Gender Culture is a Violent Culture: On Archaeology, Gender and Violence

What can we learn from the intersection between archaeology, gender, and violence? UROŠ MATIĆ explores gender as a form of symbolic violence, and shows why the archaeology of gender and violence extends far beyond its most direct and subjective form of violent acts.

gender and violence female gladiators
Figure 1. Marble relief with female gladiators, 1st-2nd century AD, from Halicarnassus (modern Bodrum, Turkey), British Museum. [Photo: Butko/Wikimedia Commons]
Discussions in the field of gender archaeology are rich and complex. One of those discussions is about gender as a form of symbolic violence. To say that gender is violent does not imply the notion of some genders being more violent than others. Quite simply, a gender archaeology which would deal with violence by identifying warrior women in the past would miss the point of violence being much more symbolic and structural. This of course does not mean that gender archaeology should not study warrior women, it simply means that violence lurks deeper than its most direct subjective form.

Intersection of archaeology, gender and violence  implies studying how gendered lives, identities and systems are structured, maintained or questioned with use of violence, either physical or symbolic and structural, and how this can be recognised in material remains of the past. One would at first think that such a project is from the start sentenced to fail, because archaeologists usually do not work with live informants and are restricted to archaeological remains in the more narrow sense, sometimes to images, and more rarely to textual sources as additional study material. Nothing can demonstrate the potential of such a project than some examples.

“He is looking at bowmen (Nubians) like women”: Feminisation of Enemies in New Kingdom Egypt

For my doctoral dissertation I chose to deal with violent treatments of enemies and prisoners of war in ancient Egypt during the New Kingdom (c. 1550-1077 BC). My study dealt with primarily visual and textual sources. Only some contexts are argued to be archaeological remains of violent acts committed on bodies of prisoners of war. However, ethnic attributions of the skeletal remains in these contexts are questionable. During the writing of my dissertation, following contributions of other scholars such as David O’Connor and Anthony J. Spalinger, I decided to explore gender aspects in New Kingdom Egyptian representation of enemies. Although one can argue that all enemies are depicted as weak compared to Egyptian soldiers and their king, some of them are explicitly gendered as women-like. This is confirmed by textual sources, as in the case of king Ramesses III about whom it is stated in an inscription accompanying the representation of his battle with the Nubians in Medinet Habu: “He is looking at bowmen (Nubians) like women”. Indeed, as already known from some earlier sources such as the Semna boundary stela of Sesostris III (12th dynasty, Middle Kingdom), Nubians are described as ‘back-turners’. When one looks at the representations of battles with the Nubians from the New Kingdom it is clear that they are depicted running away from the pharaoh with their backs turned. Egyptian soldiers do not even have to be present on the battlefield. On the walls of New Kingdom Egyptian temples Derr and Beit el-Wali of Ramesses II, Nubians are depicted running back to their villages.

gender and violence
Figure 2. Beit el Wali/South; Forecourt, south wall, eastern half, detail (redrawn after WRESZINSKI 1935, pls. 165, 166).

There they are awaited by women and children. However, the Nubian boys and women are depicted in gestures of mourning reserved primarily in New Kingdom Egyptian iconography to women although some cases of mourning men are known. The gesture of holding the palm of the hand on the forehead is in fact more common in female mourners. Thus, not only is the king looking at Nubians like women, but the Nubians themselves, like their offspring, look like frightened women. Therefore, representations of violence are used to privilege certain ethnic groups as more masculine in war than others. Gender is used as a representational strategy to enhance masculinity of Egyptian soldiers by attributing femininity to enemies.

gender and violence
Figure 3. Derr/West; First columned hall, west wall, lower register, first scene from the south, detail (redrawn after WRESZINSKI 1935, pl. 168a).

Considering that Libyans are also feminized in textual sources referring to them in military contexts, as shown by David O’Connor, I also took into account the possibility that the New Kingdom Egyptian practice of cutting of penises of Libyan enemies as known from textual/visual sources (Athribis stela of Merenptah, Karnak temple inscriptions, Medinet Habu temple inscriptions and reliefs) is more than astrategy for an accurate count of defeated or mutilated enemies. When depicted attached to the bodiesof Libyan enemies in Egyptian visual representations of war, penises of Libyans are flaccid, they are everything but a powerful and erect penis highly valued in many ancient Egyptian social contexts. One thinks of the New Kingdom Egyptian Tale of Two Brothers in which Bata cuts off his penis in order to convince his brother that he did not sleep with his wife. After having to protect his own wife later in the story he says to her that he is a woman like her. Bearing this in mind, and the above mentioned discursive feminization of enemies, one can say that cutting of penises of Libyan enemies could have also been understood as their reduction to women-like. Of course, we do not have archaeological remains of cut off penises, but there is nothing indicating that the practice was not existing. Here actual physical violence against one gender is enforced by already existing symbolic violence, a gender system in which enemy’s body is discursively feminized.


More to come

gender and violenceThus, as Slavoj Žižek wrote in his book Violence: Six Sideways Reflections (New York: Picador, 2008) dealing with subjective and objective violence, acts of physical violence are just tip of the iceberg and can and should not be studied without taking into account the core of structural violence. As Bo Jensen and I argued in the introduction to the volume Archaeologies of Gender and Violence “Gender culture is a violent culture, enforced through acts and threats of violence” (pp. 11). Thirteen chapters of this book deal with archaeology, gender and violence in various ways and are hopefully going to inspire more studies to come.

Archaeologies of Gender and Violence

Edited by Uroš Matić and Bo Jensen

Oxbow Books | 9781785706882 | Paperback | £36.00

To find out more or to order the book, you can just click on the cover image.

Uroš Matić (Ph.D) is an archaeologist and Egyptologist recently finished with his doctoral dissertation on the body and violent treatments of enemies and prisoners of war in New Kingdom Egypt defender at the Institute for Egyptology and Coptic Studies of the University of Münster (Germany). He is a regular member of the Austrian Archaeological Institute’s Cairo branch mission in Tell el-Daba and of the Swiss Institute for Architectural and Archaeological Research on Ancient Egypt in Aswan. Matić is current co-chair of the working group Archaeology and Gender in Europe of the European Association of Archaeologists.

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