The Ethics of Interpretation and Academic Practice: Article Review of “A Sexist View of Prehistory”

Disclaimer: This post was written as part of my ANTH 320: Archaeology of Gender requirements in Fall 2016.


“A Sexist View of Prehistory,” written by Brian Fagan, is a well organized article in a compare-and-contrast format, with two secondary sources. While both sources are archaeologies of gender, they apply radically different approaches, and in this way they may be considered to be diverse if not in direct opposition. This being said, Fagan’s arguments as to the in/validity of each source could have been enhanced by additional sources. Fagan does make good use of descriptive analysis for the limited use of sources, however, and provides clear and detailed descriptions of each source as well as perceived boons and faults. A single image is provided by the author (in addition to a number of very delightful, and frankly huge, advertisements), however it is quite small, and is only of the cover of Marija Gimbutas’ Civilization of the Goddess as opposed to a figure or example from within the book. While technically appropriate, the article is not in any way enhanced by the image.

goddess
Source

Fagan presents Gimbuta’s Civilization—and concept of a Goddess cult in general—as a popular trend of thought as opposed to an interpretation supported by archaeological evidence. Gimbutas, Fagan claims, uses only a vague interpretation of motif to generate grand inferences about neolithic and Bronze Age figurines and pots from Central Europe. Although these inferences are based in very little actual evidence they have been latched on to by the general public and academics alike, though Fagan doubts if many of them are archaeologists themselves. By way of contrast Fagan offers Christine Hastorf’s “Gender, Space, and Food in Prehistory” as an example of research rooted in contemporary archaeological practice. Fagan summarizes Hastorf’s research as being a study of the Sausa (Andean maize and potato farmers), having taken into account human remains, ecofacts (ex plant remains, seeds, etc), space distribution (ex compounds; kitchens, patios, etc), and ethnographic accounts. Fagan explains that Hastorf specifically examined the changes in diet, communal space, and gendered space post-Inkan conquer, as Sausa population groups changed after the Inka took control (A.D. 1460).

With regard to language use, in describing Civilization Fagan tends towards using more “flowery” prose-like speech in descriptions of Gimbutas’ work and adherents. Such speech is not used in describing Hastorf’s work. In isolating such language to descriptions of Gimbutas, Fagan tends to come off as biased by way of belittling Gimbutas’ work. While I am unaware of the cultural context of this article with reference to the socio-academic archaeological climate of the early-1990s, as an aged piece Fagan’s argument could have been strengthened by keeping a singular tone throughout the entire article. This being said I am not entirely sure if such a change matters in this context, considering how aggressively Fagan tears apart Gimbutas’ methods regardless.

In considering the course objective I believe this article does contribute to my ability to meet said objectives, as it provides summaries of differing interpretive methods for discerning gender in the ancient past, and forces me to consider the consequences of an archaeology of gender on anthropological and archaeological theories. Interpretive skills of some form or another are a necessary component of archaeology, and a comparative analysis of two different methods interpretation such as this is invaluable in highlighting differing standards of practice. As I appreciate the open-learning format of ANTH 320, in moving forward from reading this article I decided to the time to re-read the Archaeological Institute of America’s “Code of Ethics,” (AIA), and the 2012 American Anthropological Association “Principles of Professional Responsibility” (AAA). Although neither are specifically relevant to Gimbutas’ situation, they are both texts with which I have previous knowledge and thus seemed most appropriate for review. In doing so I cannot help but come to the conclusion that while I do not agree with Fagan’s tone in writing on Gimbutas’ Civilization I agree that at best Civilization is at best a very public interpretive misstep, and at worst an ethical misstep with far-reaching consequences. Moving forward I am interested in learning more about archaeological and anthropological ethical standards so as to better inform my position in situations such as this. Additionally, I am interested in learning more about ethical standards cross-communally (ex intercontinentally, etc). Although archaeological and anthropological ethics and standards of practice are topics which have come up in-class on occasion in my near-3 years of university I could likely count those occasions on one hand, which considering the effect ethical faults may have on people/s seems woefully inadequate in hindsight.

Politely: I believe that the purpose of this article is to describe the inadequate nature of Gimbutas’ approach to neolithic female figurines (and other artefacts), and to showcase an alternate approach by which gender may be studied through archaeological practice. Perhaps more realistically: Whenever an article addresses a single author as the source of a perceived problem in academia it can come across as “academic pummeling”—that is to say that because the author who is being addressed cannot immediately respond (and, due to the nature of publishing, they may never be given the opportunity to respond) it can seem as though Academic A is given an unfair advantage over Academic B in a “battle of words.” This is not to say that I condone Gimbutas’ position, but rather that the method in which Gimbutas’ position is being challenged marks the nature of academic publishing as a medium as being (generally) unilaterally discursive. Even if the medium as an entity is not to be considered in such a way, the genre of academic-on-academic derision is one which has existed through time and into contemporaneous publishing practice.


Bibliography

AAA. (2012, November 1). Principles of Professional Responsibility [Web log post]. Retrieved November 16, 2016, from http://ethics.americananthro.org/category/statement/

AIA. (2016, January 8). Code of Ethics (2016) [PDF]. Archaeological Institute of America. Retrieved November 16, 2016, from https://www.archaeological.org/sites/default/files/files/Code%20of%20Ethics%20(2016).pdf

Fagan, B. (1992, March/April). A Sexist View of Prehistory. Archaeology, 45(2), 14-15, 18, 66. Retrieved November 16, 2016, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/41766076

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