Feminist Archaeology by David Metcalfe
This essay was originally posted on Skepchick back when we were a humble monthly e-zine. I’ll be periodically re-posting the articles that were on the original site so that they can find a new audience. In this case, I’ve added otherwise random photos that weren’t in the original.
Originally posted June 2006
In the course of researching the ways in which many new religious groups create mythologies of the past in order to justify and direct their views and behaviors, I have come across a number of essays, articles, and books critical of these mythologies. I have also noticed a bothersome trend in much of the criticism of these new groups. When an author or speaker for a female-oriented religious group or belief makes an unsupported (or in some cases patently false) statement about the human past, critics tend to both claim that this statement is typical of these new religious movements and to blame such statements on feminist perspectives in archaeology and history.
This tendency in criticism is unfortunate for two reasons. The first is that, while there certainly are members of the new, especially neo-pagan, religious movements who make spurious claims about the past (just as there are numerous Christians, Jews, and Muslims who falsely claim that there is ample scientific evidence for creationism), there are also many honest people within these movements who are aware of the historical and archaeological record and do not cling to blatantly false beliefs. The second reason, and the one that I am personally capable of addressing, is that these spurious statements are not typically due to feminist perspectives in archaeology, and the claim that they are is based on either ignorance of both feminism and of the ways in which feminism has affected archaeology, or else a desire to smear legitimate feminist perspectives within archaeology. I hope, in this essay, to impart a better understanding of what feminist archaeology really is, so that the reader may be better able to react to criticisms of it.
What is Feminist Archaeology, Anyway?
Feminist archaeology, in a nutshell, is archaeology that focuses on the activities and roles of women within the society being studied. This is, on the whole, a perfectly legitimate line of study, which leads one to wonder why it is so controversial. In order to explain how feminist thought came to influence discussions of the ancient past, and how controversy accompanied it, a bit of background information is needed.
Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, archaeologists typically sought to simply document changes in material culture (often interpreted as changes caused by either diffusion of traits or the replacement of populations), and provided simple, often absurdly so, explanations of how these changes came to be. In the 1920â€™s and 1930â€™s, this form of archaeology reached its peak with a set of taxonomic systems, groups of tools and other artifacts said to define a series of â€œculturesâ€ and to describe changes within said cultures, as well as the alleged replacement of one culture with another, invading culture. Devised by anthropologists and archaeologists such as W. C. McKern, who created the â€œMidwestern Taxonomic Systemâ€ (the most influential cultural taxonomic system in North America) these systems were overly simplistic. However, they set the stage for what was to come both by providing a framework in which future discussions could take place, and providing a paradigm to which later archaeologists could react.
Beginning in the 1930â€™s and culminating in the 1950â€™s and 1960â€™s, the social sciences, inclusive of anthropology, sociology, social geography and a number of other fields, became embroiled in the process of more closely analyzing how researchers infer what they think they know about their research subjects, discovering their own biases and unstated assumptions, and attempting to provide a more systematic and cohesive form of social theory. Within archaeology, this began with a greater awareness of archaeological theory (how we interpret the materials that we excavate and the patterns that we see) and its base assumptions. Archaeologists such as Gordon Childe, Elman Service, and Grahame Clark began looking for sources of culture change other than population movements and diffusion, and though many of the explanations that they found (changing conditions within the culture, ecological change, population growth) had been used to explain changes by previous archaeologists, these researchers brought a greater level of sophistication and a stronger awareness for the need for data to these explanations.
This greater attention to, and sophistication of, theory lead to an explosion of discussions of archaeological theory in from the 1960â€™s through the 1980â€™s (though the discussion continues today, it is relatively muted compared to these earlier decades). Archaeologists began to assert the value of archaeology within the broader social sciences, and began to search the writings of philosophers of science such as Thomas Kuhn and Karl Popper for models to be emulated in the creation of a more scientific approach to archaeology. At crest of this tidal wave was Lewis Binford, who is generally credited as the father of the scientifically oriented â€œNew Archaeologyâ€, but no less important were the works of other archaeologists such as James Deetz and Kent Flannery.
It is at this point that feminist archaeology begins to enter the picture. More open and thoughtful discussions of archaeological theory led many researchers to two conclusions: 1) the actual process of gathering and processing food has often not been carefully considered by archaeologists, and 2) women, who make up 50% of the population of any society (and possibly more in societies where warfare tends to claim the lives of many young men) are frequently ignored, unrealistically treated as gender-neutral beings, or treated as only marginally significant by archaeologists, especially hunter-gatherer archaeologists who tend to focus on (typically male) hunting behaviors. If greater scientific rigor (or â€œrobust theoryâ€ as Lewis Binford liked to call it) was what archaeologists truly desired, then an examination of the role of women within culture was absolutely necessary.
At this same point in time, two other trends were arising in society and in the academy. The first was the various liberation movements ranging from Womenâ€™s lib to the civil rights movement. The second was the nascent force of post-modernism.
The liberation movements gave feminist archaeology a political force and edge. This acted as both help and a hindrance to feminist archaeology. On the one hand, it provided a strong political backing that demanded to be heard, and also made more people aware of the sexless and often masculine biases that had been present in archaeologyâ€™s previous incarnations. On the other hand, it also served to make archaeology a more inherently political field, and therefore found that many scholars and those outside the academy became interested in manipulating archaeology to justify their own political ends, evidence be damned. The use of archaeology as a political tool and expression of political beliefs was nothing new, many governments (especially totalitarian governments) had long demanded that scholars interpret data in line with the beliefs of the political leadership, but the fact that it came from groups that had legitimate grievances gave some very absurd claims an undeserved veneer of importance and respectability (or else simply frightened those who disagreed into keeping quiet for fear of being labeled as sexist).
The growth of post-modernism, reaching its crest in archaeology during the 1980â€™s, but with roots extending back decades, also served certain brands of feminist archaeology, and like the liberation movements, had both positive and negative effects on the practice of archaeology. At its best, post-modernism serves to remind a researcher that they have biases, even if they are not consciously aware of them, and that these biases, as well as an often unacknowledged lack of information, will impact the research performed, resulting in a more humble and cautious researcher more open to alternative hypotheses. At its worst, post-modernism breeds an attitude of nihilism based on the notion that â€œif we canâ€™t know anything for absolutely certain, then we might as well accept everything as equally validâ€. Such an attitude is both foolish and counter-productive, as it fails to acknowledge that while nothing is certain, some things are certainly more likely than others, and, moreover, if anything goes, then the viewpoint of those who would use research to try to oppress minority groups are just as valid as the viewpoints of those who seek to help said groups. At its most annoying, post-modernist thought often serves as a justification for arrogant (and often lazy) researchers to produce pointless writings that utilizes more references to 19th century German philosophers than a chain-smoking goateed twenty-two-year-old cafÃ© dweller can summon, and impressive-sounding buzzwords to cover up the fact that the author has very little that is useful or original to say (see Shanks and Tilley 1992 for a prime example). Nonetheless, it is important to not fall into the trap of labeling all post-modern work as trash, as much of it is valuable and does serve the researcher well.
Postmodernism often becomes intertwined with feminist research, as well as many other schools of academic thought, for two reasons. At its extreme edges, the rejection of facts as simply social constructs (an idea no less foolish and absurd for the fact that many of its adherents have PhDâ€™s) has vindicated the desire for many politically motivated researchers to make social claims that are without base and argue that they are as valid as well-researched claims. In its more moderate, realistic, and useful forms, postmodern thought has pointed out the areas of research, such as the role of women in prehistoric society, often ignored by previous incarnations of archaeology.
Though feminist anthropology is at times gynocentric, and at its far extremes so much so that it clearly bears more of a resemblance to science fiction than real anthropology, it typically is more grounded. Indeed, many of the researchers who have been labeled, either by themselves or others, as feminist feel quite free to study that activities of both men and women, but in not ignoring women (as many, though certainly not all, more traditional anthropologists had done, whether consciously or not) they have become known for their â€œfeministâ€ research.
Is 90% of Everything Crap?
When asked why he wrote science fiction when most science fiction at the time was pulp-magazine garbage, Theodore Sturgeon is reported to have replied by stating â€œSo what if 90% of science fiction is crap, 90% of everything is crap.â€ If one listens to the critics, it would seem that this applies to feminist archaeology as well. Certainly, whether it is politically motivated fantasy thinly disguised as archaeology, work that ignores the role of men to the same extent (and with the same poor results) that other archaeologists have ignored women, or out-and-out mystical nonsense attempting to masquerade as research, there is a good deal of nonsense under the broader heading of feminist archaeology. But is this typical of feminist archaeology? Is feminist archaeology necessarily any worse than other forms of archaeology?
If one examines other post-modern archaeologies, many of the same trends appear. People who have an anti-authoritarian streak see â€œresistanceâ€ in basic decisions where economics were more probably the active force (Shackel 2000), or see basic things such as food choice within the private home to be symbol-laden when it may just as well have been due to preference or food availability (Smith 2004). Others, influenced by Marx, see every aspect of life, from what utensils you use to eat breakfast to what you do for a living, to how your beer can is decorated, to whether or not you are a member of a political party to be part of a global class struggle (Shanks and Tilley 1992). Still others become so concerned with attempting to show the actions and tell they stories of individuals that they string together improbability upon improbability to create a house of cards that doesnâ€™t stand up to the slightest breeze of scrutiny (Silliman 2001).
The problem is that each of these vectors of irrationality starts with a idea that is obviously true (that peopleâ€™s economic decisions are often based on more than economics; that there is negotiation, animosity, and cooperation between differing economic groups; that all societies are made up of individuals who behave unpredictably and in their own ways for their own reasons, though mass behavior is often predictable), and then builds a string of increasingly absurd, fantastic, or arrogant statements from that. But is must be kept in mind that while these examples are often the most visible works of any school of post-modern archaeology, they are not necessarily typical of the schools of thought that they are taken to represent. Most researchers take the obvious premise and attempt to work with it in the framework of responsible, carefully considered archaeology, rather than going to the arrogant or lunatic extremes of their more loud-mouthed brethren.
Feminist archaeology, then, is no worse than any other school of post-modern or â€œpost-processualâ€ archaeology. Socially and politically motivated nonsense is amplified and acts as a lightning rod for controversy, and in turn inspires other shoddy work, but is nonetheless not representative of the feminist school of thought as a whole. A good analogy would be to compare feminist scholars to Christians. The vast majority of Christians are decent, well-meaning, good people. However, those Christians who grab attention are the outrageous â€œJesus says letâ€™s assassinate â€˜emâ€ nutjobs such as Pat Robertson, or the people who protest on your local college campus trying to force you to read Jack Chick tracts. These people do not represent Christianity as a whole, but because of their conspicuous displays, they are much more noticeable than the nice family who lives down the street. By the same token, the outrageous nutjobs in the feminist camp tend to grab attention away from the intelligent and thoughtful majority.
Even the generally more respectable â€œscientificâ€ archaeology (of which I myself am a practitioner) is not free of this sort of nonsense. In his hilarious essay â€œArchaeology with a Capital â€˜Sâ€™â€, Kent Flannery (1973), one of the dominant figures of the scientifically-oriented â€œNew Archaeologyâ€ of the 1960â€™s and â€˜70â€™s, takes his fellow archaeologists to task for their non-critical acceptance of any number of ideas and methods that are unworkable or impractical in archaeology, but that were enthusiastically advanced and accepted because they seemed â€œscientific.â€ This includes the creation of what Flannery describes as â€œMickey Mouse lawsâ€ (statements that are so obvious that it boggles the mind how anybody can think that they are in any way profound), the tendency to attempt to apply quantitative measures to matters where they are irrelevant or bizarre (I personally have read a very strange article in which two anthropologists attempt to create mathematical formulae based on Klamath myths [Stern 1963]), and the uncritical (and ironically unscientific) tendency to cite philosophers of science or earlier scientifically-oriented archaeologists such as Lewis Binford as authorities. One can, and probably should, add to this list the tendency for many scholars of the â€œNew Archaeologistâ€ mold to assume that they can study any subject using the archaeological record, and that the archaeological record will yield all information necessary if only examined in just the right way, despite the generally acknowledged incompleteness of the record.
In short, if one wishes to choose the most outrageous examples of fantasy, uncritical work, and overindulgent writing, one can find it in any school of archaeology. Feminism is not the only mode of thought given to excesses, and to single it out as somehow special suggests that the critic has an axe to grind.
Nonetheless, all of the criticisms that I make should be taken into context. There is a mainstream of archaeology, unfortunately one that is not often seen by the generally public, and this mainstream incorporates the good of these different schools of thought, typically rejecting the bad (though it sometimes takes a while), and producing an ever stronger and more nuanced and realistic portrait of the human past. The outrageous folks may gain the lionâ€™s share of attention, at least for a time, but that doesnâ€™t make them important to mainstream archaeology.
Is it Even Archaeology?
Lawrence Osborne (2004) is unfortunately typical of many critics in the mainstream media in that he conflates mythical pasts created by non-scholars with feminist anthropology. For example, The Chalice and The Blade is a work of fantasy masquerading as history and archaeology that postulates a world of gender equality before those evil, wicked, and smelly conquering men from the east showed up and subjugated everyone. Written by Rhiane Eisler, it is often cited as a prime example of the sort of poorly researched (or intentionally deceptive, depending on who you ask) nonsense that passes for feminist archaeology. Eisler, however, is not an archaeologist, but rather an attorney with training in sociology. Her lack of archaeological training shines through in her tendency to accept simplified models of human behavior and her inability or unwillingness to take into account many factors (population size, ecology, inter-personal and inter-group relations, economic factors, and so on) that influence individuals and cultures and influence their evolution. Indeed, her arguments are based on a type of culture-replacement model that has long since been abandoned by archaeologists as being generally unrealistic.
Had Eisler’s book been written as a proper piece of archaeological literature, it likely would not have enjoyed the success that it does. Her editors and colleagues would have pointed out its many, many faults before or immediately after it hit publication, and it would have been more quickly subjected to the criticism that is so richly deserves. Unfortunately, it is a work that manages to appear persuasive and well-researched to the lay public, and as such it has enjoyed great success despite the fact that it is largely nonsense. While I have encountered some academics that use this work, none of them are archaeologists, anthropologists, or historians; and all of them tend to be motivated more by political idealism than by a desire to impart knowledge upon their students.
Other works frequently cited as feminist archaeology by the non-professional media are written not by or for archaeologists, but by and for practitioners of the various nature or female-centered Neo-Pagan religions. At their best, these books can be thoughtful works that may inspire those with whom their message resonates. At their worst they are flaky pseudo-historical (and sometimes sexist) nonsense. But whether of the good or bad variety of these writings, none of these works is archaeology, and to cite it as such is disingenuous at best.
It is worth noting that the best and most accurate essays, articles, and books that I have read countering spurious claims that the worst of these writers make about the past come from the feminist archaeologists themselves. Typical among these is the essay “The Palaeolithic Mother Goddess, Fact or Fiction” by Pamela Russell. Dr. Russell discusses the scant nature of archaeological evidence regarding early human religion, and the thin ice that is walked upon by those who attempt to reconstruct a goddess-based religion, let alone a matriarchical culture, based on the physical evidence. If one truly wishes to get to the heart of this matter, it would be better to consult the work of researchers such as Dr. Russell than the often hysterical accounts in magazines, on television, and in newspapers.
Contributions of Feminist Archaeology and Archaeology
So, feminist archaeology is not typically tied to many of the more spurious claims about the human past, and is not as bad as it critics say. So, it is not creating much trouble, but is it contributing anything? Well, in many ways, yes. The presence of feminist perspectives within mainstream archaeology has forced many archaeologists to consider women, who do after all make up 50% of any given population, in their reconstructions of the human past. Moreover, without post-modern perspectives in archaeology, including feminism, it is remarkably unlikely that areas of research such as the archaeology of culture contact, slavery, colonialism, household activities, and food gathering would be in their current healthy and active states.
Moreover, without feminist archaeology specifically, it is unlikely that the nature of power dynamics within a household or gender and age roles within a culture would ever have become important fields for research. The nascent studies of the roles that women and children play within the gathering of resources, as exemplified by the work of archaeologists such as Rebecca Bliege Bird and Doug Bird (Bird, R. 2004; see Bird, D. n.d. for a bibliography), are producing results that suggest that previous studies of human ecology and the archaeology of human environmental adaptation may have to be re-examined. This has exciting implications for the more traditional scientifically oriented archaeology, and is a direct result of feminist trends in anthropology.
Examination of the role that women played in food gathering and processing in prehistoric and early historic California has led to valuable insights into the place of gender relations and gender politics in Native Californian settlement and economic systems (Jackson 1991). In fact, one of the biggest events of Californian prehistory is the proliferation of milling stones (used for grinding hard seeds) between 7,000 and 8,000 years ago. Given that these milling stones are typically associated with women’s gender roles, it is curious that few researchers have broached the subject of the interplay between a reliance on ground seeds and gender relations.
Feminist anthropology, especially feminist archaeology, has contributed a good amount to mainstream archaeology. There are many places where it has the ability to contribute even more. To dismiss it altogether, as is often done by both archaeologists and the lay public, is to misunderstand what feminist archaeology is, and to indulge one’s own willing ignorance of the subject.
In the end, I suspect that labels such as “feminist”, “post-modern”, “Marxist”, and so on will fade as the contributions that these schools of thought can make to archaeology continue to be integrated into the mainstream, and the excesses and hysteria associated with their more fervent advocates dies away. Ultimately, feminism, Marxism, and any other type of social theory is simply a tool that is good for examining certain aspects of human life and interaction, but that misses or distorts other aspects. The theoretical toolbox of anyone working or interested in the social sciences should include the insights produced by these perspectives, but the wrong tool should never be applied, and no one viewpoint should ever be assumed to be sufficient for every research problem.
David Metcalfe is an archaeologist who, in his past, was given to shooting his mouth off without thinking about it (see above for example). He is now older, wiser, more of a curmudgeon, and works in historic and archaeological preservation and management.
Works Cited or Utilized
Bird, D. n.d. Doug Bird: Representative Publications. Hosted by Stanford University here. Accessed June 10, 2006.
Bird, R. 2004. Rebecca Bliege Bird â€“ Research. Hosted by Stanford University here. Accessed June 10, 2006.
Eisler, Rhiane. 1988. The Chalice and the Blade: Our History, Our Future. Harpers, San Francisco.
Fagan, Brian M., editor. 1996. The Oxford Companion to Archaeology. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Flannery, Kent V. 1973 Archaeology with a capital “S”. In Research and Theory in Current Archaeology, C. L. Redman, editor. John Wiley and Sons, New York.
Jackson, Thomas L. 1991. Pounding Acorns: Women’s Production as Social and Economic Focus. In Engendering Archaeology: Women and Prehistory, edited by Joan M. Gero and Margaret W. Conkey. Basil Blackwell, Oxford.
Newhall, Paul. 2005. Philosophy and the New Archaeology. Hosted here, accessed June 10, 2006.
Osborne, Lawrence. 2000. False Goddess. Hosted on www.salon.com, accessed June 6, 2006.
Russell, Pamella. 1998. The Palaeolithic Mother Goddess, Fact or Fiction. In Reader in Gender Archaeology, edited by Kelley Hays-Gilpin and David S. Whitely. Routledge, New York.
Shackel, Paul. 2000. Craft to Wage Labor: Agency and Resistance in American Historical Archaeology. In Agency in Archaeology, edited by Marcia-Ann Dobres and John Robb. Routledge, New York.
Shanks, Michael and Christopher Tilley. 1992. Re-Constructing Archaeology, second edition. Routledge, New York.
Silliman, Stephen W. 2001. Theoretical Perspectives on Labor and Colonialism: Reconsidering the California Missions, Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 20(4).
Smith, Stewart, professor of archaeology, University of California Santa Barbara. 2004. Personal Communication.
Stern, Theodore. 1963. Ideal and Expected Behavior as Seen in Klamath Mythology, Journal of American Folklore, 76.
Trigger, Bruce. 1989. A History of Archaeological Thought. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.