Contributions of feminism to archaeological theory


23 Mar 2015 01 May 2017

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In its stages of conception, archaeology was considered to be merely a sub-discipline of both history and anthropology, and, in many cases, was restricted as a rich man's hobby. Developed during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the initial episode in the history of theoretical archaeology is usually referred to as 'culture history', a means by which early archaeologists established rudimentary predictive models patterning human behaviour within designated temporal and spatial contexts via the interpretation of artefactual evidence.

Though universally popular during the first half of the twentieth century, culture history was rebelled against during the 1960s. Perceived as restrictive due to its reliance on categorisation of artefacts the paradigms of culture history were abandoned in favour of the newly developed school of thought known as 'New Archaeology'. In an attempt to incorporate a level of scientific reasoning to anthropological archaeology, these primarily American archaeologists, chiefly Lewis Binford and his associates, moved away from simple descriptions of the past in favour of questioning why cultures developed and adopting hypothesis evaluations (Renfrew and Bahn, 1996). The scientific basis and reliance of New Archaeology instigated the widespread development of processual archaeology.

Two decades later, processualism's focus on science and impartiality were increasingly questioned. Led by Ian Hodder, Michael Shanks and Christopher Tilley, a new approach to theoretical archaeology emerged, which emphasised the necessity of relativism in archaeological investigation (Shanks and Tilley, 1992). This methodology, known as post-processualism, however, has been criticised by proponents of processualism and New Archaeology for abandoning scientific competency and rigour, and the debate over the most appropriate theoretical approach to any archaeological analysis is still much in evidence.

Theoretical archaeology now relies on a wide range of influences. During the 1970s and 80s, gender-related and feminist archaeology became popular among those archaeologists seeking a post-processual approach to cultural identity. Though phenomenology, post-modernism, and post-processualism are still discussed in the literature and relied upon to evaluate cultural diversity, feminist archaeology is, for the most part, unique in focusing on the collection of evidence of female social roles in past cultures and their influence in developing and sculpting individual societies (Gilchrist, 1998).

Archaeological theory

It is possible to summarise the history of how archaeology has been conducted in the twentieth century into three expansive concepts; predominantly description, explanation, and interpretation (Trigger, 1989). The chronological sequencing methodologies, encouraged by the culture history approach, allowed the description and ordering of artefacts using stratigraphic excavation and stylistic seriation, particularly with regard to ceramics and lithics. Though much disregarded following the development of processual and post-processual archaeology, the descriptive approach of culture history dominated the majority of the twentieth century, and successfully produced charts and maps of cultures based upon artefacts and stratigraphic sequences which are still relied on as initial datasets for investigation (Hodder and Hutson, 2003).

Arguing for a new recognition of the processes behind the evidence obtained from the archaeological record, the development of complex processual archaeology encouraged many advocating theorists to analyse the evidence away from simple classifications and to view the archaeological record from a taphonomical viewpoint. Proponents of behavioural archaeology, such as Michael Schiffer (1983, 1995), argued that the culture history assumption of artefacts existing as in situ fossils restricted the comprehensive analysis of archaeology to categorisation alone. Processualism criticised culture history, and Binford's early statement that artefacts were “fossils” upon which past reconstructions could easily be made (Renfrew and Bahn, 1996), for epistemological simplicity. The recognition that much of the value of evidence from the archaeological record was being lost through the collection approach of culture history necessitated a review and reassessment of the methodology of archaeological investigation, which, in turn, illustrated the problematic approaches of processualism with regard to the rigid, ethnocentric tenets of scientific archaeologists. Archaeology, it was criticised, saw what it wanted to see and moulded the evidence to fit ethnically biased hypotheses, predominantly a result of the domination of Caucasian male scientists within the field during the 1980s. For example, feminist archaeologists emphasised the androcentric approaches of theoretical archaeology by denouncing statements, from male archaeologists, that the commonly-cited Venus figurines of Europe represented the palaeolithic equivalent of pornography. During the era of processualism, a new-found movement of feminist archaeology began questioning the cultural presence of females in the archaeological record, debating their very existence at all (Conkey and Spector, 1984; Wylie, 1991).

Feminist archaeology

The exploration of the social status of genders in the past is the all-encompassing drive behind feminist archaeology. Though it has only recently become a field of study in its own right, the interest in prehistoric matriarchy stems largely from the nineteenth century, particularly with regard to claims made by J. J. Bachofen in 1861 and Frederick Engels in 1884. Engels and Bachofen proposed that matriarchy formed an important, universal phase in human culture after an initial stage of promiscuity and prior to what was termed 'the world historic defeat of the female sex' (Key and MacKinnon, 2000).

Engels suggested an early stage in human development was characterised by group marriage, with descent traced through women and matrilocality. Women had supremacy in the household and their high status derived from their central position within the social relations of production (Conkey and Gero, 1997), however, these conclusions were based not on archaeological evidence but on ancient myths and ethnographic cases. Marija Gimbutas's interpretation of Early Neolithic farming communities as matrifocal and probably matrilinear, egalitarian and peaceful, worshipping a supreme goddess, is a result of her research into the symbolism of female figurines and statuary from household contexts in south-east Europe and the Near East (Gimbutas, 1974, 1989, 1991).

Although unsupported by many archaeologists, her views have become unassailable for certain ecofeminist groups, and at least contrast with the androcentric evaluation of hunt scene cave art. The analyses of Palaeolithic figurines illustrate that differences in ethnological and epistemological approach potentially result in hugely varying disparities in the interpretative conclusions of particular artefacts, sites, and periods in history and prehistory. Overall, applying concepts of gender to all aspects of a specific culture is profoundly more productive than the restricted, narrow approaches of New Archaeology and culture history. It is important to archaeological interpretation that multiple varieties of gender, and their associated arrangements within a given culture, are illustrated and emphasised, in contrast to the previous assumption of a single dichotomy between proactive male and passive female roles.

Feminist archaeologists, in general, have aspired to determining the quantity of genders in past societies, with particular regard to the engendering of biological sex. The most reliable sources of this data, as purported by many feminist archaeologists, are from funerary deposits. However, this data is frequently invisible or vague within the archaeological record, and the differentiation between the dichotomy of the biological status of sex and the cultural status of gender remains problematic.

Furthermore, feminist archaeologists claim that a false dichotomy between the genders, often referred to as labour division, exists. Within modern indigenous and developed cultures, men and women are often assigned different functions within the community, and it is reasonable to assume that this division existed in the past, however, there is significant dislocation between gender-specific roles in most cultures. Feminist archaeology has contributed greatly to the umbrella field of archaeology by encouraging an avoidance of the polarisation of genders, thereby providing more subtle and comprehensive understanding of societies (Bem, 1993).

Feminist archaeology has therefore contributed greatly to the understanding of archaeological interpretation. It has encouraged new questions and new methodological approaches to data sets, and has revolutionised observations and analyses of existing data, particularly with emphasis on removing bias from interpretation. In contrast to the assumptions purported by other schools of theoretical archaeology, feminism has critiqued and argued against presumed concepts, encouraging the application of epistemological analysis to gender roles. By challenging preconceived ideology regarding the interaction between men and women within past societies, feminist archaeology adopts a refreshingly questioning approach in contrast to the previous interpretation of sites based on current modern attitudes, practices and socio-cultural biases.


Unfortunately, there is no single consensus on the definition of feminism and feminist theory, and, therefore, it is unrealistic to portray feminist archaeology as a homogeneous, ideologically-coherent framework. As a movement of resistance and struggle against male oppression for women's empowerment, theoretical feminist objectives include a critique of female status in past societies and the definition of gender difference for women. Initial rethinking of the new female history, anthropology and archaeology focused on the countering of androcentric narratives, the recognition of powerful individual women in the past, the search for matriarchies in past societies, and the redressing of the balance hitherto ignored by theoretical archaeology. Sørensen (1992) has outlined three predominant categories of archaeological sources most useful for pursuing archaeologies of gender: burial activities, individual appearance through costume, particularly from funerary contexts, and some types of art.

Though this is a short analysis of the benefit of feminism to archaeological theory and practice, details given here illustrate several ways that a feminist stance can improve and contribute to archaeological interpretations. In comparison to the previously biased analysis of singularly male roles within prehistory, feminist archaeology offers the opportunity to consider all aspects of men and women, particularly roles, status, and contemporary perceptions, from a balanced perspective. Many theoretical archaeologists now believe this to be essential to a comprehensive understanding of past societies. Economic relationships between communities, political structures, and ideological status are affected by our often biased interpretation of gender roles, and feminism, above all other schools of archaeological theory, attempts to desegregate the prejudiced views of gender superiority and inferiority, allowing clarity of interpretation, and giving a voice to the hitherto ignored female sections of past societies.


Bem, S. (1993) The Lenses of Gender. New Haven, Yale University Press
Conkey, M. W. and Spector, J. D (1984) Archaeology and the study of gender. Advances in Archaeological Methods and Theory 7: 1-38
Conkey, M. W. and Gero, J. M. (1997) Programme to practice: Gender and Feminism in Archaeology. Annual Review of Anthropology 26: 411-437
Gilchrist, R. (1998) Women's archaeology?: political feminism, gender theory and historical revision. In Hays-Gilpin, K. and Whitley, D. (eds.) Reader in Gender Archaeology. London, Routledge
Gimbutas, M. (1974) The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe: myths and cult images. London, Thames and Hudson
Gimbutas, M. (1989) The Language of the Goddess. London, Thames and Hudson
Gimbutas, M. (1991) The Civilisation of the Goddess. New York, Harper Collins.
Hodder, I. and Hutson, S. (2003) Reading the Past: Current Approaches to Interpretation in Archaeology. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press
Key C.J. and MacKinnon J.J. (2000) A Feminist Critique of Recent Archaeological Theories and Explanations of the Rise of State-Level Societies. Dialectical
Anthropology 25(2): 109-121
Renfrew, C. and Bahn, P. (1996) Archaeology: Theories, Methods and Practices. London, Thames and Hudson
Schiffer, M. B. (1983) Advances in Archaeological Method and Theory. London, Academic Press Inc.
Schiffer, M. B. (1995) Behavioural Archaeology. Utah, University of Utah Press
Shanks, M. and Tilley, C. (1992) Reconstructing Archaeology: Theory and Practice. London, Routledge
Sørensen, M. L. S. (1992) Gender archaeology and Scandinavian Bronze Age studies. Norwegian Archaeological Review 25: 31-49
Trigger, B. (1989) A History of Archaeological Thought. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press
Wylie, A. (1991) Gender theory and the archaeological record: why is there no archaeology of gender? In Gero, J. and Conkey, M. (eds.) Engendering Archaeology: Women and Prehistory. Oxford, Blackwell Publishers


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