Sex, Sexuality, and Archaeology

Sex is important topic of study and framing device for inquiry. We reproduce sexually (even with advances in biotechnology and biomedicine). We define ourselves on the basis of our sex (though increasingly how we differentiate among sexes is being critiqued and challenged). We regulate sexuality – we formulate rules and taboos about who we can and cannot engage in sexual activities with and/or reproduce with, and also have what are/are not permissible sexual activities including in what context they may/may not occur. We may define our sexuality on the basis of these rules, which in term may be informed by and inform our sex and our gender.

Sex is clearly important, and what is important today likely was important in the past. However there are several problems with inferring sexual practices and sexuality from the archaeological record.

If you only read articles that pop up on social media, one could easily think that there is an abundance of evidence for sexual activities and sexuality in the past. Based on reports such as this one or this one or this older one the archaeological record is nothing but dildos, butt plugs, breasts, and “sexually explicit genitalia”. Some report these finds as art or as symbolic expression, while others suggest these objects represent something more along the lines of palaeoporn.

And indeed these objects are sexy…or are they? That’s one problem archaeologists face. How do we interpret these objects? What are they? What do they represent? What do they mean to the people who made and used them? In order to answer these questions, we must acknowledge our own biases around bodies, sex, sexuality, obscenity, and art.


Let’s start with the so-called “Venus” figurines as an example (the Venus of Willendorf is pictured to the right). How do we know that these figurines even represent females? We assume they do because they have large breasts and hips, and many, but not all, have genitalia that most identify as female. Several interpretations have focused on the signs of fertility suggested by the figures (large breasts and bellies); McDermott (1996) argued that these were self representations of females looking down on their own, possibly pregnant, bodies. Dixson and Dixson’s (2011) study suggests that these “obese” females are not meant as realistic depictions of females but rather symbols of hope for fertility, abundance, and survival during an ice age. However Soffer et al. (2000) elegantly demonstrate that we must look beyond the bodies as important information about textile industries can be inferred from caps, snoods, belts, etc. that many figures also illustrate. So we can rule out “Venus” figurines as necessarily and/or exclusively about sex and sexuality; this suggests our biases to read these figurines as females, around what a female looks like, that females are symbols of fertility, and to focus on their bodies and explicitly their bodies as necessarily tied to reproduction (i.e., pregnancy) are limiting.

The same assumptions also influence our interpretations of “male” objects, specifically of phalluses/phalli. Similar  connections to fertility are made and they are often assigned a possible function and use in sexual activity. Just because it is a phallus does not mean it was used as such! And just because it kinda looks like a penis to our modern eyes doesn’t mean its creator meant for it to represent one. Even modern artifacts are not free of this gut-reaction “it’s a penis” association, which says more about the cultural perspective of those making the association than that of the people who manufactured the object.

In the examples I present above our own heterosexual bias reveals itself – bodies are male or female, and males and females engage in sex to reproduce. Often our interpretations also reinforce heteronormativity. This is a problem too.

An example of the importance of developing interpretations beyond heterosexuality is that of Moche “erotic” pottery – I’d give you a second to google that but many would consider them NSFW so check out this wonderful summative blog post instead (still has “graphic” content but academically framed). Even when we encounter objects that are seemingly clear representations of sexuality and sexual practices, we still need to question what the makers intended. We have to remember that the makers of these vessels created them in a particular cultural context. While we may only see the performance of sexual acts, of sexuality, a person from that group could have read the object differently. This reading would be based on the knowledge of other cultural constructs of that time including power, politics, religion, dominance, and authority. Why do we treat Moche “erotic” pottery so different from our own forms of political commentary including political cartoons and caricatures? Imagine an archaeologist of the future attempting to understand any of our memes if they only focused on what is represented not why a particular cat/phrase/person is depicted, in that particular manner, in that medium.

We also cannot assume that our beliefs around what is obscene and what is art would apply to the past either. One can argue that objects may not have been studied in detail because they were considered obscene (or even just overtly sexual) to those who found them. Here cultural relativism becomes important. The “manko” art of Megumi Igarashi has gained international attention because she was arrested and charged with producing art that violates Japanese obscenity laws. Some members of her own culture call her 3D printed casts of her vagina obscene. One can only imagine what archaeologists of the future would think of them. Is it art? Is it obscene? How would one even begin to infer their purpose, the intention behind their creation? This news report argues that even how this contemporary case is reported on is subject to western bias about vaginas, phalluses, and Japanese culture. So if we cannot avoid ethnocentrism in the present, how can we avoid it in our interpretations of the past?

Finally we must consider the nature of the archaeological record itself and the problems that plague us in interpretation no matter what the subject, the artifact, the time, the place. It is an incomplete, fragmentary record. We would struggle to understand how sex and sexuality operates in our own culture on the basis of a scattering of anthropomorphic dolls without considering their context.

NOTE: I could go into how the language around how we even describe all of these objects is gendered but perhaps I’ll leave that to the Linguistic One.

References Cited

Dixson, A.F. and B.J. Dixson (2011) Venus Figurines of the European Paleolithic: Symbols of Fertility or Attractiveness? Journal of Anthropology (2011) Article ID 569120, 11 pages.

McDermott, L. (1996) Self-Representation in Upper Paleolithic Female Figurines. Current Anthropology 37(2):227-275.

Soffer, O., J.M. Adovasio, and D.C. Hyland (2000) The “Venus” Figurines: Textiles, Basketry, Gender, and Status in the Upper Paleolithic. Current Anthropology 41(4):511-537.