Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Feminist Archaeology versus the Goddess Movement

If you have any familiarity with modern Paganism, especially if you are a woman, then you are probably also familiar with the Goddess Movement. You would be aware of all those wonderful ancient figurines interpreted as Goddesses, and would probably have heard that human societies the world over used to be matriarchal until they were taken over by patriarchal warlords about five thousand years ago. You may not be aware however, that there are problems with the utilisation of archaeology within this scenario and that feminist archaeologists and feminist Goddess Worshippers are not in agreement about the past.

Both Feminist Archaeology and the contemporary Goddess Movement seek to discover women’s lives, roles and status in the past, but for different reasons and with varying degrees of plausibility in their methods and interpretations. This article looks at the way the interpretation of the past is approached by feminist archaeologists and by Goddess Movement participants. A brief explanation of feminism precedes a description of feminist archaeology. This is followed by a portrait of the Goddess Movement and its relationship to archaeology, in particular the Anatolian site of Çatalhöyük. A critique of the Goddess Movement’s claim to be feminist leads to the conclusion that the past should not be distorted to promote political issues in the present.

Feminism is characterised by a political commitment to change existing power relations between men and women and is understood to have developed in three “waves”. “First wave” feminism refers to the suffrage movements of roughly between 1880–1920, devoted to the public emancipation of women, and can be aligned with “liberal feminism” which focused on winning women the same rights as men: to pursue and succeed within a full range of careers, to combine work with childbearing and to have full legal rights.

“Second wave” feminism emerged in the late 1960’s, concentrated on personal issues of equality and was linked with concern for identifying the root causes of women’s oppression. “Radical feminism”, part of the second wave and derived from the New Left movements, did not agree with the liberal feminist agenda of merely slotting women into what they considered the corrupt system of late capitalism. Oppression of women would not be cured by admitting them into the ranks of the powerful because that did not challenge the foundations upon which the system was built. Also derived from the “second wave” is “cultural feminism” or “difference feminism”, which promotes the idea that there is an essential difference between women and men. Cultural feminists believe in an essential “feminine” nature that is peaceful, harmonious and beneficent, better than masculinity, and the preferable alternative to be followed in creating a new social order.

The “third wave” of feminism emerged in the 1990’s and was influenced by post-modernism. It rejects the idea of an essential character or experience which typifies men or women, and incorporates greater pluralism of approaches to the investigation of gender difference. The emphasis is on differences between men and women of different sexualities, ethnicities or social classes. Postmodernist feminism is concerned with examining the creation of subjectivity through approaches like psychoanalysis, discourse analysis or deconstruction and is conscious of cultural relativism. The contrasting concerns between second and third wave feminism have been considered to be a paradigm shift within feminism.

Feminist Archaeology
As part of second wave feminism, academics examined the ways in which inequalities and male bias impacted their disciplines with critiques of androcentrism in history, anthropology, primatology and the natural sciences. Feminist archaeology uses feminist critique as the basis for archaeological work and is concerned with critiquing androcentrism, highlighting the careers of women archaeologists of the past, exposing inequalities for women archaeologists today, the gendered aspects of field work, recovering women in the archaeology of past societies, re-examining naturalised assumptions about gender relations such as “essentialism”, and experimentation regarding the communication of archaeology, for example through storytelling or use of the internet.

A concentration on large structures like government, monumental architecture and warfare is replaced by a focus on the everyday people of prehistory and the social dynamics of day-to-day prehistoric life – activities that, according to Gero and Conkey:

“comprise most of the hours of prehistoric time for most of the people, and that account for the greatest accumulation of materials in the archaeological record: ceramic and lithic production in residential contexts, gardening, procuring, producing and distributing food, producing everyday items from common raw materials, burying the dead, constructing, modifying and burning their domiciles.”

Feminist archaeology seeks to problematise underlying assumptions about gender and difference. It rejects an object/subject polarity, resists authoritative and hierarchical texts that situate authors in unassailable positions of authority over readers, seeks along with Post-Processualism to be multivocal and supports the claim that there is neither a single past, nor should there exist a single authoritative account of what the past should be.

According to feminist archaeology, sex and gender are not just basic structures of society but are integrated aspects of our subjectivities and therefore explicit influences on all dimensions of how we, as individuals, organise and experience life, including what it means to be a woman. In short, as Alison Wylie says, “standpoint matters”. A feminist approach to archaeology is important because it exposes and counteracts a tendency toward androcentrism. In the past archaeology has been told to us from a male perspective that adopted “male” as the norm and proceeded from the male experience while the contribution of women lay hidden.

However, gender biases are not rectified simply by replacing men with women in an “add women and stir” approach. The existing frameworks of inquiry that themselves have been derived from intellectual traditions and practices that are either insensitive to gender, androcentric or sexist need to be challenged. A feminist approach attempts to overturn disciplinary paradigms. Potential disadvantages of a feminist approach to archaeology would be a tendency to fall into notions of “essentialism”, to promote a reverse sexism, to settle for an “add women and stir” approach, to be uncritical, to jump to conclusions or give in to wishful thinking.

The Goddess Movement and Archaeology
Whilst there has been a growing awareness in academia of the importance of analysing sex and gender and of applying feminist theory to other disciplines such as archaeology, in the popular realm there has been a simultaneous increase of interest in the role of women in the past. This popular movement is generally subsumed under the umbrella description, the “Goddess Movement”, and its proponents are primarily non-archaeologists – they are artists, psychotherapists, amateur historians, novelists and general enthusiasts. The Goddess Movement’s relevance to archaeology is that it frequently uses archaeological material, especially female figurines or statuettes from the European Upper Paleolithic and Neolithic periods (ca. 30,000–5,000 years ago), to back up its claims. These objects are believed to represent different “aspects” of one “Great Goddess” and are used as material and symbolic evidence for the existence of a world in which women had status and power equal to or higher than men, despite the many criticisms of this interpretation for figurines and the fact that the presence of goddesses in a society does not equate to a high status for human women.

While many authors in disciplines such as anthropology, classics, psychoanalysis, art history and even archaeologists promoted the theory of a Goddess-worshipping matriarchal prehistory, the two figures most relevant to this discussion are James Mellaart, the first excavator of the Anatolian site of Çatalhöyük in Turkey, and Marija Gimbutas, excavator of southern European sites such as Achilleon in Thessaly, whose popularly-written publications, both of which stressed the importance of a Goddess, are used as authoritative accounts of prehistory by members of the women’s spirituality movement. Both Mellaart’s and Gimbutas’s methods of interpreting archaeological material were products of their time and are now considered to be outdated. Both made assumptions regarding ancient cult that were not warranted from the archaeological material.

In Mellaart’s case, he assumed that he had excavated a “priestly quarter” at Çatalhöyük, based on the prevalence of artwork on the walls of the buildings which he interpreted as religious. Stone and ceramic figurines were interpreted as depicting a “goddess of fertility and abundance” and skeletons found within the buildings were said to be “priestesses”. Bucrania decorating the walls of some of the buildings were interpreted as representations of a male deity, however many Goddess Movement aficionados – for whom Çatalhöyük is the most important archaeological site – prefer Dorothy Cameron’s (an artist who worked on Mellaart’s archaeological team) interpretation of the bull’s heads as representing women’s reproductive organs.

Marija Gimbutas’s sanctioned Mellaart’s interpretation of Çatalhöyük. A popularist who mixed mythology, folklore, linguistics, religion and archaeology in her approach to the past, Gimbutas has been tremendously influential in spreading the idea that ancient Goddess-worshipping matriarchies have been archaeologically “proven”. Far from being “feminist” however, her approach was steeped within the outdated “establishment” epistemological framework of polar opposites, rigid gender roles, barbarian invaders, cultural stages and was even sexist. Gimbutas’ method of argument was by assertion and her interpretations were presented in an authoritarian way in which the process of inference, from artefact to interpretation, were not made explicit.

New excavations at Çatalhöyük, conducted under the auspices of Ian Hodder, have revealed that the buildings Mellaart excavated were not so dissimilar to other buildings at the site that they justified the interpretation of a specific “priestly quarter”, let alone were evidence of a monotheistic religion of a “Great Goddess.” Evidence for matriarchal rule at Çatalhöyük has also come up wanting. Evidence concerning the diets of men and women derived from skeletons, which could have shown whether one group ate better than the other, showed no difference between men and women and analysis on the wear of bone joints seems to indicate that men and women carried out similar tasks.
On the Çatalhöyük website, in the Library there is a dialogue between Goddess Movement spokesperson, Anita Louise and Ian Hodder. Hodder explains a possible method of exploring whether society at Çatalhöyük was matrilineal:

“This is to use DNA analysis of the ancient bones found beneath the house floors. The houses are built on top of each other in a long sequence and we assume that the same family inhabited the same house as it was rebuilt over many centuries. If the society is matrifocal we would expect the DNA to show that daughters of daughters of daughters were buried in a house sequence. If the society is patrilocal we would expect the sons of sons of sons to be buried there, with women marrying in from other families.”

I emailed the Çatalhöyük forum (I emailed in 2005, the forum does not seem to exist anymore) asking about results from this investigation. Hodder replied:

“Caroline - we have had quite a lot of research on the DNA. Two labs have had a go, but it turned out that there was very little DNA left in the bones so we couldn't look at the questions we wanted and that I mentioned in my response to Anita Louise. The DNA research has been published recently in Vol. 4 of the BIAA/McDonald volumes. Sorry that I cannot be more helpful - I would like to support more DNA work but it would be very expensive. Ian Hodder.”

Although the art of Çatalhöyük may indicate an association between men, hunting and wild animals, and between women and plants and agriculture, current evidence indicates neither a patriarchy nor a matriarchy, but possibly a society in which gender did not rigidly determine one’s role in life.

Despite the results from the current excavations being easily accessible to the public on the Çatalhöyük website, in general, Goddess Movement participants have willfully stuck to Mellaart’s interpretation of the site – steadfastly ignoring the more modern research – because it fits better with what they want to believe about women’s powerful role in the past. Theoretically, the post-processual approach being applied at Çatalhöyük which supposedly welcomes a plurality of positions and provides a forum for other groups who have a vested interest in the site should mean that the Goddess Movement’s interpretations of the site are given validity. However, as Lyn Meskell says, in this case “…plurality and multivocality are not easily achieved without some loss of integrity, since we know that not all pasts are equal.”

Is the Goddess Movement Feminist?
The Goddess Movement’s use of archaeological data to interpret the past is incompatible with the methods used by feminist archaeologists. The Goddess Movement favours an authoritative, totalising account of “the past” designed to implant a type of “Goddess ideology” within the minds of its audience. Gender roles are set and fixed in terms of a male/female bipolarity which impedes the possibility of interpreting any other types of gender. The Goddess Movement’s supposedly “feminist” version of the past is not any different to an androcentric interpretation of women’s place in the past, except that the dominance of the sexes is reversed. Women are still characterised by their reproductive role, but now it is held in high regard. This version of the past fails to challenge the present, or to encourage reconsideration of the dominant epistemologies of inequality and difference. The Goddess Movement’s use of the past is political in that it seeks historical authority for the women’s movement. The narratives it tells are concerned with resistance to, and emancipation from, contemporary conditions and tell us more about the present than the past. Çatalhöyük is used as a utopian model, an explanative story, and a template for change.

Archaeology relies for its intellectual credibility on being able to distinguish good from bad interpretations of the past. A feminist approach calls for rigorous, yet cautious, interpretations of the past to counter unsubstantiated readings of women’s roles in the past performed by non-specialist popularisers who have an ideological agenda to promote. Conkey and Tringham believe that: “a definitive interpretation [of the past], even if it is alternative and gynocentric, does not provide empowerment and liberation from the controlling narratives and practices of androcentric scholarship and cultural logics.”

Instead, they suggest, ambiguity ought to be embraced because it allows:

“the possibilities for reconfiguring and renegotiating meanings, including what constitutes evidence. How can we open up, not shut down the interpretive possibilities?… The recognition of ambiguity mandates necessary dialogues: between alternative accounts of the empirical evidences and among the interpreter, the interpretation and the audiences.”

One can hardly blame women for getting excited about what seem to be important, often majestic-looking, ancient female images such as figurines. Their evocative aesthetic qualities cannot be denied – both for women who have had their “consciousness raised” within the women’s spirituality movement, as well as for archaeologists working within academia. What is necessary however, is to attempt to “tell the truth” about the past – as much as is possible – or at least not to persist with telling comforting lies. This is why a self-reflexive, academic feminist approach to interpreting the past is far more likely to result in feasible depictions regarding women’s roles in past societies – even if they are not particularly pleasant, comforting or empowering scenarios – than the “feel good” popular approaches based on wishful thinking that are rife within the Goddess Movement.

Catalhoyuk website
Conkey, M.W. and Gero, J.W. (1991) “Tensions, Pluralities, and Engendering Archaeology: An Introduction to Women and Prehistory,” in Conkey, M.W and Gero, J.M. (eds) Engendering Archaeology: Women and Prehistory. Blackwell. Oxford.
__________ and Tringham, R.E. (1995) “Archaeology and the Goddess: Exploring the Contours of Feminist Archaeology” in D.C. Stanton and A.J. Stewart (eds). Feminisms in the Academy. University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor. Pp. 199-247.
Eller, C. (2000) The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory: Why an Invented Past Won’t Give Women a Future. Beacon. Boston.
Gilchrist, R. (1999). Gender and Archaeology: Contesting the Past. Routledge. London.
_________ (2004) “Archaeology of the Life Course,” in Meskell, L. and Preucel, R.W. (eds). A Companion to Social Archaeology. Blackwell. Malden. Pp.156-157. N.1.
Gimbutas, M. (1974b; 1982 edition) The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe, 6500-3500 BC, Myths and Cult Images. University of California Press. Berkeley.
__________ (1991) The Civilization of the Goddess. Harper San Francisco. New York.
__________ (1999) The Living Goddess. University of California Press. Berkeley.
Goodison, L. and Morris, C. (1998). Ancient Goddesses: The Myths and the Evidence. University of Wisconsin Press. Madison.
Hamilton, N. (1996) “Figurines, Clay Balls, Small Finds and Burials,” in Hodder. I. (ed) On the Surface: Catalhoyuk 1993-95. McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research. British Institute of Archaeology at Ankara. Cambridge. Pp.215-263
__________; Marcus, J; Bailey, D; Haaland, G and R; Ucko, P. (1996) “Can We Interpret Figurines?”Cambridge Archaeological Journal. Vol. 6: 2. Pp.281-307.
__________ (2000). “The Conceptual Archive and the Challenge of Gender, “ in Hodder. I. (ed) Towards Reflexive Method in Archaeology: The Example at Catalhoyuk. McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research. British Institute of Archaeology at Ankara. Cambridge. Pp.95-99.
Hayden, B. (1998) “An Archaeological Evaluation of the Gimbutas Paradigm,” The Pomegranate (6). Pp.35-47.
Hodder. I. (ed) (1996). On the Surface: Catalhoyuk 1993-95. McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research. British Institute of Archaeology at Ankara. Cambridge.
________ (ed). (2000) Towards a reflexive method in archaeology: the example at Catalhoyuk. McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research. British Institute of Archaeology at Ankara. Cambridge.
_________ and Louise, A. “Discussions with the Goddess Community,”
________ (2005). “Women and Men at Catalhoyuk,” in Scientific American. Vol.15. No.1. Pp.35-41.
Johnson, M. (1999) “Archaeology and Gender,” in Archaeological Theory. Blackwell. Malden. Pp.116-131.
Marler, J. (1999). “A Response to Brian Hayden’s Article: “An Archaeological Evaluation of the Gimbutas Paradigm,” The Pomegranate (10). Pp. 37-47.
Mellaart, J. (1964) Excavations at Catal Huyuk, first preliminary report, 1961. Anatolian Studies 12: 57.
________ (1967) Catal Huyuk: A Neolithic Town in Anatolia. Thames and Hudson, London.
Meskell, L. (1995). “Goddesses, Gimbutas and ‘New Age’ Archaeology,” Antiquity 69 (262). Pp. 74-86.
________ (1998) “Twin Peaks: The Archaeologies at Catalhoyuk,” in Goodison, L. and Morris, C. Ancient Goddesses: The Myths and the Evidence. University of Wisconsin Press. Madison. Pp. 46-62.
________ (1999) “Feminism, Paganism, Pluralism”. In A. Gazin-Schwartz and C.J. Holtorf (eds) Archaeology and Folklore. Routledge, London. Pp.83-89.
Renfrew, C and Bahn, P. (2000) Archaeology: Theories Methods and Practice. (third edition) Thames and Hudson. London.
Sorensen, M.L.S. (2005) “Feminist Archaeology,” in Renfrew, C and Bahn, P. (eds) Archaeology: The Key Concepts. Routledge. London. Pp.116-121.
Spector, J. (1991) “What this Awl Means: Toward a Feminist Archaeology,” in Gero, J.M and Conkey, M.W. (eds) Engendering Archaeology: Women and Prehistory. Blackwell. Oxford. Pp.388-406.
Tringham, R. (1991) “Households with Faces: The Challenge of Gender in Prehistoric Remains,” in Gero, J.M and Conkey, M.W. (eds) Engendering Archaeology: Women and Prehistory. Blackwell. Oxford. Pp.93-131.
Ucko, P.J. (1968). Anthropomorphic Figurines. Andrew Smidzla. London.
Wylie, A. (1997). “Good Science, Bad Science or Science as Usual? Feminist Critiques of Science,” in L.D Hagar. (ed) Women in Human Evolution. Routledge. London.

Further Reading
Andersson, P. (2003) “Holy Place or Wor… and Working Place: The Challenges of Multivocality in the Meeting of Science and Religion at Catalhoyuk Today,” Catalhoyuk 2003 Archive Report.
Balter, M. (2005). The Goddess and the Bull. Free Press.New York.
Brown, S. (1997) ‘“Ways of Seeing” Women in Antiquity: An Introduction to Feminism in Classical Archaeology and Ancient Art History,” in Koloski-Ostrow, A.O. and Lyons, C.L. Naked Truths: Women Sexuality and Gender in Classical Art and Archaeology. Routledge. London. Pp.12-42
Engelstad, E. (1991). “Images of Power and Contradiction: Feminist Theory and Post-Processual Archaeology,” Antiquity 65. (248): 502-14.
Gadon, E. (1989). The Once and Future Goddess. The Aquarian Press. Wellingborough.
Georgoudi, S. (1992) “Creating a Myth of Matriarchy,” in Duby, G; Perrot, M and Pantel, P. (eds) A History of Women in the West: From Ancient Goddesses to Christian Saints. Bellknap. Cambridge. Pp. 449-463.
Gilchrist, R. (1991). “Women’s Archaeology? Political Feminism, Gender Theory and Historical Revision,” in Antiquity 65: 495-501.
Hodder, I. and Hutson, S. (2003). “Embodied Archaeology,” in Reading the Past. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge. Pp. 106-124.
Hutton, R. (1997) (abridged version) “The Neolithic Great Goddess: A Study in Modern Tradition,” The Pomegranate (2). Pp.23-35
Keller, M. (1998) “The Interface of Archaeology and Mythology: A Philosophical Evaluation of the Gimbutas Paradigm,” The Pomegranate (5). Pp. 17-35.
Mellaart, J. (1975) The Neolithic of the Near East. Thames and Hudson. London.
Nelson, S.M. (1997) Gender in Archaeology: Analyzing Power and Prestige. Alta Mira Press. Walnut Creek.
Rautman, A and Talalay, L. (1997). “Diverse Approaches to the Study of Archaeology,” Rautman, A.E. (ed). (2000) Reading the Body. University of Pennsylvania Press. Philadelphia. Pp 1-11.
Rountree, K. (2002) “Goddess Pilgrims as Tourists: Inscribing the Body Through Sacred Travel,” Sociology of Religion. Winter 2002.
Rountree, K. (2003) “Reflexivity in Practice,” Catalhoyuk 2003 Archive Report.
Sorensen, M.L.S. (2000) Gender Archaeology. Polity. Cambridge.
Stanford Figurines Project
Thomas, P. (2004) “Re-Imagining Inanna: The Gendered Re-appropriation of the Ancient Goddess in Modern Goddess Worship,” The Pomegranate (6.1). pp. 53-69.
Wylie, A. (1992) “The Interplay of Evidential Constraints and Political Interests: Recent Archaeological Research on Gender,” American Antiquity, Vol. 57, No.1. pp. 15-35.
Wylie, A. (2002) Thinking from things: essays in the philosophy of archaeology. University of California Press. Berkeley.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Cetus the Whale

 Well, here in the southern hemisphere we've just had Australian Beltane (although the non-Pagans thought it was "Halloween"). So what did I do on this night (besides tie up my front gate with string to keep the "trick or treaters" from knocking on the door, because last year they tore the wire screen, so insistent were they on forcing us to acknowledge them), I went to a play The Room of Regret, which is basically a re-telling of Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray, with my good chum, and then we went to The George. Why am I telling you this? Mainly because I already have an entry on Australian Beltane, the link to which is above. So I didn't want to repeat myself in that regard. Obviously I didn't do anything in like what I've got in that post this Beltane though... Another reason for this post is because now that this blog is being archived (see the post below), I had better start supplying some more copy. Stay tuned for a post on my PhD research topic: Tree Cult in Minoan glyptic. Obscure topic? Wait and see?

Friday, November 1, 2013

Necropolis Now archived by the National Library of Australia

On the 1st August 2013 I received an email from the National Library of Australia explaining how they aim to build a comprehensive collection of Australian publications to ensure that Australians have access to their documentary heritage now and in the future. As the email exaplined, PANDORA, Australia's Web Archive, was set up by the Library in 1996 to enable the archiving and provision of long-term access to online Australian publications. Since then they have been identifying and archiving online publications that meet their collecting scope and priorities.

They then said that they would like to include the on-line publications of Necropolis Now in the PANDORA Archive!!! So that meant that I had to decide whether I wanted to grant the Library licence under the Copyright Act 1968, to copy my publications into the Archive and to provide online public access to them via the Internet. If so, this meant that I would grant the Library permission to retain my publications in the Archive and to provide public access to them in perpetuity. They would re-archive my publication periodically to record significant additions and changes.

The benefits to me in having my publications archived by the Library are that the Library will take the necessary preservation action to keep my publications accessible as hardware and software changes over time. The Library will catalogue my publications and add the records to the National Bibliographic Database (a database of catalogue records shared by over 5,200 Australian libraries), as well as to their own online catalogue. This will increase awareness of my publications among researchers using libraries.

So of course how could I say no to that?

So, Necropolis Now is archived in PANDORA. Now I just need to work out how to add the PANDORA logo to the sidebar of my site, as a fellow blogger has done here. I'm such a Luddite, I just don't know how to do it.