Representing the Indus Body: Sex, Gender, Sexuality, and the Anthropomorphic Terracotta Figurines from Harappa

By Clark, Sharri R. | Asian Perspectives: the Journal of Archaeology for Asia and the Pacific, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview
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Representing the Indus Body: Sex, Gender, Sexuality, and the Anthropomorphic Terracotta Figurines from Harappa


Clark, Sharri R., Asian Perspectives: the Journal of Archaeology for Asia and the Pacific


IN THIS PAPER, THE CORPUS OF ANTHROPOMORPHIC TERRACOTTA FIGURINES FROM HARAPPA, a major urban center of the Indus civilization, is used to explore Indus conceptions of sex, gender, and sexuality as they are expressed in representations of the body. The Indus (or Harappan) civilization, the earliest urban civilization of South Asia (c. 2600-1900 B.C.), at its peak extended over much of what is now Pakistan and northwestern India. Representing something of a cultural "veneer" (Meadow and Kenoyer 1997: 139), it was characterized by large cities with extensive water and sanitation systems, a writing system that still awaits decipherment, an emphasis oil small, elegant art and sophisticated craft technology, and a conspicuous absence of monumental art (Kenoyer 1998; Possehl 1998). In this "faceless civilization" (Possehl 1998:279), three-dimensional anthropomorphic representations include a few stone and bronze statues, along with other small objects, and a large corpus of terracotta figurines. The terracotta figurines from Harappa and other Indus civilization sites are one of the most abundant and elaborate classes of representational artifacts of this vast civilization, particularly in the western regions. Without deciphered texts, the figurines are one of the richest sources of information regarding Indus concepts of sex, gender, sexuality, and other aspects of Indus social identity.

While acknowledging the inherent difficulties in "dis-integrating" these concepts and other forms of social difference, sexual difference, understood in terms of more fluid, graded, or "nuanced" (see Meskell 1999:73-76) but distinct notions of sex and gender, can be used to flame a meaningful inquiry into ancient social systems. Using sex and gender in a more flexible and informed way also means acknowledging that sexual difference may not have been a primary or an independent concern of ancient societies (Joyce 2000:182-183). While rigid Cartesian frameworks derived from modern Western notions may not he completely applicable to ancient societies (e.g., Meskell 1999, 2001), the ability to consider sex and gender separately in archaeological interpretation is still an important option, and the fact that societies react differently to biological differences between men and women argues for some separation of sex and gender (see Sorensen 2000:55ff).

Such an approach to the complex interrelationship of sex, gender, and sexuality requires explicit definitions of these terms. In this paper, sex (or sexual identity) is defined as the biological differentiation of male and female (or rarely neither or both), based upon observable physiology (e.g., primary and secondary sex characteristics), hormones (gonadal sex), and genetic structure (chromosomal sex), and is, to some degree, culturally constructed. Gender (or gender identity) is defined here as psychological differentiation, or sense of self, beyond the body, based upon dynamic and negotiated sociocultural constructs of maleness, femaleness, or some combination of these concepts. Sexuality (or sexual identity) is also largely socially constructed and conventionally seen as an overlapping category with gender and sex, but focuses on sexual preference or desire, a key issue that has been neglected or tied to reproduction in most gender studies (Herdt 1994). In addition, sexual difference is used here to refer to the integration of all three interrelated concepts as an aspect of social identity.

This paper is not intended as a new treatise on feminist theory in South Asian archaeology, using the Indus civilization as a "case study," nor does it claim to present a definitive or comprehensive exposition of Indus conceptions of the body and sexual difference. It is, rather, a critical examination of representations of the body in the Indus civilization, particularly the anthropomorphic terracotta figurines from Harappa, uninformed by texts (not yet deciphered) but informed by recent advances in feminist theory that view sexual difference in the context of broader social difference and identity.

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Representing the Indus Body: Sex, Gender, Sexuality, and the Anthropomorphic Terracotta Figurines from Harappa
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