My title for this piece was inspired by Sir Arthur Evans, the excavator of the Minoan “palace” site at Knossos in north-central Crete, just outside of the city of Herakleion.
As a well-to-do gentleman and son of the great industrialist and amateur archaeologist John Evans, Arthur lived at a time when studying the ancient world was principally accessible to the wealthy elite who could afford to travel to the great sites of antiquity, and their assumptions were usually packed in their steamer trunks.
It was also a time when purchasing a souvenir meant buying actual antiquities and if you wanted to start a large archaeological excavation, you could simply purchase it as Evans did with Knossos. Much has been written about how Evans’ ideas and fantasies were fuelled by his Victorian upbringing as well as a strong sense of nostalgia that led him to reconstruct Knossos, not as a fully envisioned palace but as a modern ruin, something that was a popular fancy in the gardens of the rich of this era. Among the parts of the building that Evans excavated and reconstructed were two great halls in the east wing and reached by an impressive monumental staircase. Both of these halls were monumental, with one hall surrounded by partitions composed of piers and doors to manipulate space in a manner similar to a hotel banquet room that can be partitioned off to make smaller or larger rooms. The other hall was slightly smaller but surrounded by walls composed of windows ending in low benches for seating. Evans brought a painted bathtub of the later Mycenaean era into this area from a different part of the “palace” to support his Victorian and Orientalist vision that this was a type of women’s boudoir or even harem.
Among the more recent objections that some feminists have made to Evans interpretation was the criticism that there is no evidence that women were smaller, fewer, or less important than Minoan males. So why should they be relegated to a separate space?
Indeed, I argued in my now published PhD that it was likely that both halls were used for important meetings and rituals, and what is more, the room with the windows was much more comfortable during the hot Cretan summer. Feminists have fought hard to reject aristocratic masculinist views of women being segregated.
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Recognising individual rights to celebrate one’s own gender identity was prompted by a recent controversy on campus at the University of Melbourne where I am lucky to teach my research on many areas Bronze Age Greece and its connections to the Near East. What? You say? An academic controversy? Controversy in the academy is as natural as breathing and as old as the Schools of Athens. I feel prompted to make a more public comment this time in response to a colleague who has recently made wide headlines on arguing for women’s only spaces based on biology.
I found this very surprising as I had thought it was something we had left behind decades ago. My naivete might be a product of watching too many episodes of Ally MacBeal with its infamous Unisex toilet in the 1990s, or having used a Unisex toilet in my workplace because I was too lazy to walk down the hall, but I digress.
While it is beyond the scope of this short piece to reproduce my colleague’s argument here in its entirety, as I understand it, a component of the argument rejects the notion that gender is a cultural construct that might be changeable and fluid. If anything, this scholar regards it as a modern concept, perhaps the invention of the evil but invisible post-modernist straw-man (or person). They regard sexual difference as natural and biologically determined.
While this argument has its adherents in some disciplines, it is not accepted in anthropology or by many scholars in archaeology and in ancient history. The study of gender in archaeology has developed as a sub-specialty of mine that began about 30 years ago, inspired by the publication of a famous book entitled “Engendering Archaeology” (Blackwell 1989). In the beginning, the archaeological study of gender enthusiastically began with women studying women and their identities in the past. This is understandable as archaeology was and still is the best way to recover women’s identities as most histories were written by men. Although my first and most recent papers focused on binary gender identity concepts of male and female, more of my work has focused on gender fluidity, “third” gender, and constructions of masculinity. Much of the contemporary research on archaeology and gender, indicates that gender fluidity was more common and more broadly accepted in ancient times than it is today as shown in Mesopotamian evidence for castrati singers, terms for gender changes in ancient Mesopotamia such as the assinu – a male singer changed into a female in the cult of Ishtar, and depictions of female rulers as male eg Hatshepsut.
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In more recent times “Third” Gender studies, a conventional term used to refer to a broad range gender fluidity is a fast growing discipline that includes different constructions of gender identity from the Albanian Sworn Virgins to intersex individuals found among native Americans and referred to as berdache. The virgins were women that took a vow to live as men when for many reasons: to remain with their family, avoid unwanted marriage, or even enjoy a life of greater cultural freedom. It is a practice that continues. In contrast a berdache is intersexed (combining male and female physical characteristics but choosing to affiliate with one area or another) that were and are attributed special powers of magic and fertility for being special enough to combine characteristics of male and female. Why as a cis-gender or biological female should this matter to me beyond a genuine academic curiosity? As a practicing feminist and believer in liberty for all having to fight social, cultural, gendered assumptions, tokenism, and roadblocks about my abilities, it is of the utmost importance to me that everyone recognise the rights of individuals of all ethnicities, creeds, and gender identities to have the same rights as anyone else. I don’t regard these as special rights but as human rights. On another level, I have trouble recognising the privileged view of public spaces as peculiar property of a certain sex or gender. I’ve been lucky to live in many parts of world where people lived a simpler agro-pastoral lifestyle with fewer luxuries and gadgets, including gendered toilet spaces. After living among different tribal groups in the Middle East, I returned to realize that much of what we fight over – including specified gendered spaces represents privilege that much of the world’s population do not even have a luxury of thinking about let alone fighting over. I’ve been in villages where the toilet was a hole in the ground, the nearest large rock, or the goat shed if one needed privacy.
Why do I bring this up now? Given last month, we celebrated International Womens’ Day and my university recently celebrated the Transgender Day of Visibility, I felt this was an appropriate time to remember the importance that liberal democracies place on recognizing the rights of all individuals to celebrate their identities with respect to all. One oppressed minority cannot be free until the freedom of all is recognized.
As George Washington was fond of quoting from Micah 4:4: everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree and no one shall make them afraid.
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Louise Hitchcock is Professor of Aegean Bronze Age Archaeology in the Classics and Archaeology Program at the University of Melbourne. She is the author of Minoan Architecture: A Contextual Analysis, Theory for Classics, and Aegean Art and Architecture(with Donald Preziosi), and is the co-editor of DAIS: The Aegean Feast, Aegaeum 29 as well as the author of over 80 articles dealing with Aegean archaeology, architecture, and theory. Her current research deals with Aegean, Cypriot, and Philistine connections. The Australian Research Council funded her excavations at the Philistine site of Tell es-Safi/Gath, where she was an area supervisor.