of society people lived in. So, what’s the problem?

Well, perhaps you’ve heard of the research done on Viking warrior burials by the University of Western Australia? They went through the remains that had already been examined and, after a closer look at the bones themselves they found that almost half the “male” warriors were actually women. Is this under-representation normal?


But why?

Well, the problem lies with us. Or at least, the previous generations of archaeologists. When the field was beginning the only people really accepted into the fold were, sadly, white men from Victorian Europe. They were hugely affected by ideas of empire, “superior” races, and unchanging gender roles. In other words, they were taking their own societies and forcing the past to match them. Re-writing history to either explain or justify the way things were in their lifetimes.

What made these Victorians think the female graves were male warriors? Simple: their grave goods. Warrior graves always had swords, spears, and other battle equipment. Female graves had oval brooches and…. well, that’s about it, really. The skeletons themselves became nothing more than a backdrop for the grave goods which (to the stereotypical Victorian scientist) were clearly “for men” or “for women”.

Of course, the past doesn’t like to be confined by modern society. Particularly not when societies in the past had to deal with things that modern society rarely has to worry about. When your town could come under siege from enemies who want to kill or enslave everyone, saying who can grab a sword and who can’t depending on whether they wear a dress seems rather petty. Not to mention stupid, since that’s half your defending force ordered to sit on the sidelines.

Nowadays, archaeologists have far more women working in the field (not to mention people of colour, members of the LGBTQIA community, and people from different religious or socio-economic backgrounds). This means we’ve got a much wider pool of knowledge, experience, and backgrounds available to assess the data and help us understand it. More people can confuse things, but they can also ask questions that a narrower selection wouldn’t think to ask. They can point out flaws, oddities, and solutions that would otherwise not occur to us. This all means better examination of the evidence.

That’s probably why the sexing of skeletons has become important again – but not too much. Knowing the sex is one thing; how that translated into gender and social roles or responsibilities is completely another. Modern burial archaeology balances out the skeletal data with the grave goods and how they were buried to try to get a better sense of the individual as well as the society. To understand why a young man might be buried with several spindle whorls (traditionally considered a “women’s tool”) while an old woman might be buried with a shield and dagger.

Any questions? Points to bring up? Please leave a comment or send a question!


Bonedigger out.


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