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Future Reflections: Archaeology, Identity, and Contemporary Gender Politics

By Emma Palladino, Université de Montréal

What is archaeology “for”? 

An easy first answer: to reconstruct and thus better understand the lifeways of our ancestors. To shed light on human evolution, on ancient traditions, and to therefore get a clearer picture of how we ended up where we are today. 

Of course, that’s well and good, but why does that information matter? Well, we are only human, and thus, we long to build connections, to recognize humanity in the other, to see ourselves reflected in the deep past. Archaeology creates a bridge between us and our predecessors. It transcends time and space to deliver us a portrait of what we once were, of what we might have been if only we’d been born a thousand years earlier. Likewise, archaeology also serves as a tool of the imagination: if we can learn of the myriad ways in which our ancestors viewed themselves and the world, then we may find ourselves armed with the courage to dream of new futures.

However, there are many who are fearful of archaeology’s potential for social change in the present, who instead view archaeology as hard proof of incontrovertible social “truths” rather than an ever-evolving historical project. Recall, for example, the anthropologists who lead the phrenological charge, skewing biology to fit their own racist agendas (see Fear-Segal and Tillett 2013), or indeed the prehistoric archaeologists of the 20th century and their assumptions of Man the Hunter (Sterling 2014). Claiming archaeology as a tool to legitimize specific political agendas is nothing new. Today, one only has to download Twitter to witness the appropriation of archaeology by trans-exclusionary radical feminists (or TERFs) and the “gender critical” movement.


A Twitter thread of mine went viral over the summer of 2022 in which I explained how archaeologists actually don’t mobilize rigid gender binaries in their interpretative work (Palladino 2022). Instead, current bioarchaeological approaches ask us to consider life histories and bodyscapes, to explore meaning(s) both within and beyond human bodies. Life histories are the culminations of all available information gleaned from a given archaeological body, combining pertinent bioarchaeological, paleopathological, social, religious, sexual, occupational, and cultural findings to build an holistic profile of a past person’s life and identity (see Stodder and Palkovich 2012). Bodyscapes refer to all the ways that bodies exist in the world beyond them as well as all of the micro-scapes that exist within and upon them (Geller 2009). 

Since the critical archaeological turn of the late 1990s and early 2000s – characterized by the rise of self-reflexive and Black, queer, Indigenous, and feminist archaeologies – archaeologists have been imagining what our practice could look like beyond the gender binary (ex. Ghisleni et. al., 2016; Blackmore 2011; Dowson 2000). And let me be clear: an a priori non-assumption of heteropatriarchy and a rigid gender binary is, in fact, “good” science. It is far better science than blindly assuming that whatever home you are excavating belonged to a nuclear family composed of heterosexual, cisgender members. It is not woke ideologicalpropaganda to operate under the well-documented principle that different cultures have different ideas of gender and identity. Indeed, it is a demonstrable fact that identities outside of the male/female binary have existed across thousands of years and kilometres (ex. Power 2020; Walley 2020; Hollimon 2017). Likewise, it is another demonstrable fact that intersex human beings have existed throughout history, and that cultures around the world have held unique beliefs regarding their place in society (Moilanen et al., 2022). 

Today, sex is one of those things that creates the foundation for everything we know – a fundamental ordering principle. It is a neat set of binary categories that helps us make sense of society: you are a man or you are a woman. You have male or female genitalia. Either/or. So, naturally, when that safe (erroneous!) binary is appropriately challenged, some people react volatilely. They view this as not just an attack on reality itself, but a personal one, too. For if this fundamental dichotomy proves false, how, then, are they meant to make sense of the world? Of themselves? Rather than take the opportunity to sit with these findings and consider their implications, TERFs jump on the offensive:

“A whole lot of nothing. Pure rant against reality.” (@saitama_81 2022, Twitter)

“For what is essentially a fad, you lot have created a quite astonishing fantasy world around it. Impressive in it’s [sic] own way I guess.” (@benyamin12001 2022, Twitter)

“The entire field of archaeology will not change to fit the gender bias of one fringe pseudo archaeologist. Science will not change to fit your biased outlook of the world. It is objective. Cars will not become gay for gay engineers, for instance.” (@FINALFIRE11 2022, Twitter)

TERFs seem to believe that archaeology is intrinsically on their side, that the work we do as archaeologists will objectively “prove” the unchanging and demonstrable existence of two genders. This could not be farther from the truth! Our goal is not to find proof for specific a priori biases, nor to recreate visions of the past coloured by our own cultural perspectives. Our work is about exploring the myriad ways of being and organizing that have existed throughout our histories, to get at the heart of human lifeways and illuminate the lives of our ancestors. We do this in celebration of difference, complexity, and humanity.

People long to see themselves reflected in their histories. To see another face looking back at you through a gap of thousands of years is to understand that you are not new, that you have been before, in some form or another. Your existence is not an accident or a passing thing: it is rooted in time and space. To affirm that non-cisgender people exist – and have always existed, in so many forms – is not ideology: it is a truth of humanity. And to assert that trans and non-binary people will continue to exist well into the yet-unknowable future is not a “fantasy”: it is simply reality. Archaeology empowers us to imagine new ways of being by looking back at what has already been done. It is a vehicle for questioning social orders in the present (Weismantel 2022; Black Trowel Collective 2021; Graeber and Wengrow 2021; Franklin et al., 2020; Atalay 2006). By looking back, we look forward: after all, there is nothing new under the sun.


Atalay, Sonya. 2006​. Indigenous Archaeology as Decolonizing Practice. American Indian Quarterly 30 (3/4): 280-310.

Blackmore, Chelsea. 2011.​ How to Queer the Past Without Sex: Queer Theory, Feminisms and the Archaeology of Identity. Archaeologies 7: 75-96.

Black Trowel Collective, The. 2021​. Archaeologists for Trans Liberation. Anthrodendum (site), August 6., accessed 7 October 2022.

Dowson, Thomas A. 2000. ​Why Queer Archaeology? An Introduction. World Archaeology 32 (2): 161-165. 

Fear-Segal, Katherine and Rebecca Tillett. 2013​. Plaster-Cast Indians at the National Museum. In Indigenous Bodies: Reviewing, Relocating, Reclaiming, pp.53-66. State University of New York Press, New York.

Franklin, Maria P., Justin Dunnavant, Ayana Omilade Flewellen, and Alicia Odewale. 2020​. The Future is Now: Archaeology and the Eradication of Anti-Blackness. International Journal of Historical Archaeology 24: 753-766.

Geller, Pamela L. 2009. ​Bodyscapes, Biology, and Heteronormativity. American Anthropologist 111 (4): 504-516.

Ghisleni, Lara, Alexis M. Jordan, and Emily Ficcopirile. 2016. ​Introduction to “Binary Binds”: Deconstructing Sex and Gender Dichotomies in Archaeological Practice. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 23 (3): 765-787.

Hollimon, S.E. 2017​. Bioarchaeological approaches to nonbinary genders: Case studies from native North America. In Exploring Sex and Gender in Bioarchaeology, edited by Sabrina C. Agarwal and Julie K. Wesp, pp. 51-69. University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque. 

Moilanen, Ulla, Tuija Kirkinen, Nelli-Johanna Saari, Adam B. Rohrlach, Johannes Krause, Päivi Onkamo, and Elina Salmela. 2022​. A Woman with a Sword? – Weapon Grave at Suontaka Vesitorninmäki, Finland. European Journal of Archaeology 25: 42-60.

Palladino, Emma. 2022​. “My trans+non-binary friends: you might know the argument that the archaeologists who find your bones one day will assign you the same gender as you had at birth, so regardless of whether you transition, you can’t escape your assigned sex. Let me tell you why that’s bullshit. 1/” Twitter, July 4th, 23:34., accessed 8 October 2022.

Power, Miller. 2020. ​Non-Binary and Intersex Visibility and Erasure in Roman Archaeology. Theoretical Roman Archaeology Journal 3 (1): 1-19.

Sterling, Kathleen. 2014. ​Man the Hunter, Woman the Gatherer? The Impact of Gender Studies on Hunter-Gatherer Research (A Retrospective). In The Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology and Anthropology of Hunter-Gatherers, edited by Vicki Cummings, Peter Jordan, and Marek Zvelebil, pp. 151-174. Oxford University Press, Oxford. 

Stodder, Ann L.W. and Ann M. Palkovich. 2014​. The Bioarchaeology of Individuals. University of Florida Press, Gainesville.

Walley, Meghan. 2021. ​Incorporating Nonbinary Gender into Inuit Archaeology Oral Testimony and Material Inroads. Routledge, Abingdon.

Weismantel, Mary. 2022. ​Towards a Transgender Archaeology: A Queer Rampage Through Prehistory. In The Transgender Studies Reader Remix, edited by Susan Stryker and Dylan McCarthy Blackston. Routledge, Abingdon.

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