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.

I *Heart* Neandertals Part 1


I’m numbering this post because I’m absolutely sure this will be just the first of many posts about Neandertals. I HAVE SO MUCH TO SAY ABOUT THEM! Seriously.

I’m so excited about this new article and not just because the actual peer-reviewed journal title “An interesting rock from Krapina” made me laugh, but because I love rocks. This should not come as a surprise – many kids collect rocks and a few of us go on to study them.

Simply, as has been widely reported on, Neandertals may have been early rock collectors. Now this isn’t even really something new from the perspective of hominin (human and their ancestors) evolution. Oversimplifying a little, archaeologists and palaeoanthropologists have evidence from many sites that many early tool producing/using species selected rocks for their unique and particular qualities and then transported the preferred rocks to a specific location for use. Heck, even nut-cracking monkeys are known to have preference for particular types, sizes, and shapes of rocks (and I believe otters too right?!) so again preferential selection of toolstones is not even a hominin thing.

How do we establish “collection” versus selection? This is an important question because rocks are useful, abundant, widely available resources. What makes this particular rock different is that:

  1.  It was minimally modified, though the modification is not attributed to the Neandertals;
  2. It is unique; it is the only specimen of its kind out of over a thousand other rocks collected from the site. This context is important because other toolstones are present but none have the same visual characteristics of this particular rock; and so
  3. It is very interesting visually – it has branching forms, which caught the attention not just of the researchers but the person(s) who excavated it and the Neandertals who brought it to the site.

Importantly the elaborate natural design of the rock is just something else to add to the increasingly growing body of evidence that argues Neandertals were creative and curious. These are hallmarks of modern human behaviour, of modern human cognition. Neandertals were us…or at least close enough that some of us would “swipe right”.


Why I Am Not Writing About the New Dates for Bluefish Caves


A drop, then a trickle, then a raging storm. That’s how I’d describe the way the news of new dates from Bluefish Caves broke on my social media feeds. First, a single post on facebook by one archaeologist asking another what they thought of the new dates. Less than a week later and my twitter feed was all “new dates!!! #bluefish #archaeology”. So if there is already so much said and being said about the dates, why would I possibly add my voice? I’m no dating expert, no specialist on the peopling of the Americas. Well, as those on facebook say “It’s complicated”. I hesitated to write this post for several reasons but I realized that those reasons are why I should write this post. So here it goes.

I am not going to actually comment on the site nor the new dates (Ed.: I’m seeing an early trend here KB in how you structure your posts…). I’d drafted a whole post on problems with dating techniques in my head but luckily did not waste time putting fingers to keyboard. Instead what I’d like to comment on is the problem with focusing on dating sites, particularly on dating sites associated with the extremely problematic and political question of the peopling of the Americas.

We must stop focusing on the question of when the first people arrived in the Americas. I get the initial appeal. If all of our current data tells us that modern humans (Homo sapiens) had a single evolutionary origin in Africa, then figuring out when and how they expanded to other parts of the world is a logical line of questioning to pursue. But problems begin with focusing on the when – the quest for the earliest possible date obtained through a valid, objective, tested, absolute technique on a contextually secure sample. This is so hard to do; it is very difficult to get “good dates” never mind interpret them as such. I’m not saying getting absolute dates for sites is not useful nor valid, nor am I saying that we should not be critical of dates. What I am challenging is why are we so focused on those dates?

This is the first point I’m trying to make: We focus so much on the dates that we fail to think about what they mean.

Here is the second point I’m going to trying to make and to connect with my first point: By focusing on the earliest dates for the peopling of the Americas we are constructing and reinforcing settler colonial narratives.

Very simply, perhaps unfairly so, archaeologists need dates because they help us interpret the site. The problems lie in the questions that drive the research and the implications of those interpretations.  There are actual social, cultural, political, and economic consequences for living human beings when we (archaeologists with privilege of degrees, of scientific authority etc.) make statements about the past. We make these statements that are supported by the best science and scientific brains have to offer. Our culture privileges science (I LOVE SCIENCE BTW!) but often does so at the cost of other forms of knowledge, other ways of knowing. This is not a revolutionary idea; anthropologists have been talking about this for a while now and will continue to do so especially as some of us attempt to decolonize anthropology.

When we start arguing about when the first people arrived in the Americas, when we focus on giving an exact date for when that occurred, we silence any other voices including those which say “but our people already know this, we’ve always been here”.

Why isn’t “we’ve always been here” good enough?

First because our colonial heritage tells us that “always” is not an acceptable unit of time. It is not an “actual” date. The colonial roots of our discipline argues that absolute dates are always preferable to relative dates. Yet we then turn around and debate about good versus bad dates.

Second because our colonial legal system recognizes the dates generated by scientists when looking at land claims. These dates are often used by both parties in the claim – by our indigenous peoples who can now give an “actual” date for the earliest use of land they’ve “always” called their own, and on the other side by those who state that a few hundred, a few thousand years is not enough time to count as “always used this land”.

Third because I feel like we are a society and a discipline focused on creating history. We may recognize and love myth but we no longer accept myth or other forms of folklore as “fact”, which a) is ironic considering the popularity of such shows firmly and explicitly grounded in folklore like Grimm or True Blood, and b) is problematic because facts, like hobbitses, are tricksy.

Increasingly I find myself turning to my fandom when thinking about dating and peopling, which was itself heavily influenced by myth. The stories I tell about my sites are simply that – stories – and they took place “a long, long time ago”.

And that’s the clever quip where this post should end but it doesn’t #sorrynotsorry.

I get to be sarcastic and, frankly, ridiculous on this site and, sometimes, in my classroom. I get to be casual about the narratives I create. I’m the one with privilege. I’m the archaeologist; I have a PhD and an academic position at a respected institution ffs. I know that if I am challenged on my stories I can back them up with the dates and the data (the facts!!!) that my society (or at least my colleagues) will accept even if they don’t like my particular interpretations.

Our indigenous people don’t have that privilege. Their facts, their stories, are discarded. Stories ARE fact! This means that the real damage that is being done by the focus on dating the peopling of the Americas is the denial of story as fact.”You’ve always been here? Prove it!”. This also denies that the processes and structures of colonialism have erased and eradicated these stories, these facts, and then requires indigenous people to look to another colonial structure (archaeology) to “reclaim their past”.

This means we need to rethink archaeology.




On Curses


What is more fitting for Friday the 13th than a post on archaeological sites and curses? NOTHING I SAY!

I’m inspired by this post, which describes the horrible experiences of the archaeologists who “discovered” the cursed City of the Monkey God in Honduras. Without rehashing the article here, that the experiences of these archaeologists was deemed worthy of a news story is likely because of one simple truth: 1) archaeology is sexy af.

But seriously, popular culture loves the idea of the brave (usually white, usually male – another post!) archaeologist who finds a lost city/tomb/temple. Of course this mysterious yet incredibly valuable site was left untouched through the ages by indigenous populations because of tales of curses and traps associated with it (Ed: how can something be “lost” if local people are aware of it? KB: Yeah that’s absolutely another post!). Many of us end up in archaeology because of these popular depictions…

A brief example: The Curse of King Tut’s Tomb. The allegedly”early and unnatural” deaths of Lord Carnarvon and several other people associated with the discovery of King Tutankhamen’s tomb have been attributed to the “Pharoah’s Curse”. While few Egyptian dynastic period tombs have been found inscribed with curses, no such curse-related inscription was ever found in Tut’s tomb. Many of the deaths were of older individuals  with tenuous connections to the project, who never went near the tomb. But google”Curse of King Tut’s Tomb” and you’ll get over 269,000 results including links and references to dozens of films, comics, and books. Clearly we love this story.

To be fair, most explanations of the “curse” do not focus on nor attribute deaths of people associated with tombs or other archaeological sites and project to supernatural causes. It has been shown that ancient mummies, for example, do indeed carry mould, such as the genus Apergillus, that can be deadly. But the connection between the illnesses or other misadventures of the archaeologists is always made back to the curse if possible.

The reality is archaeological field work IS dangerous! Every archaeologist has their stories. At my very first field school, on a Friday the 13th (no lie!) I climbed down into my excavation unit (2 m below datum) and found a dead mouse and a black widow spider. Ominous signs indeed! I once lost twenty pounds in just three weeks as a 19 year old consulting archaeologist thanks to illness caused by giardia (don’t drink unfiltered, untreated water kids! This is NOT a recommended weight loss plan). In Tanzania, I was stung by a large black wasp three times in thigh after it crawled up my pants; I was in a moving vehicle at the time so once I driver stopped I hopped out and dropped my pants in the middle of town to free the wasp. While my thigh and dignity were hurt, I was relatively unharmed by the vicious attack but still carry a reminder of it – the three spots where it stung me still “raise” up every time I have an allergic reaction to something. So infections, illnesses, diseases, and animals (don’t get me started on bears, and moose, and earwigs…) do pose serious threats to our health and safety when working in the field.

We are also put at risk by the places we work in and the very things we do. We dig. Trenches can collapse. We utilize dangerous vehicles (quads, trucks, helicopters) to get to areas that can be far from medical care or intervention. Archaeologists actually have so much to worry about do we really need to add “curses” to the list?

Well maybe.

As an anthropologist, I understand the value of curses. Curses can be used to explain misfortune, to threaten individuals, to prevent and/or to justify certain behaviours or actions, or to exercise power, particularly when one feels powerless. Curses are powerful whether you believe in them or not. For example, you don’t have to believe that Friday the 13th is a day of misfortune, but if a series of unfortunate events (*wink wink*) were to befall you on this very day, you may be more inclined to chalk it up to the date than just a typical bad day. This illustrates that it is not just that curses make for a sensational story (about a project that is already pretty darn interesting imo) but that curses are important and valued in many societies.

May your Friday the 13th be curse free.