Appendix E: Queer Archaeology: Some Basics Video Transcription

Jim: Hello! My name is Jim Aimers and I’m an associate professor of anthropology at the State University of New York in Geneseo, New York. I’m a Maya archeologist who specializes in pottery, but today I want to talk about queer archeology. This video is meant to be a companion to my chapter in the open access textbook LGTBQ Studies: An Open Introduction, which is freely available online. You can also use the glossary of that book to find definitions for some of the terms which will be highlighted in this presentation.

Jim: So what is queer archeology? Simply put, queer archeology is the use of queer theory in archeology, but I realize that doesn’t get us very far. So we need to ask, what is queer theory? Like all theoretical perspectives, queer theory can be considered a way of looking at the world. For a very readable introduction to queer theory, I’d recommend Barker and Scheele’s 2016 book Queer: A Graphic History. They note that queer theory is always changing, and is used in different ways by different people, but we can find some unifying themes if we look at queer theory’s history.

Jim: Queer theory’s origins lay to a great extent in feminism, which has, among other things, questioned our assumptions about gender, sex, and sexuality. For example, feminism has long challenged our idea that it is somehow natural for women to be submissive and to work in the home. this is an example of feminism challenging what we call a normative assumption about women. A normative assumption about men would be that men are naturally violent and sexually aggressive. Both of these ideas are related to essentialism.

Jim: Essentialism has deep roots in Western philosophy, and still is a very common and controversial way of thinking about people. Essentialism suggests that, for example, men and women have fixed, in-born qualities or “essences” that can be used to explain their behavior. These fixed, in-born characteristics would be the same in men and women in all times and places. Another example of essentialism is the racist belief that groups of people have certain psychological and social characteristics that can be identified based on simply the way they look.

Jim: Many people challenge essentialism with what is called social constructionism. This is the idea that most of our behaviors and beliefs are a result of social learning as members of various groups. The great variation we see across in norms about gender, sex, and sexuality, tends to support the social constructionist view. Although this is a complex issue that I can’t really resolve here, but there really are a lot of great resources on the internet on essentialism vs. social constructionism.

Jim: In archeology an important way that essentialism and normativity exist is in the categorizations that archeologists create and use, and queer theory demands that we examine even the most basic assumptions underlying those categories. This aspect of queer theory reflects its debt to critical theory. For example, when the most basic assumption that most people make is that humans come in two dichotomous sexes: male and female. Archeologists specializing in human remains called bio archeologists or physical anthropologists have traditionally assumed that any human body could be classified as male or female.

Jim: Unfortunately, human biology is not that simple. Over 1.5% of newborns are intersex, that is they exhibit at least some characteristics of both biological sexes. Further complicating this picture is the fact that biological sex is multi-faceted, potentially designated in reference to chromosomes or DNA, hormones, breasts, genitalia, reproductive abilities, or, in archeology, skeletal characteristics. As the biologist Anne Fausto-Sterling note, “labeling someone a man or a woman is a social decision.”

Jim: You can see the power of normativity even today, intersex births are rarely discussed, and those newborns are often surgically operated upon to align them with male or female biology. Although this is changing as adult intersex people have begun to demand that they be able to make that decision later in life.

Jim: A very simple example of the influence of queer theory in archeology is that many bio archeologists no longer begin with the assumption that any excavated body will fall neatly into the category of male or female. When the categorization system is opened up to allow for more than two sexes, surprise! Intersex people may be visible. This may be the case for an ancient royal burial at the Maya site of Copan, Honduras.

Jim: In 2006, Perry and Potter suggested approaching sex in a similar way to race—as a social construct noting that “…the ways in which race is described as a social construct may be translatable to sex: what we understand to be a biological sex is composed of a diverse set of variables that may not invariably pattern out into what we socially comprehend as male and female.”

Jim: Furthermore, we can assume that physical sex differences were as important to people in the past as they are to us, and that they were given as much weight in identifying people. even contemporary ideas about sex turn out to be, from the perspective of archeology anyway, relatively new. In his book Making Sex, Thomas Laqueur showed that perceptions of the sexed body changed radically from antiquity until the 20th century. Even when the physical differences between the sexes were recognized, they were not important until the end of the 1700s, when they were used in arguments for or against the role of women in education and public life.

Jim: Queer theory reminds us that classifications are not neutral, they are created in specific cultural contexts in relation to specific questions and often to make a specific argument. Even the distinction between sex as biology and gender as culture have been questioned by queer theory. Judith Butler has argued that our standard sex vs. gender model often reduces gender to sex and tends to create normative and non-normative gender categories which can be as simplistic as racial categories.

Jim: For example, warrior women like the Señora de Cao of ancient Peru are seen by us as an exotic gender type, but imagery from the past often does not represent these women as non-normative at all. In ancient Maya art, women warriors are depicted just like their male counterparts. So, distinguishing men from women does not always seem to be all that central to ancient imagery, and mix-gender people and deities are common in many cultures. Kent Riley(?) and others have used analogies to historically known and living two-spirit people to explain mix-gender imagery in Maya art.

Jim: How does this reevaluation of gender and sex relate to sexuality? The historian Michelle Fuoco(?) argued that sex and sexuality are imbedded in discourses shaped by power. Recently, the historian David Halperin described the problems inherent in applying our contemporary concepts of sexuality to other places and times, because Western culture itself did not associate homosexual behaviors with a fixed and permanent homosexual identity until the late 1800s. This attention to categorizations and boundaries is a hallmark of queer theory, because categorizations of people and their actions depends on ideas of what is normal and also what is deviant.

Jim: Both feminism and queer theory use the concepts of intersectionality and positionality in approaching gender, sex, and sexuality. Both are related to the idea that people have multiple aspects of their personality that they emphasize or downplay in different contexts. Many societies take pains to gender individuals with objects, tasks, and food, yet we repeatedly see that gender is not as important in the very old and the very young, and that gender is often most strongly marked when people are of reproductive age.

Jim: Similar criticisms can be made about the often an implicit assumption that sexuality was as important in the creation of identity in the past as it is now. Fuglesvedt asks that we consider a scale of intensity for societal interest in sex, gender, and sexuality. In those terms, many contemporary people live in societies with unusually “high-intensity” attitudes towards gender/sex and sexuality.

Jim: The archeologist L. Meskell and others have asked for contextual, intersectional studies focused on individuals, not groups. In this view, “…prehistoric identities do not rely on the notion of a core, stable self that remains unchanged throughout the life-course… Instead, identity is a context-dependent and enacted or “embodied” in ways that capture the “lived experiences” of past peoples.”

Jim: For example, in a study of the early historical Chumash of early California, Sandra Haluman(?) argued that undertakers were either men who engaged in homosexual acts, including third gender people, or post-menopausal women. They were categorized together because their sexual activity could not result in conception and birth. In this instance, occupation and age and reproductive potential intersected with gender and sexual behavior in a classification system that differs greatly from familiar contemporary ones.

Jim: Religion, status, and sexuality were also often linked in the past in ways that surprise contemporary westerners. The ancient Moche of Peru produced a huge number of sexually explicit pottery vessels that were often placed in high-status burials. Mary Weismantle(?) and others link the sexual imagery not to sexual identity, but to politics and power, including dependent relationships with dead ancestors.

Jim: Similarly, Michael Horsewell(?) has described the religious use of male same-sex sexuality in the Andes, and others have done the same for Mesoamerica. In studies of the Americas, many authors have argued that the intersection of gender, sexuality, and status intensify during the European invasion and subsequent colonial period, leading to increased oppression of women and others of all sorts. For more on this topic, see Joseph Russo(?)’s chapter in LGBTQ Studies: An Open Introduction.

Jim: Some indigenous cultures, for example the Maya and the Aztecs, shared with the Spanish that people conquered in war were gendered feminine, and sodomy was a metaphor for conquest. Europeans in the New World sought to eliminate, often brutally, expressions of gender and sexuality that did not correspond with their Inquisition-era ideas. Yet, one of the insidious legacies of colonialism in general is the wide-spread idea that indigenous cultures were always conservative and restrictive around issues of gender, sex, and sexuality, when in many cases that conservatism was imposed on them during colonization. Archeologists and our colleagues in cultural anthropology and history are showing instead that many cultures held diverse ideas about these issues, and this in evidence must be understood on its own terms, not on ours.

Jim: I hope that in this short overview I’ve given you some indication that academics in many fields now challenge normative classifications of people and behavior. Michelle Fuoco(?) wrote about the role of experts in science and medicine in the creation of normative categories. Archeologist are some of those experts, and we’ve become more self-critical about our interpretations of issues surrounding sex, gender, and sexuality in recent decades. Archeologist who engage with these issues are not just trying to dig up LGBTQ people, we’re trying to challenge normativity in all its forms. Thanks for watching!


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Introduction to LGBTQ+ Studies: A Cross-Disciplinary Approach by State University of New York is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.