Queer Theory & Archaeology

James Aimers

Queer has come to mean a counter-hegemonic position in relation to the normative or dominant, one that challenges the authority of norms to fully describe or contain” (Alberti, 2013, p. 88).

As covered in Chapter 2, queer theory is often considered an aspect of critical theory with roots in feminism which challenges archaeological normativity of all sorts—not just in relation to sexuality (Voss, 2008b, see also Miller, this volume). Some people argue that queer theory is not a theory (or set of theories) which explain the world, but rather a way of looking critically at normative assumptions about the world (e.g., Praetzellis, 2015).

Archaeological engagement with queer theory came mainly through the influence of feminism (McLaughlin, Casey, & Richardson, 2006). The growing influence of feminism in the 20th century led to critiques of existing norms around gender, sex, and sexuality in many fields, and by the late 1970’s these critiques began to inform archaeological studies. Nevertheless, many archaeological studies implicitly assumed that the norms and institutions that we take for granted today were present and important in the distant past. Thus, archaeologists often assumed that the Western sex/gender binary (male/female, or man/woman) was normative across all cultures, or that institutions such as the nuclear family and monogamy also applied to ancient cultures (Roosevelt, 2002).

During the 1980s and 1990s feminist ideas became mainstream in archaeology, as shown in the many works about and by women in those decades. An important development was the entry of queer theory into the archaeological mainstream in the 2000’s with two seminal collections: a special issue of World Archaeology (Dowson, 2000) and the proceedings from a 2004 Chacmool conference entitled Que(e)rying Archaeology (Terendy & Lyons, 2009). Since then, archaeologists have increasingly investigated taken-for-granted assumptions about sex, gender, and sexuality, and queer theory has been used to challenge normative assumptions of all sorts.

Although potentially any topic can be examined through a queer theory lens, the most influential uses of queer theory in archaeology have been in relation to gender, sex, and sexuality. This is in part because queer theory challenges essentialist and sociobiological ideas about these issues in popular discourse and in some scholarship. If we think of queer as being fundamentally disruptive, then a lot of early work that challenged fundamental assumptions could be called queer, even if those works were not labeled as such by their authors (e.g., Klein, 2001; Silverblatt, 1978, 1987, 1995). These studies express a queer emphasis on the “instability of the subject” and the “fluidity of identity” (Bulger & Joyce, 2013) as well as the inclusivity characteristic of queer theory.

Queer theory has questioned universals, essentialisms (e.g., Geller, 2009, p. 65), and especially the categorizations we use in archaeology (Blackmore, 2011, p. 79). In archaeology, binary classifications related to sex, gender, and sexuality like man/woman and homosexual/ heterosexual have been the most heavily critiqued. Voss suggested that a “truly queer archaeology” will question “received categories of present-day sexual politics and seek to develop archaeological methodologies that do not depend on these problematic sexual taxonomies”(2009, p. 34). My work with the classification of ancient Maya pottery reminds me that all classifications are created to answer particular questions and not every question can be addressed with a single classification. So, the idea that there is one, transhistorical, all-purpose classification of bodies, or gender, or sexuality is no more reasonable than the belief that one really great way of classifying pottery could answer all of our questions.