Feminist Prehistory

Littleisis, our fellow true liberal and bearer of the Liberal Rapture standard, writes about an exhibit of prehistoric artifacts which have been interpreted by some to indicate the existence of ancient matriarchal societies.  These goddess-worshipping cultures were supposedly peaceful and egalitarian, until being obliterated by invasions of patriarchal, hunter-warrior dudes.  Most experts dismiss these theories as fanciful and unsupported by the evidence.
This is a subject over which littleisis and tamerlane have locked minotaur horns before.  We both advocate gender-equality in modern society, but differ over accepting what tamerlane considers bad pseudoscience that only embarrasses feminists.
Pop on over to Liberal Rapture and decide for yourself.  Littleisis is a witty writer & an astute observer of politics and culture, and always worth a visit.

8 Responses to Feminist Prehistory

  1. Fionnchú says:

    Her post echoes from a time warp into a womyn’s studies seminar circa 1974. TL, scholars since then have largely dismantled Gimbutas’ theories as you note. Little Isis makes her points, on the other hand, with a clarity and lack of rancor that I agree shows her skill. (Hey, did she inherit JWS’s blog title?)

  2. tamerlane says:

    littleisis is a wiccan, so that would explain the”womyn’s” vibe — but no time warp: it’s current today in certain circles. And yes, she asked for, and received, JSOM’s blessing to use the LR name.

    Somebody famous who I can’t recall warned against mistaking what you want to be true for what actually is true. Archeology is a field especially susceptible to the injection of a priori assumptions. It may be no irony that Gimbutas was originally from the USSR, where the data from all fields were adjusted to conform to marxist ideology.

    Anyone who doubts their matriarchy theory is simply labeled a prejudiced “patriarch” by the extreme feminists.

    littleisis is the first ‘believer’ I’ve encountered who accepted my debunking of the theory as that, and not a general attack on women’s rights, and I appreciate that.

  3. littleisis says:

    LOL, TM. I like the insertion of “hunter warrior dudes.” Actually, the Celts were pretty warlike and they were fairly gender equal.
    And as for my post at LR, Roseanne Barr linked to it on her blog!


    Yeah, suckah! THE Roseanne Bar!
    LOL, but anyway, I’m going to address this in my next dish post. Stay tuned, I’m having some technical difficulties, but it’ll be soon enough. Probably tomorrow at some point.

  4. tamerlane says:

    I recall reading somewhere that when two Kelts got into an argument, and it looked like it was going to come to blows, they’d call for their wives. This usually diffused the situation, because the Keltic women were considered the toughest fighters!

    I read somewhere else that the two best places to be a woman in the ancient world were Egypt and the Keltic realms.

  5. Sima says:

    I’m an archaeologist (and a farmer, heh) with a PhD in Roman military studies. And I’m a woman.

    Gimbutas was very popular in archaeology for a while, back in the 70’s. In the 70’s to 80’s her theories were examined, tested and mostly rejected as archaeological theory became more rigidly ‘scientific’. I must say, as someone with a science background, anthropology and archaeology will never be science science, but the disciplines are trying and have become much more rigorous.

    It’s so easy to look at an object and dream about what that object meant to a culture. It’s easy to take mythologies about mythology and assume they represent some sort of ancient, unobtainable being. Historically, goddesses were worshipped, sometimes as heads of pantheons. That doesn’t mean women were well-regarded. The Virgin Mary is one of the most important female icons of the Western World. Her portrait appears everywhere. Her life and deeds are celebrated by many strains of Christianity. She is especially revered by Catholics. And… she exists in the middle of patriarchy. We have little to no idea if pre-historic goddesses reflected women’s power in and over society, or women’s place in society, or both.

    When I first encountered Gimbutas’ work I was very taken with it and inspired by it, and very much wanted it to be true. But it was obvious, even then (mid 80’s) that it made tenuous associations at best. It’s a marvellous view of what COULD have been. But it’s certainly not the only possibility.

    Using modern techniques we can tease out a lot more information from archaeology than was possible in the early-mid 20th C. For instance, we now know that at least some Roman soldiers were billeted with their horses (one room for the horses, one for the soldiers) because we are able to analyze the ground and find the concentrations of urine residue representing a stable. My work has shown that women were at least present in the Roman forts, if not actually residing there overnight, due to the presence of spinning equipment. Spinning was highly gender contexted in the Roman world. It was once thought women were kept entirely out of Roman forts, except for the commander’s wife and family. Others’ work, reanalyzing cremation remains from a Roman military cemetery in which were interred fallen native soldiers show that some of the highest, most object-rich, most ‘important’ graves were those of women. And these women were buried with military trappings and live horses.The unit was from the area of the world from which the legend of the Amazons sprung. So the mind naturally wonders, were these women actually military leaders? Or, were they the wifes/daughters/mothers of important male military leaders, and so honored as such. Or both? None of this can be proven or disproven, yet. But when the cremations were dug up in the 50’s the graves were assumed to be those of men because of what they held, weapons, armour and horses.

    Anyway, I ramble. Gimbutas work is important as a possible interpretation of pre-history. It is not the only interpretation, or even the most valid one, at this point. Her work does need to be re-examined periodically as new knowledge and techniques come into being because who knows, she might be right.

  6. tamerlane says:

    Sima, one good ramble deserves another!

    The evolving explanations of cave paintings are a perfect example of how interpretations can be polluted by the observer’s preconceptions. The “men’s hunter initiation” explanation took a serious hit recently when measurements of hand stencils showed that some of the hands were female. Of course, this news has already been distorted (by some of the commenters to littleisis’ piece, even) that ALL of the cave painters were women.

    Despite its sparsity, the concrete evidence from digs, etc. can nevertheless mark boundaries or parameters for what could have been true. It’s in the filling in of the spaces between those boundaries where one should proceed with caution.

    While Gimbutas could conceivably be proven right in the end, her intricate vision would require much of what we currently think is true to be wrong. I am especially skeptical of how ignorance of paternity could have continued into the Bronze Age.

    As a professional horseman and an amateur military historian, I’m intrigued by your work on roman fort graves. I enjoyed reading Dixon & Southern’s informed & balanced “The Roman Cavalry from the First to Third Century A.D.” and Worley’s carefully-researched “Hippeis: The Cavalry of Ancient Greece.” (Peddie’s “The Roman War Machine” is chock-full of details, but I found he missed the forest for the trees.) I’m sure if any historian spent a week working at my barn, they’d have a better appreciation of the logistical difficulties of taking horses on campaign.

  7. Fionnchú says:

    “Ignorance of paternity”~ this sparked (before I read this later thread) my own question only the other day, but not for the first time: when and how did people begin to make the connection between conception a few months before and the showing in pregnancy and all that entails? And, did this awareness “dawn” on cultures around the same time or was it diffused? Is there any way to figure out a context for this consciousness-raising discovery?

    (My academic training’s in medieval lit and my focus now’s on later eras, so apologies for any ignorance. One aside, minor as it is. My Ph.D. is from UCLA, and once in a subterranean academic corridor, all green paint, institutional doors, cold labs, I glimpsed through the open door Prof. Gimbutas at work in her office, sometime in the mid/late 1980s.)

  8. tamerlane says:

    My understanding is that paleontologists surmise that hominids (H. erectus?) first started pair-bonding when females stopped showing overt physical signs of estrus. The development of fleshy buttocks (to simulate estrus) helped keep men hanging around to assist in the longer rearing time of helpless hominid infants. (I know it’s effective on me.) You’d have to be exceedingly unobservant creature to miss for a million years the abundant clues about paternity.

    Once you start applying these kinds of common sense thought experiments to Gimbutas’ theory, it falls to shreds.

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