These old bones will never lie. Will they?

Imagine you are standing at the excavated gravesite of an ancient warrior. The grave is filled with spears, bows, and other weapons, proud possessions of the warrior and the skeletal remains. Close your eyes and imagine this Viking warrior.

Now tell me – did you think of a man or a woman?

Till about a few decades ago, if you had asked most archaeologists, they would have said, mmm, a man. For the hunter-gatherer is a man, the woman stays at home, gives birth, minds the chickens, and does other things that history isn’t particularly concerned with. Not only those archaeologists’ point of view is patriarchal, but they also did not have access to the secrets bones can tell, if only you know what to look for.

On the other hand, if you are trained in understanding bones and are critical of making unsubstantiated assumptions about gender, then you may look at the grave, examine the skeleton, and surmise on the basis of available evidence that it could be a woman. Akshay Sarathi, a graduate student of anthropology (archaeology) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison is one of those who is trained in and practises this new way of seeing. In his talk ‘Archaeology of gender’ organized by the Center for Budget and Policy Studies (CBPS) on Tuesday September 01, 2015, he spoke about new methods of decoding fragments from the past and the dangers of preconceived assumptions and gender biases colouring many a finding.

Citing different examples, Sarathi explained the difficulties in assigning gender and gender-based reasoning purely on archaeological evidence. For instance, if there is a site that shows shell-fish catching in a historic era, do we assume that men did the fishing? Or women? If there are three skeletons, where the man’s hand is on the woman’s groin, what do you make of it? Your guess is as good as mine, he said.

On the other hand, there are instances where there are texts and other sources that provide insights on the basis of which interpretations can be made. He cited the example of the Ishtar, who he described as a ‘transgressive’ goddess. There are multiple copies of a text that has survived, of Ishtar’s journey to hell and back. Such textual sources and other material help in interpreting available archaeological evidence, but it isn’t always the case that you would find such supporting evidence for theories.

Queen_of_the_Night_(Babylon) (1)

(By Hispalois (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Sarathi spoke about how the study of bones gives additional insights, previously not accessible to archaeologists who were not trained in that area. He cited the example of a mass burial of women, considered to be ‘virgin sacrifices’, but on examining the bones, you find that all the women show signs of having given birth, a pitting observed in their pelvic bones, which would have had to bear the stress of childbirth, debunking the ‘virgin’ theory.

But it is not that you can exactly tell whether the person was a male or a female by studying the bones, because that understanding is supported by statistics, available data, and interpretations, all of which can only provide a tentative understanding in many cases.

Sarathi’s talk touched upon that tentativeness in understanding history, which is usually obfuscated in certain ‘definitive’ versions of history. There is a pressure to sound certain, even if the evidence available can only give you a tentative hold on possible interpretations. Self-reflexivity was another theme, being able to critically examine your own biases and prejudices constantly, something everyone, be it in the sciences or social sciences, needs to practice. The tentativeness and self-reflexivity go hand in hand.

I was struck by how similar the situation is in the media, be it news media or popular media. There is a pressure to sound certain, provide ‘definitive’ accounts, and trade in certitudes, even though you know you only have a tentative understanding. Self-reflexivity is mandatory, but it is hard to put into practice. Where does this pressure for sounding certain come from? Is it because it is easier to work with simple narratives, rather than ones filled with ifs and buts? Or is it because a simple narrative is the one most suited for maximum control?

Overall, the talk was funny, thought-provoking, and accessible, even to someone with no formal training in either archaeology or gender. Now am off to figure out how I can get my hands on ‘Breaking and Entering the Ecosystem – gender, class, and faction steal the show’ by Elizabeth Brumifel, something Sarathi said was a must-read to understand this new way of seeing, even though, he sighed, the author has a few archaic ideas about women and weaving.

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