Activist archaeologists looking to ‘break the binary’ baffle academics

Image: microgen (Canva)

Archaeologists are baffled by so-called anarchist archaeologists’ calls to not assume the gender or race of ancient skeletons. The activist-archaeologists see the categorization of sexes as discriminatory to the dead as well as enhancement of “white supremacy” sentiments. But, is their claim so strange as one would think at first sight?

The controversy has been raised by a group of multi-ethnic and anarchist archaeologists called The Black Trowel Collective. They are against the notion of attributing sex and race to skeletons since it can cause several issues, Ancient Origins reported. In an article on the American socio-archaeological website anthro{dendum} from August 2021, the team warned against “biological essentialism” when it comes to categorizing ancient human remains. Labelling them as non-binary or gender neutral should be the way forward for academics if it is up to the collective.

One-sided story

The collective asks professionals to be “wary of projecting our modern sex and gender identity categories onto past individuals… as this leaves aside the frequently contextual and contingent nature of gender variation.” They argue that this kind of “anti-trans violence” shares a common origin with “white supremacist ideals.” Acknowledging that humans in the past have had many genders and sexualities, as they do in the present, would be vital to combating these issues.

The article reads that a re-evaluation of biological sexing of archaeological remains suggested that different methods of sexing have different accuracy rates: proteomics (protein analyses) were 100% accurate regarding chromosomal sex, DNA was 91% accurate and morphometric analysis (studies of skeletons) was 51% accurate.

But these chromosomal researches present only one side of the story, according to the article. “Like gender, sex is better understood as bimodal rather than binary. Scientists estimate that 1-2% of the population is biologically intersex.” According to the collective, this underlines that it can be difficult to determine whether human remains were female or male, and what kind of gender roles they adapted to during their life.

Two skeletons, known as the Lovers of Valdarom, on display in Italy. Image: Herbert Frank (Flickr) CC BY 2.0

Critical counters

Critics such as an emeritus professor of history at the University of Exeter, Jeremy Black is not impressed by The Black Trowel Collective’s arguments. “It is an absurd proposition, as the difference between genders, just as the difference between religious, social and national groups, are key motors in history”, he told the Daily Mail. “This very ideological approach to knowledge means that we’re in danger of making knowledge itself simply a matter of political preference.”

His colleague, Frank Furedi, an emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Kent, warned that groups such as, The Black Trowel Collective are using historical facts to become the latest ‘frontier’ for advocates of radical gender ideology. “You have to fight back against this because if it is accepted then the whole academic enterprise turns into an empty pursuit of ideological objectives”, the Daily Mail quoted

New lights

Despite the criticisms from well-known academics, the re-evaluation of how to study sex and gender roles in archaeology has been going on for some time. Already in 2017, German archaeologists gained new insights, by proving the importance of female mobility for cultural exchange in the South of Germany during the Bronze Age, scientific news platform Phys reported at the time.

While the remains of men were found to be from the Lechtal, the majority of women came from outside the area, probably from Bohemia or Central Germany. The pattern persisted for over a period of at least 800 years.

A second example can be found in the Netherlands. Recent research into grave goods and bone material from the oldest grave field in the country provided remarkable information about the classical interpretation of male-female gender roles in a 7000-year-old peasant society.

After researching the remains with modern methods, it appeared that flint arrowheads and stone axes, traditionally attributed to men, were frequently found in women’s graves, the Dutch State Agency for Cultural Heritage reported. The traditional idea that grave goods are personal belongings and representative of the daily life and gender of the deceased, was presented in a new light.

Source: Ancient Origins, anthro{dendum}, Daily Mail, Phys, RCE (Dutch)

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