The rise of ancient woman

Women in Ancient America
September 8, 2000

Gender has exploded as a topic of research in archaeology over the past decade. The general audience towards which this book is directed may have little knowledge of this research. For such readers, and for undergraduate students, the book offers a doorway into a burgeoning primary literature. For casual readers, it should counter any lingering belief that there is no way to talk about the roles of women and men in the past through its many examples of studies that address new questions with traditional archaeological methods and materials. It is to be hoped that more motivated readers will be able to overcome barriers introduced by the lack of precise citation and find their way to the original studies.

The authors faced a monumental task in compiling such a precis of current research on gender in the ancient Americas. Their scope ranges from the earliest peopling of the hemisphere to the period of European colonisation,throughout North, Central and South America. Because the research they summarise has been conducted by many people with different research agendas, it would have been impossible to present coherent accounts with comparable information for each area. The book begins in the almost inevitable chronological mode that predominates in archaeological writing, with chapters on the early periods preceding settled village life. But for the remaining seven chapters, the authors wisely employ a topical strategy, describing research on women's roles in food production, households, economic production and specialisation, religion, politics, and war. This allows them to highlight results and to avoid the trap of bemoaning gaps in knowledge.

The authors argue that investigating women's activities is no more difficult than the traditionally unquestioned norm of examining the male experience. They show that when efforts are made to ask questions about women's and men's activities, better archaeological explanations can be produced. While these explanations do not provide support for new myths of a matriarchal past, they do illustrate that in all ancient American societies some routes existed for women to control their lives, achieve social distinction and participate in valued activities.

Perhaps because of its loose construction as a series of many short segments relating results of work undertaken for the most part by others, the authorial perspective is sometimes uneven, although the fact that both authors have conducted research in Ecuador means that discussions and examples from this country are particularly satisfying. In contrast, short asides concerning methodology, for example approaches to identification of the sex of ancient workers, sometimes contradict assumptions made by the authors of the original studies paraphrased in other sections. While a predictable outcome of summarising research by archaeologists from different schools of thought, this uneven tone may cause some unease in the general reader, as methods described in one section are explicitly questioned in another.

For this reason, it is unfortunate that the book employs citation practices that impede the identification of the actual sources of interpretations represented. There are no citations in the main body of the text. Specific scholars are mentioned in some chapters, but not consistently. A bibliographical essay at the end of the book discusses selected references for each chapter, but many statements are undocumented.The bibliography includes a wider range of literature. But those not already familiar with the works may find it difficult to identify specific sources for interpretations not directly associated with authors named in the text or mentioned in the reference essay. A persistent reader will be amply repaid for effort expended in tracing the ideas to their origins.

Rosemary A. Joyce is associate professor of anthropology, University of California, Berkeley, United States.

Women in Ancient America

Author - Karen Olsen Bruhns and Karen E. Stothert
ISBN - 0 8061 3169 1
Publisher - University of Oklahoma Press
Price - $34.95
Pages - 343

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