Nancy Bowles' remarks--gender and archaeology

Alex Barker (abarker@SUN.CIS.SMU.EDU)
Wed, 20 Apr 1994 09:04:19 -0500

Hmmm. My $.02...
I appreciate Nancy's remarks, but there are a couple of
points with which I'd take issue. She asserts that gender is no more
problematical than anything else we study in archaeology. Is this
reasonable? Gender is a social construct--it requires several more
inferential steps--or leaps--than some other topics. If we want to debate
subsistence, there is physical data which can be marshalled in support of
this or that position. Granted, the interpretation of that data still
depends on the analyst's background, assumptions, etc., but human feces are
a fairly reliable indicator of what at least someone ate in some set of

Gender's not so easy. If we accept the argument that much of what we know
about the rise of states reflects our own position in western society (as
Nancy argues), then studies of gender are likely to founder still more
quickly on the same shoals. States, after all, are our own
construct--when we extend them into the past we're examining the behavior
of a specific set of organizational patterns, which may or may not have
anything to do with the way that society saw its own political
integration. We define what a state is, then examine how that
constellation of traits arose. Rarely do we ask what a given society's
own conception of the relations and dynamics of higher political
structures was in the absence of written records. But that's what a
sustained and serious archaeological study of gender demands.

Social anthropologists still pull out their hair over understanding "emic"
constructs-- inferring them from their material correlates, I would
suggest, is a bit more difficult than questions of subsistence or chronology.

That doesn't mean they aren't worth pursuing, but I think the suggestion
that they can't be that difficult because they're so important not only
misses the point, it stands reality on its head. The more central the
organizational concept (like kinship or gender) the less easily examined
by material correlates alone. *Because* it's so pervasive. That's part of
what makes it so complicated.

Probably not worth $.02, but what the heck.