What’s the Point of Archaeological Theory? No Longer Just a Torture Device!

View the rest of the post at the new ‘What’s Up, Archaeology?’ blog!  Check out all of the great contributors to the blog!

What's up, Archaeology?

On a good day, I would say roughly 80 percent of my students hate archaeological theory, if not more.  I’ve had numerous chats with friends and colleagues about their collective hatred of theory.  It’s incredibly confusing stuff.  There was even a time I thought theory was invented to torture students, and in part, that is still true.  Over time—long after graduate school—theory grew on me.  I wouldn’t necessarily want sit down and read a theoretical extravaganza for kicks, but I see it’s usefulness and the need for it to be taught (sorry, students, you’re learning all about it this week).  So, what is ‘archaeological theory’?  Like many of the methods in archaeology, theory is just another tool to help us understand and explain the past.

Let’s get some jargon out of the way.  A ‘theory’ is a policy or procedure that is proposed and/or followed as the foundation of some…

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Book Review: Introducing Postmodernism By Appignanesi and Garratt

Theory in any discipline can be extremely difficult to grasp.  Bring in postmodernism and many students are completely lost.  This book helped me understand the postmodernism movement when I was first introduced to historical and archaeological theory.  Appignanesi and Garratt answer such questions as, what on earth is false postmodernism?  Eclectic postmodernism?  The Anthropic Principle?  Introducing Postmodernism is a great companion to any theoretical textbook/compilation of works for an undergraduate theory class.  I found myself pulling out this book even for my graduate anthropology theory class.

Through cartoons and brief but concise explanations, the authors trace the complexities of the postmodernist movement in art, theory, science, and history.  Reading original texts by Derrida and Levi-Strauss can bring on massive headaches—this book, however, breaks down such authors’ concepts into something understandable.  After reading about major postmodernists and their thoughts brought to life via drawings, I was then able to tackle some of their writing.  Although, Derrida still has me scratching my head.

What is Feminist/Gender Archaeology? A Nutshell Perspective

During graduate school, one of my professors instructed us to think outside our little academic box through a thought experiment: imagine you’re in an elevator with someone who has no idea what an archaeologist actually does; describe what you do to them without using any jargon in 150 words. No jargon? *Gasp!* It was surprisingly hard. I almost threw up my hands and boiled archaeology down to “I study dead people’s stuff.” That assignment stuck with me, always niggling at the back of my mind when I attempt to explain anything archaeologically related. And, in the least boring way possible. More recently, participating in the Women in Archaeology podcast has made me wonder: how would I describe feminist and/or gender archaeology?

Here we go . . .

To start with, using as much jargon as I please, we have to look into the origins of this theoretical approach. A major shift occurred in archaeological theory during the mid-1970s and 1980s towards a more inclusive viewpoint. There were growing concerns that the processual approach, the major theoretical approach of the day, focused too much on settlement patterns and ecological adaption. According to Trigger, “Processual archaeologists paid little attention to studying specific religious beliefs, cosmology, iconography, aesthetics, scientific knowledge, or values of prehistoric cultures” (2006:443). In essence, the very people who created the objects or habitations were being ignored.

Another critique of processualism was that archaeologists were applying examples of modern-day societies/Western concepts on cultures, assuming the gendered division of labor and level of social complexity was the same in the past. Meaning the ‘man the hunter’/’woman the gatherer’ way of thinking was being exposed as limited (and dumb). If a woman wanted a scraper, I doubt she waited around for someone to make the tool for her. There was also a growing awareness of the lack of female representation in archaeology in the United States (Trigger 2006:458). Women were typically regulated to the laboratory as technicians, not being taken as seriously as their male counterparts. Male domination of the field had led to major gender biases when looking at archaeological material and also led to the denial of women to more prestigious positions.

The key issues:

  1. Human agency ignored (i.e. what people?)
  2. Applying modern-day examples of societies to the past (i.e. women were only gatherers and never held important positions)
  3. Major under-representation of women in archaeology

And so, there were those who began to think differently. Major influences on archaeological theory included the postmodernist movement and Marxist anthropology (Trigger 2006: 444). Postprocessualism, which focuses more on subjectivity (i.e. assumptions/biases of the archaeologist) and human agency (i.e. the people behind the artifact), developed during this period. Can you guess who was being denied human agency in previous theoretical approaches? Women! Why? Wylie discusses how dominant archaeological theories considered gender too difficult to reconstruct, making the subject outside of scientific inquiry/undermining objectivity (1991:36). Apparently, trying to figure out what women did in the past was just not “sciencey” enough. Feminist archaeology grew out of this period of theoretical change, providing a different way of looking at the past.

“What might a feminist approach to theory look like in archaeology? At its core, it would be about knowledge and power, difference and identity, social life and the social production of belief and praxis” (Conkey 2007:306). In a nutshell, feminist archaeology uses a feminist lens to interpret the past and understand our own biases; this approach also considers sexuality, class, and race in past societies. This approach looks for what has been missed in the past by archaeologists. It challenges the status quo! It allows alternative voices to be heard! Questions about women and gender in archaeological research were finally being addressed through feminist theory. However, during the 1990s, there was a growing split between feminist and gender archaeologies.

Gender archaeology acts as a sort of umbrella, a type of methodology that includes feminist, queer, and other kinds of archaeological theories. It looks at the social construction of gender and the roles that are created in that culture per gender. There are archaeologists that see the two theories as distinctly different (i.e. feminism is not inclusive enough) while there are others who see the theories as almost interchangeable to feminist theory falling under gender archaeology. According to Conkey and Gero (1997:426), “we now consider feminist resources essential to understanding the production of archaeological knowledge . . .and the potential of gender research more specifically . . .These perspectives matter not merely to gender research in archaeological but to archaeology as a wider practice.” So, feminist literature, theory, archaeology, etc. can inform gender theory and how gender archaeology can be practiced.

Consequently, feminist and gender archaeology:

  1. Offers a means to review how archaeology has been conducted (i.e. find biases, the voices that have been ignored, etc)
  2. Provides a method to study women and other marginalized groups
  3. Focuses on gender, but also considers gender with sexuality, race, and class.

Phew, that was a lot of theory. The key point is that having multiple ways of looking at the past is crucial. Moving on . . .So, let’s say I’m standing in an elevator with one other person and we get into a light conversation about my profession as an archaeologist. I happen to mention that I study archaeology with a feminist lens within a gender archaeology theoretical framework—my elevator partner’s eyes begin to glaze over. They’re confused. They simply shake their head and mutter, “what?”

Feminist and gender archaeology in 150 words or less . . .

Since women make up half of the population, it’s important to think about how women contributed to civilization throughout history. Otherwise, as archaeologists, we would only get half of the picture. In the past, we just assumed women didn’t play as much as a role as men, but you know what they say about ‘assume’ and I doubt anyone wants to be an ‘ass.’ Feminist thought provided, and still does, a way to give us a bigger picture on the past and way to fight our assumptions of the past. Gender archaeology includes feminist thought, giving archaeologists a way to look at how past people may have created specific roles for each other; it gives a way to see how people may have been marginalized or treated as less important. Again, it’s all about making sure we give everyone in the past an equal voice.

Works Cited

Conkey, Margaret W. and Joan M. Gero

1997 Programme to Practice: Gender and Feminism in Archaeology. Annual Review of Anthropology 26:411-437.

Conkey, Margaret W.

2007 Questioning Theory: Is There a Gender of Theory in Archaeology? Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 14:285-310.

Gero, Joan M. and Margaret W. Conkey

1991 Tensions, Pluralities, and Engendering Archaeology: An Introduction to Women in Prehistory. In Engendering Archaeology: Women and Prehistory, edited by Joan M. Gero and Margaret W. Conkey, pp. 3-30. Blackwell Publishers Ltd, Oxford, United Kingdom and Cambridge, United States.

Trigger, Bruce G.

2006 A History of Archaeological Thought. 2nd ed. Cambridge University Press, New York.

Wylie, Alison

1991 Gender Theory and the Archaeological Record: Why is There No Archaeology of Gender? In Engendering Archaeology: Women and Prehistory, edited by Joan M. Gero and Margaret W. Conkey, pp. 31-54. Blackwell Publishers Ltd, Oxford, United Kingdom and Cambridge, United States.

**Originally written for the Women in Archaeology website/blog.  Check out that amazing website and podcast!