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What Is Gender Archaeology?

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  • Written By: Maggie J. Hall
  • Edited By: Susan Barwick
  • Last Modified Date: 22 November 2016
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The branch of anthropology known as gender archaeology strives to further our understanding of the roles of men and women in ancient human cultures. Founders of this branch of archaeology claim that a gender archeologist requires a higher degree of proof before formulating theories or arriving at conclusions. Methodologies used when examining burial sites may include skeletal, chemical, and microscopic analysis; in depth investigations of burial artifacts; and comparative studies of other tombs. Some believe that gender archaeology began with the feminist movement and argue that the study emerged in an attempt to elevate the role of women in human history. Gender archaeology advocates claim that conventional cultural studies often misinterpret data based on preconceived ideas.

Many common notion in anthropological study typify males as having the dominant political, religious, and social positions. Gender archaeology prefers to examine history based on physical evidence rather than by automatically assigning roles based on biological sex traits. Many have proposed that males, thought to be physically stronger than females, fashioned tools and accepted the responsibility of hunting and fighting while the women were responsible for child rearing, gathering, and typical household duties. Based on artifacts and skeletal evidence, more recent archaeological evidence suggests that in some cultures, men shared in child rearing and other domestic responsibilities and that women created tools.

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Ancient cultures often buried men lying on the right side with the head facing east or north while women were placed on the left side with the head facing south or west. Archaeologists have often classified the sex of remains based on burial positioning until gender archaeology delved deeper by performing deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) testing on the remains. Some bodies, originally thought to be female, were, in fact, male.

Investigation of burial artifacts in multiple cultures revealed that some societies believed in a third gender, or two-spirit individuals, who often acted as morticians, shamans, or other highly prestigious religious leaders in the community. During some investigations, bodies adorned with jewelry were originally considered female. Further investigation has shown that both sexes wore jewelry in some cultures and that the number and placement of adornments more accurately determined the sex of the individual.

In some societies women gained status as they aged. A gender archaeologist studying an entire cemetery discovered that as women aged in particular communities, societies buried them with more extravagant clothing and artifacts. Gender archaeology also discovered that the men of various cultures did not always possess political and social power. Artifacts and the remains in a tomb uncovered in the middle of Europe and dated to around 500 BC, revealed the burial site of a possible princess. Another expansive tomb found in Korea, and dated to around 400 AD, indicates the final resting place of a queen.

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