Session 18 – Gender in death: approaches to revealing gendered experiences in funerary contexts

Timetable: Saturday afternoon 1430-1745 in the Sonya Atalay Zoom Room

Format: Standard

Organisers: Penny Bickle, Lindsey Buster, Kate Morris, Danny Shaw


Understanding life in the past is a key element of archaeological interpretation and, paradoxically, the study of death can offer distinct insights, particularly with regards to identity and gender. Funerary archaeology has long been used as a route into revealing and debating gendered experiences in the past. Though the problems associated with the “social persona” approach of processualists, i.e., reading identity in life directly from the grave, are now well understood, the mortuary context continues to provide a rich record with which to explore how bodies, objects and practices were gendered. Recent developments in stable isotope analysis and aDNA, including insights into kin relationships, have provided new opportunities to understand the extent to which identities in life were articulated in death, and offer new possibilities for the study of gender. Death work itself is often distinctly gendered, with women in many cultures taking on much of the burden for mourning and caring for the deceased.

In this session, we invite papers that consider themes of gender and death from multiple perspectives, but which focus around three topics. First, those that explore the ways in which we can recover evidence for and speak about gender in the funerary sphere. Second, the insights and challenges provided by newly-emerging isotopic and aDNA data. Third, the ways in which death work and experiences of caring for, and mourning, the dead may have been gendered. We welcome both case studies from different time periods and theoretical treatments of this theme.


1430 – Introduction to the session

Penny Bickle, University of York

1430 – Grave good positioning in the early Neolithic of central Europe: investigating funerary rites

Iseabail Wilks, University of York

The subject of Neolithic identities has seen heavy debate for many years in archaeology. Within the sphere of death and burial, status and sex-based differences are conventionally assumed to constitute key elements of personal identity. In discussions of Neolithic mortuary practice, this has manifested as a concern with identifying the expression of wealth and gender within the burial record. Other elements of burial practice, which may provide greater insight into identity expression and difference, have subsequently been overlooked. This paper presents an alternative consideration of this subject; here, potential expressions of Neolithic identities within the burial record of the Linearbandkeramik culture are approached using an alternative methodology, focusing on the spatial use of grave goods within burials. This element of mortuary practice is also considered in relation to both age and sex. Variability by age is highlighted, as well as elements of spatial variability indicating the importance of expressing intimacy within burial practice. The results of this data are here suggested to imply that heavy concern with gender in mainstream discussions of Neolithic identities may indeed be misplaced. 

1455 – Needle in a Haystack: Finding Gender in the British Neolithic

Danny Shaw, University York

Gender is a complex concept and often a key element of identity. The systems of gender that are in place within any given group are much dependent upon many cultural, social, political, and even religious or ritualistic factors. In many societies and cultures both past and present biological sex is seemingly a significant component in the construction of gender, although many other factors may also be important. For many historic societies, a good understanding of how gender manifested itself can be gained through the analysis of primary written sources and archaeological investigations. However, for prehistoric societies this is not possible and inferences regarding gender solely rely upon the archaeological record. Theoretical paradigms regarding gender for prehistoric societies very much rely upon the notion of biological sex being a key contributor to the construction of it. This is particularly the case for funerary archaeology with differences in burial practices, health, diet, and mobility between males and females often being important focusses of research. However, the ways in which certain prehistoric groups treated their deceased means that this is not always straightforward to achieve. For example, if funerary contexts are commingled and disarticulated recognising divergences between the biological sexes can be difficult to ascertain.

Using the British Neolithic as a case study, this paper aims to present a methodology for recognising subtle differences between males and females within a funerary record where obvious divergences are not present. By assessing demographic representation at funerary sites and the health and lifeways of individuals variances between males and females can be established. Also, by considering the funerary record as a whole, distinctions between males and females can be observed chronologically, regionally, at different site types, and for different mortuary practices. The data generated through this comparative analysis is used to infer new theoretical paradigms regarding gender and how important a feature biological sex was in its construction.

1510 – Single burial traditions and identity in Neolithic Britain and Ireland

Eleanor Harrison, Newcastle University

Much of the attention devoted to funerary contexts in the archaeological record of Neolithic Britain and Ireland has focused on communal burial monuments, particularly the chambered tombs of southern Britain and passage tombs of Northern Scotland and Ireland. Recent work has also highlighted the range of burial practices present throughout the Neolithic in the region, including cremation, cave burial and the deposition of disarticulated remains at causewayed enclosure sites. Individual burial of unburnt bodies, however, remains under-investigated.

Single burials of individuals or pairs in flat graves, pits, cists and monuments, sometimes accompanied by grave goods, are surprisingly common, with 135 examples currently included in this research. These burials primarily date to the Early to Middle Neolithic, though some examples have produced radiocarbon dates into the Late Neolithic. These burials have not been considered in great detail, nor have they been discussed together as a tradition, or group of traditions.

This study applies an intersectional approach to past identities to the single burial tradition(s) of Britain and Ireland, hoping to join the body of work revitalising discussions of gender, alongside age and kinship. Traditional archaeological approaches will be combined with isotope and aDNA data to investigate how the identity or lived experience of an individual, may have led to the selection of a particular burial rite after their death. In this paper I will discuss this approach and outline some early results of my research, including chronological and regional patterns in the age/sex profiles of the identified burials.

The project is funded by the Northern Bridge Consortium Doctoral Training Partnership and is supervised by Dr Chris Fowler (Newcastle), Dr Lisa-Marie Shillito (Newcastle) and Prof. Janet Montgomery (Durham).

1525 – Strictly binary? Gendered funerary patterns in Early Bronze Age Central Europe

Dr. Katharina Rebay-Salisbury, Austrian Archaeological Institute — Prehistory, Austrian Academy of Sciences

Gendered burial practices that differentiate between men and women by the way the body was placed were used over large parts of Central Europe in the Late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age (c. 2900−1600 BC). Most recently, it has been confirmed that sex-based differentiation of bodies was extended to children via the identification of sex-specific peptides in dental enamel from the Early Bronze Age cemetery Franzhausen I, Austria. The sex of the children corresponds to the gendered body position in 98.4 % of cases. In adults, a comparison between morphological sex estimation and gendered burial position similarly shows that they map very closely to a strictly binary, male – female understanding of gender. This paper will explain how Bronze Age people classified bodies and reacted to them in the funerary space, as well as take a closer look at the burials in which the gendered sidedness and orientation are not internally consistent with the male or female pattern.

1540 – Break

1600 – Method (Iron Age Europe) 1990-2021

Rachel Pope, University of Liverpool

By contrast – as British studies have at large continued to struggle to understand past societies beyond old Colonial notions (hierarchy, patriarchy, heteronormativity) – elsewhere in Europe, modern scientific thinking has been developing at pace. Britain, held back by conservative post-war thinking, saw early gender archaeology marginalised: the preserve of women scholars. Meanwhile on the Continent, gender archaeology has been mainstream practice since the early 1990s. With a focus on the development of method, this paper isolates trends in the gender archaeology of European Iron Age studies over the last thirty years: I. sex and status, II. alternative genders, and III. gendered behaviours. The aim, to help British thinking catch up.

1615 – Mother tongues: exploring sex bias in genetically-attested migrations in prehistoric Europe

Lindsey Büster, Canterbury Christ Church University/University of York and Ian Armit, University of York

Recent large-scale ancient DNA studies have transformed our understandings of past population dynamics and, coupled with multi-proxy approaches such as stable isotope analysis, provide us with new insights into movement and mobility at a number of scales. Particularly striking has been the significance of population movement as a vector of cultural change. For many, this realisation carries uncomfortable echoes of early twentieth century archaeology, when migration, often implicitly presented as violent colonisation by a dominant group, was too easily invoked as the primary driver of change. Migration, however, as we can see from the world today, takes many forms, and can be a long-term process rather than a single event. Movement can be voluntary or forced, and is often undertaken by desperate or marginalised individuals and groups. Migratory pressures are also typically bound up with issues of age, class and gender. Indeed, recent aDNA analyses have demonstrated the major role of female mobility in Neolithic and Bronze Age societies. Traditional interpretations of prehistoric mobility have tended to focus on long-distance, male-dominated networks, but—drawing on the results of recent work on the Middle–Late Bronze Age in southern Britain—this paper argues that female mobility was crucial in instigating significant changes in language and culture. While the large-scale movement of women does not necessarily negate the presence of male-dominated power structures, it forces us to consider the lived realities of these migrants and the ways in which their own agency transformed their host communities from the inside out.

1630 – Gender and Status in Life and Death: An Investigation of Iron Age Burial Practices in Wessex and Yorkshire

Issy Gooch, University of York

The burial record of Iron Age Britain is characterised by an apparent underrepresentation of burial evidence, as well as regional variation amongst the studied burials. The regions of Wessex and Yorkshire have the best preserved, clearly identifiable burial traditions of the Early Iron Age and Middle Iron Age periods. British Iron Age studies traditionally suffer from interpretations which interpret communities as regionally distinct tribal groups structured around hierarchical and status based patriarchies. These interpretations imply that gender is the primary constructing feature of identity and status in prehistoric individuals and seeks to naturalise gender roles within society. Recent studies in prehistoric archaeology have advocated for a reconsideration of gender in mortuary contexts. This paper contributes to this developing scholarship, seeking to move beyond traditional restrictive frameworks by taking an intersectional approach to interpretation of burial evidence from Yorkshire and Wessex. By collating burial data to identify patterns related to gender and status marking in funerary treatment, this paper discusses a series of case studies, and concludes that intersecting aspects of identity influence funerary treatment during the Iron Age.

1645 – Dividuality in Death: Gender and the Performing Corpse in Iron Age Central Italy

George Prew, University of Glasgow

Discussions of death and funerary practice in the ancient world often assume the importance of gender. In Iron Age Italy, the gender identities of corpses have been key to the use of graves in providing information about social organisation, usually resulting in narratives focused disproportionately on elevated men in richly-furnished ‘princely’. However, gender is a performance which must be continually enacted and re-enacted, and this is especially true in the funeral, where the individual body is deconstructed and reconstructed into a social body, an icon through which a community’s understanding of itself can be constructed, mediated, and negotiated. Through new sensory and material analyses of around 1,400 published graves from sites across central Italy (Osteria dell’Osa in Latium; Fossa and Bazzano in the Abruzzo), this paper presents new insights into the construction and place of gender in Iron Age central Italic societies, as well as frameworks for gender study in tombs throughout history and prehistory.

Sensory, material, categorical, and associative analyses of dressed bodies in graves provide multiple lenses through which to build a composite picture of the deceased, their constructed identity in the grave, and the communities in which they lived. Osteological estimations of sex applied to the patterns that emerge from these graves then allow a picture to emerge of the place of gender alongside and incorporating intersectional study of apparent age, social class, and other reconstructable identity markers. By applying these methods to cemeteries across early Iron Age central Italy, new conclusions and greater nuance can emerge to nuance a binary approach to gender in Iron Age central Italy. Osteologically-visible sex then emerges as an integral part of funerary identity without having to rely on assumptions of gender and gender hierarchy in these communities.

1700 – “Nothing left to recall her to us”: Grief, Masculinity and the Material

Kate Morris, University of York

Bereavement in the nineteenth century was a sharply gendered experience, with women bearing the brunt of expectation in regards to extended performative mourning. Much of the material culture of mourning is therefore heavily associated with femininity, however, many men wrote eloquently of their experiences with loss and bereavement, and their use of objects as focuses for their grief. Drawing on case studies from the period, this paper focuses on the lack of material culture evidence centred around masculine grief, and considers how the lack of an explicit material culture associated with masculine bereavement may have affected the way men chose and utilised grief objects. 

1715 – Discussion

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