Artist's reconstruction of a burial scene at Mucking, Essex (c) Historic England / Judith Dobie

Queering the archaeological record: gender identities in 5th-7th century burial

Cecilia Levratto Francese

In this blog, MOLA Archivist Cecilia Levratto Francese shares why we should avoid thinking about gender in a binary way when we interpret burial evidence from the 5th – 7th centuries…

When, in archaeology, we look at the physical remains of humans there are generally clear physical differences that mark out the male and female sexes. Thinking about how these individuals lived and identified themselves, particularly through the objects that are often buried alongside them, it can be tempting to apply modern, Western, preconceptions about gender and the roles and behaviours of men and women in our society today.

Whilst studying to become a field archaeologist at the University of Sheffield, I wanted to look more closely at this process and think about how else we can interpret this evidence. To do this I looked at burials from the 5th-7th centuries where skeletons of one sex had been buried with objects (referred to as grave goods) more usually found associated with individuals of the opposite sex – for example men buried with jewellery or domestic goods, or women buried with weaponry and armour. Previous studies had often dismissed these cases as anomalies, exceptions that proved the rule.[1]I wanted to use them to show that, just as in the present we need to think in a less binary way about gender, we need to do the same when we interpret evidence of our past.

Many of the objects we find as grave goods could have been worn on the individual’s body during their life, and so we can understand them as evidence of how they might have presented their identity through dress and behaviour – certain objects are used in certain ways, so we can assume that a person buried with them performed certain activities. This process, called performativity, was theorised in the field of cultural studies by the French academic Michel Foucault[2] and elaborated with particular reference to gender by Judith Butler.[3] One example I looked at was excavated from a cemetery in Eastbourne (Grave 142) that was in use from 5th to 7th centuries.[4] This individual’s skeleton had all the markers of the male biological sex, and was buried with almost 40 beads, two brooches, and keys, objects that have long been associated with a women because of their links to domesticity and dress, and most often found in the graves of individuals of the female sex.

There is evidence from elsewhere that brooches like those found in Grave 142 were worn to express particular political ideas and associations that have been argued to be distinct to women.[5] This raises questions about what it might have meant for this individual, with male biology, to be seen in death, and possibly also in life, with so many symbols associated with feminine power, but offers few simple answers. How did they identify themselves? Did this identity change over time? What were the circumstances of family or politics that gave rise to this?

I think the most important lesson from my work is that we need to change our methods of interpreting the past so as to allow for this kind of variability. We often use archaeological evidence to make statements about what life was like for whole groups of people – countries, cities, or villages – but we can, and should, also use it to raise questions like the ones above.

My study brought to light comparable evidence in a variety of forms from 5th-7th century cemeteries around England, leading me to believe that this was a nationwide phenomenon. Interestingly, burials where the skeleton had been sexed as male signalled the greatest diversity in terms of gender associations. These people were given neither marginal nor particularly dignified burials, suggesting that they were all accepted and integrated members of their communities. What some today might consider to be queer and highly unusual – which has traditionally rendered cross-gender identity invisible to archaeologists – might not have been so for them.

A great deal of work goes on in the present, including initiatives like Pride Month, to celebrate different identities and experiences in order to highlight and combat discrimination and bias. Often more conservative elements of our society will refer to the past to promote ideas of tradition and encourage a return to attitudes that can be restrictive, discriminatory, and sadly even actively harmful to those who don’t fit within them, particularly around gender binaries and norms. I believe that if we look closely at the evidence from the past we will always see diversity, variety, and difference, and that it is through celebrating this that we can contribute to a more inclusive world today. 

[1] Lucy, S., (1998). The Early Anglo-Saxon Cemeteries of East Yorkshire: An analysis and reinterpretation. Oxford: BAR British Series 272

[2] Foucault, M., (1978). The History of Sexuality, Volume 1: An introduction. New York: Pantheon Books.

[3] Butler, J., (1999). Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. 2nd edition. London: Routledge.

[4] Doherty, A., and Greatorex, C., (2016). Excavations on St. Anne’s Hill: Middle/Late Iron Age Site and Anglo-Saxon Cemetery at St. Anne’s Road, Eastbourne, East Sussex. Monograph 11. Portslade: Archaeology South-East.

[5] Martin, T., (2011). Identity and the Cruciform Brooch in Early Anglo-Saxon England: An Investigation of Style, Mortuary Context and Use. Unpublished Doctoral Thesis unpublished. University of Sheffield.


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