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Some general remarks on gender

From the autumn 2000 seminar by Stephen Quirke, Institute of Archaeology, UCL, on women in Tarkhan and Lahun

Do we learn from the comparison of a cemetery largely without writing and a town without individualised bodies? Each data set is distinct, within the contours of its record, and it is methodologically dangerous to compensate for gaps in one record by filling in information from another record. Looking at Tarkhan and Lahun as separate bodies of evidence, it is possible to identify some common traits.

Like other large-scale hierarchical societies with urban centres, Ancient Egypt was from its formation over the fourth millennium BC a heavily androcentric civilization in its visible formal self-expression. Women were generally systematically excluded from national and local administration, from being trained to write, and from a host of other tasks in the formal record of the social division of labour - the one major exception seems to be weaving, with regular female staffing and unofficial management. Where men and women appear together in writing or in visual art, the men take to themselves precedence.

This formalised and therefore largely one dimensional view of Egyptian society does not match the complexities of social life. These emerge on the ideological plane in the patterns of queenship observed around the king in iconography and writing, and in the role of goddesses among the gods at creation and in healing. The women buried at Tarkhan were contemporaries of queen Merytneit, the one woman with a tomb on regal scale in the cemetery of the First Dynasty kings at Abydos. The women who lived at Lahun were contemporaries of queen Sobekneferu, who reigned either alongside Amenemhat III or Amenemhat IV, or alone. The two reigns are rare exceptions to the rule of Egypt by men, but they document alternative opportunities.

In the archaeological record of burial the male-female opposition is seen reinforced in burial rites at Tarkhan, where blades accompany six men as against two women, while cosmetic items are more often assigned to women. However, in costume and dress in the figurative art of later periods, wealthier men also regularly attend to the body and hair, introducing the variable of social stratum into the social construction and projection of identity.

As regards consumption of food and drink, the basic tomb set at Tarkhan seems to override gender divisions. Evidence for banquets is limited in the archaeological record: in visual art of later periods, the kinship unit overrides gender division, in scenes where guests are divided into groups of men and women, except for the closest family. In sum, it is difficult to avoid the male-female gender divide that comes naturally to our own society, when many features in the archaeological and written record appear to reinforce that divide. It is all the more important then to observe the differences between the Egyptian record and our assumptions, to explore the flexibility of gender as a dynamic factor, a variable in social construction, inextricably interwoven with age, class and group-membership (whether kinship or ethnicity), as seen in the examples of writing woman, sealing woman, milking man, mat-weaving man, disinheriting woman, elite man wearing wig and ear-rings, woman wielding knife…


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