This is Part 1 of a 2-part series. To read Part 2, click here. You’ll find a complete Works Cited at the end of Part 2.
Reconstructing the ancient human past has fascinated people for millennia. This fascination with our ancient past cuts across disciplines, as Van Dyke (2003) reminds us:
- Paleoanthropologists search the fossil record and seek to understand biological human evolution.
- Anthropologists try to piece together patterns of past cultures by examining current societies and looking for potential cultural parallels.
- Archaeologists look for clues in the material remains of past cultures .
However, even though the human quest for clues to the ancient past is itself quite ancient, a systematic and disciplined approach is only a little over 150 years old. Prior to the mid-1800’s, even the most educated western scholars believed human history only dated back a few millennia (Renfrew 2004). The Danish historian and antiquarian Rasmus Nyerup (1759-1829) considered what we would call prehistory as shrouded in mystery:
Everything which has come down to us from heathendom is wrapped in a thick fog; it belongs to a space of time which we cannot measure. We know that it is older than Christendom, but whether by a couple of years or a couple of centuries, or even by more than a millennium, we can do no more than guess…(Renfrew 2004).
Fortunately, much has changed over these intervening 150 years. Archaeology is a science – a sub-discipline of anthropology. As Renfrew (2004:21) points out, “we can penetrate that ‘thick fog’ of the remote past.” But, as he explains,
it is because we have learned to ask some of the right questions….What is new is our awareness…The history of archaeology is therefore …a history of ideas, of theory, of ways of looking at the past” (2004:21).
Even though Renfrew’s comments make it sound like archaeology is on “the cutting edge” of progressive thinking, there have been considerable concerns in recent years about a disturbing narrow perspective of anthropology, in general and archaeology, specifically. This concern centers on the rather “single focus” of researchers presenting data and theories. For the brief history of the discipline, an overwhelming majority of those researchers have been Caucasian, western males (Gero 1991; Pyburn 2004).
By the 1970’s, people interested in the alternative views began asking questions about the validity of existing theories, especially seeking information from typically underrepresented segments of society, such as voices from indigenous cultures being studied, non-Caucasian ethnic groups, and women (Erickson 1999).
The interest in gender studies initially arose in the 1970’s from a social concern about many perceived inequities in social sciences. As Ortner (1984:461) indicates:
The anthropology of the 1970’s was much more obviously and transparently tied to real-world events than that of the preceding period…Everything that was part of the existing order was questioned and criticized…The issue quickly moved to the deeper question of the nature of our theoretical frameworks, and especially the degree to which they embody and carry forward the assumptions of bourgeois Western culture.
Mesopotamia – “the land between the rivers” – is an archaeologically rich geographical region. However, a gendered approach to the archaeology of the area is seriously lacking (Al-Zubaidi 2004; Pollock 1996). This article addresses the archaeological evidence of gender in the ancient world of Mesopotamia, specifically examining different types of archaeological data.
The focus of this article is to examine these multiple data sets (texts, art and iconography, tools, and architecture) in order to determine what insights can be deduced about the relative status of Mesopotamian women – wealth, power, political access, and domestic domains – from the archaeological record.
In addition to exploring what gender inferences can be deduced from the archaeological record, I also examine the relative strengths and weaknesses of each data type and the caveats that must be considered in their usefulness for a gendered approach to Mesopotamian archaeology.