Age and Gender at the Site of Tiszapolgar-Basatanya, Hungary

By Derevenski, Joanna Sofaer | Antiquity, December 1997 | Go to article overview

Age and Gender at the Site of Tiszapolgar-Basatanya, Hungary


Derevenski, Joanna Sofaer, Antiquity


Two fundamentals for the place of the individual in society are age and gender; well-studied cemeteries can provide an good archaeological base for their study. This examination of the Copper Age site of Tiszapolgar-Basatanya, Hungary, explores the relationship between age and gender though the course of prehistoric lives and how it might be possible to distinguish six from gneder in archaeological contexts.

The archaeology of gender has made a valuable contribution since its inception almost 15 years ago. Under feminist influence, awareness of androcentrism and bias within archaeology has been heightened and researchers have demonstrated enormous cultural diversity in fe/male tasks and roles (Conkey & Spector 1984; Fausto-Sterling 1985; Ortner & Whitehead 1981; Bertelsen et al 1987). New avenues of interpretation and analysis have opened as the key distinction has been made between biological sex and culturally constructed gender: gender is not contingent solely upon biology. While theoretical approaches to studying gender in the social sciences have become increasingly sophisticated, archaeologists - who cannot observe the actions of the living - continue to infer gender from sex in mortuary contexts. Objects are divided into two mutually exclusive categories relating to male and female. Artefacts which cannot be associated in this manner are frequently dropped from the analysis and are implicitly regarded as non-gendered. Young individuals who cannot be sexed anthropologically are also excluded, although there is no a priori reason why they too may not be gendered. This practice results in serious tension between the apparent inferential simplicity of method and the complexity of theory.

Attempts to resolve this tension have regarded sex as metaphor for gender (Hjorungdal 1994), or argued that the cultural identification of sex leads to the cultural identification of gender (Nordbladh & Yates 1990). Applied to mortuary contexts, these seem to lead again to the sex = gender equation. Examination of the self-construction of individual gender identity through notions of subjectivity and embodiment - the aim of much sociological and anthropological work on gender - poses problems for archaeology which cannot usefully employ a form of embodied subjectivity based on the concept of 'I' as an individual. As the dead cannot bury themselves, in mortuary contexts archaeologists deal not with the gender identity or perceptions of an individual, but with the social perceptions of the deceased by others. Some aspects of gender relations may be inaccessible through mortuary remains; those that are accessible may be based not on interactions between individuals, but corporate notions of gender identity and gender-appropriate behaviour.

Yet the maintenance of a separation of sex from gender remains necessary, for as Moore (1994: 71) points out:

the obvious fact of biological differences between women and men tells us nothing about the general social significance of those differences; and although human societies the world over recognise biological differences between women and men, what they make of those differences is extraordinarily variable. We cannot deal, therefore, with the observable variability in the cultural constructions of gender across the world or through historical time simply by appealing to the indisputable fact of sexual difference.

Given that material culture is itself a social product, archaeology suffers from an additional tension when the concept of 'cultural construction' is used both as a paradigm for the examination of past social structure and as part of the definition of gender. Theories of the activity of objects, in which material remains are deemed reflective of social structure by acting as active symbols in the past (Hodder 1982), partly resolve this difficulty. These symbols need to be decoded by the archaeologist, but the decoding of symbolic structures does not constitute their interpretation (Moore 1994).

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