Anthropology Gender and Archaeology
Karen Dempsey
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 February 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0274


In archaeology, gender is not a simple man-woman binary classification. It is the performance and embodiment of an identity that intersects with age, sex, race, sexuality, and class. One is not born, but rather becomes, a gendered person over time. Ideally, gender is explored as one of the structuring principles in societies. Gender archaeology challenges the notion that gender is timeless, biologically determined, and universal. By addressing questions to the material evidence—landscape, space, architecture, food, bodies, and artifacts—it investigates gendered roles and identities. A gender role comprises societal expectations: how people are supposed to walk, talk, dress, and act. This can be more straightforward than explorations of gendered identities, which are personal conceptions of self. Genders can be performed or embodied differently throughout the life course, meaning that people consistently (re)negotiate gender roles and identities throughout time. However, some studies still equate gender with sex, view gender as a binary (man and woman), or implicitly assume that gender identities follow Western or European models. We must be aware that, like now, gender exists on a wide spectrum, and assume the presence of various identities, including trans or pan folkx as well as categories of normative women and men. From its inception in the 1980s, gender archaeology, drawing on inspiration from other areas of the humanities and civil rights movements (as well as anthropology more generally), endeavored to change archaeological practice. It highlighted the problematic assumptions made in the present about the past, including ideas of universal male dominance. Challenges to this were rooted in second-wave feminist activism: women were demanding space, both within contemporary society and in accounts of the past. Feminist archaeologists firstly engaged in the process of making women visible. Drawing from wider post-structural and postcolonial thinking, from the mid-1990s onward, gendered approaches moved toward conversations of “difference” including explorations of power as well as agency, moving on from the “add women and stir” approach. This meant dismantling the concepts of apparently stable gendered identities of “man” or “woman” and embracing the fluidity of identity, characteristic of third-wave feminism. This resulted in wider conversations on sexualities, the body/embodiment, ethnicity, personhood, and life course. At this time, too, there was a surge in studies of masculinities, which had been left out in the pursuit of making women visible. Yet archaeology remains dominated by stories of anonymous, elite white men. With signs of renewed feminist activism (the fourth wave?), there is hope for different, better and inclusive narratives.

General Overviews

In gender archaeology, there is a range of readers, edited collections, as well as single-authored articles and books that provide overviews of feminist and gender approaches. This compiled bibliography deals primarily with English-language publications, but there exists a wealth of publications on feminist and gender archaeology in German, Spanish, Swedish, Norwegian, Portuguese, and French.

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