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Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology



Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology & the Ancient World
Brown University
Box 1837 / 60 George Street
Providence, RI 02912
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A Response to Discussion Week 3: Sept. 22. Body and the archaeological discourse

Other responses of the week

Brad Sekedat Posted: September 29, 2006. Friday.

The notion of the individual was discussed in much of last weeks reading. At issue is whether figurines, burials, or other representations of people are reflections of cultural constructs, or reveal something about personal experience. Two articles will be discussed here that deal with these issues. In the first, related to what Ömür has already posted about the search for individuals in the figurines presented by Bailey, I would like to address some of the interpretations of the figurines in Knapp’s and Meskell’s article, which seeks to deconstruct the applicability of modern notions of sex and gender when discussing non-modern or non-western objects, preferring to view bodily experience as a major factor in individuality. In the second, Meskell’s article on burial in Egypt will be looked at to see how the individual is represented in death.

As we discussed in class, moving beyond simple dichotomies of sex and gender is generally commendable, as is the recognition that sex should not be privileged over other aspects of individuals or figures represented (Meskell 1996, 12). Such a view point led to a continuous acknowledgement of “sexual ambiguity” as seen through figurines with multiple or uncertain sexual organs (Knapp and Meskell 1997, 193). By focusing on the individual and individual experience, the case is made by Bailey (1994) and Knapp and Meskell (1997) for a broader understanding of Chalcolithic notions of sex and gender. It is interesting, however, that in arguing against the privileging of sex in interpretation, sex – or at least how cultures think about sex – has very much become privileged in some of these articles.

An alternative explanation might be to reintroduce the representational role of these figurines, but with a more abstract meaning. In other words, a figurine with multiple sex organs can represent a concept such as the life-giving nature of intercourse rather than physical representations of individuals that fall outside of the modern sex/gender dichotomy. The interpretation offered by Knapp and Meskell, while allowing for individual experience to provide meaning, still takes a directly representational approach. If the thing depicted is an idea or an action, then it is possible for the object to have potency in and of itself. Sticking with the idea of an act that gives life, it is not too difficult to imagine that the object would have acted like a charm, or even apotropaic device, warding off infertility. This is perhaps an overly traditional reading of the material, and I certainly am not an expert on such figurines or Chalcolithic beliefs, nor do I believe that this is the only possible interpretation, but I think it is possible to account for multiple gender concepts, non self-referential symbolism, and inherent potency in the figurines discussed.

Alternatively, we can look at Knapp and Meskell’s treatment of the individual in conjunction with Meskell’s earlier treatment of the individual in Egyptian burials. Meskell notes that, although not able to know an individuals life experiences, “we might access the material reflections of their own attempts at construction and presentation of the self in life and death” (Meskell 1996, 11). Meskell goes on to describe the burial of a child in Egypt, determining that the individual is “multiply constituted” and that the various elements of the individual are represented materially in the form of items that serve specific purposes in life and death, and physically in the form of skeletal remains, age, status, etc. Thus, the individual that is represented archaeologically is a combination of the private, internal self, and the culturally specific concept of the individual, in this case “multiply constituted” through the material goods that are added to the burial by other people. In retrospect, this is consistent with Knapp and Meskell’s treatment of the figurines, which seeks to combine the experience-forming nature of individual attributes, as represented by the figurines, into a framework of how individuals were conceived of in past societies.


Bailey, Douglas W.; 1994. “Reading prehistoric figurines as individuals,” World Archaeology 25(3): 321-331.

Knapp, Bernard and Lynn Meskell; 1997. “Bodies of evidence on prehistoric Cyprus,” Cambridge Archaeological Journal 7: 183-204.

Meskell, Lynn M. 1996: “The somatisation of archaeology: institutions, discourses, corporeality,” Norwegian Archaeological Review 29(1): 1-16.

Posted at Oct 05/2006 11:11AM:
omur: Concerning paragraph 3: The relationship between representationality and material potency is a tricky issue. I am very interested in your suggestion that the figurine may indeed represent an "idea" or an "action" rather than a material entity in the world. This has I think a much exciting reading of the figurines to offer, if we could take your "represented action" to the idea of "performance": i.e. Representation of performing bodies become efficacious as they reference the symbolic/life-giving/signifying action they are involved in (sexual intercourse, giving-birth, etc). In semotic terms, what we are dealing with is not the representation of a static noun but in fact a verb.