Queer Theory and Archaeology

Last October, my fellow graduate student Trish Markert discussed the sociopolitics of gender within archaeology and its potential impact on our contemporary sociopolitical landscape. In her post, she briefly addressed the manner in which queer archaeologists gives our field the ability to challenge normative assumptions – and she promised a more thorough discussion of queer theory to come. Well, that time is finally here! Over the next few weeks, I will be discussing several facets of queer theory’s incorporation into archaeology, and its power to radically change our perception of the past and present.

Why Should I Care About Queer Archaeology?

Queer archaeologies are especially important in these uncertain times. The Trump administration is legitimizing the alt-right movement in an effort to void past social victories and impose a new normative upon us. Those who live outside of this “new” normative — which is really an old normative rearing its ugly head — are discriminated and legislated against. Originating in social amnesia, and enforced in the law, what is “good” and what is “right” becomes naturalized – we start to believe people have always been heterosexual and cisgender, men have always had political authority, women have always belonged in the domestic sphere, people of European descent have always been the most intelligent, the most advanced, the most moral. Anyone who strays from this standard is deviant, impure, and unnatural.

Archaeology is perfectly suited to challenge the normative assumptions of Trump’s America because of its immense time depth. Archaeologists can demonstrate that these are modern social constructs; the human past is packed with an assortment of gendered, sexual, racial, ethnic, status, age, and religious identities. There is no single “natural” identity that evolved sometime in the distant human past. Archaeologists have an ethical imperative to challenge the rigidity and naturalization of identity categories, and to enforce the fluidity and contextual nature of human identity. This is the fight of archaeologists. The past informs the present. As archaeologists, we can use our education and “ivory tower” privilege to defend the hated, the ignored, and the disenfranchised. Lawmakers and political action groups use our understanding of the past as justification for oppressive legislation. If, as archaeologists, we take on the role of stewards of the past, then it is our obligation to present the most accurate version of the past possible, and to ensure an erroneous version of the past is not used to maliciously serve the present. However, before we can do so, archaeologists must be willing to challenge the normativity present in our own methods and theories. This is where queer archaeology comes in.

Queer is an admittedly challenging and scary word. It has a long and complicated history; its politically loaded; it means different things in different contexts; and its usage in the academic literature is often different– and sometimes at odds with — its colloquial usage. Above all, it is often in direct conflict with traditional ideas and views of the past. Due to these problems, and many more, archaeologists have avoided incorporating queer theory into their writings, and the work of queer archaeologists is often misinterpreted and misunderstood. My intention in the remainder of this first post is to change the misconceptions surrounding queer archaeology.

What is Queer Archaeology?

1. Queer archaeology is NOT about “excavating” homosexuality in the past..but it can expose heteronormative discouse.

In its modern, everyday usage, queer is often unquestioningly equated with “gay” or the LGBT community. There are many great studies of archaeologists who have identified homosexuality –rather, what we might define as homosexuality, as many societies have very different and much more fluid ideas of sexuality — in the past. One of my favorite examples is Reeder (2000)’s study of the ancient Egyptians, Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep, who are traditionally interpreted as “brothers” or “close friends”, despite the fact they are depicted in a pose often used for husbands and wives. Outside of well documented contexts like Ancient Egypt, definitive evidence of homosexuality in the past is rare, and as queer archaeologists we shouldn’t design projects that go looking for it. Rather, we should remain open to the possibility of various and fluid sexual identities in the past.

Image of Ancient Egyptian art panel of Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep

Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep

2. Queer archeology is NOT just concerned with gender and sexuality.

Due to its unique historical trajectory, queer archaeological works are often concerned with issues pertaining to gender or sexuality. However, homosexuality is only one valid way of occupying queer space. Individuals who transgress gender norms are equally queer, yet they also do not have a monopoly on queerness. Naturalized norms permeate all aspects of identity, and go far beyond gender and sexuality.

3. Thus, queer archaeology is about challenging ALL normative assumptions and binary thinking.

“Queer is by definition whatever is at odds with the normal, the legitimate, the dominant. There is nothing in particular to which it necessarily refers” (Halperin 1995:62). This quote perfectly encapsulates the power and utility of a queer archaeology. Anything and everything can — and probably should — be analyzed through a queer lens. Blackmore (2011) provides a prominent and clear example of a queer analysis that forgoes explicit discussions of sexuality or gender. Blackmore takes a queer approach to examine the class identities of Ancient Mayan commoners. She argues it would limiting to study Ancient Mayan society as an elite/commoner binary, for class composition was constantly changing — fluid — through time, and there was immense variation within each of those class categories.

4. Queer archaeology is about the composite of fluid, contextual, and intersectional identities.

Queer archaeology must be concerned with all normative assumptions extended to the archaeological past because gender and sexuality do not exist in a vacuum. Gender and sexuality are entangled with, and intersect, each other and all other parts of identity. No one aspect of identity can be understood in isolation from all of the others, identity was and is constantly in flux, and would change depending on particular contexts. Thus, it would incorrect to state that any past individual or group had a single identity, but rather there were innumerable identities that occupied unique positionalities.

5. Queer archaeology is an inherently feminist practice.

Postionality. Intersectionality. Fluidity. If this discussion is starting to sound a lot like feminism, that’s because it’s supposed to. Queer archaeology cannot be divorced from feminist theory and is itself a feminist practice (Voss 2008). Queer theory can trace its intellectual foundations — in part — to feminism. The relationship between these two separate, but intersecting, modes of thought has been historically rife with tension, but Richardson (2006) identifies at least five topics in which queer theory and feminism intersect:

  1. Deconstructing binaries and exposing how each side of the binary defines the other
  2. Making explicit the normalizing techniques of control
  3. Problemetizing the universalized relationship between sexuality and gender
  4. Expansion of the concept of “difference”
  5. Revising the sex/gender binary
Diagram showing a "genderbread" person, displaying the range of gender identities, expressions, biological sex and sexual orientation.

Retrieved from: https://survivingtillsunday.files.wordpress.com/2015/01/img_0921.jpg

In archaeology specifically, Blackmore (2011) notes that feminism and queer theory have the same inherent challenge – defining their material correlates and their ability to be “found” in the archaeological record. Queer archaeologies can find inspiration and support from feminist writers in tackling issues surrounding the nature of its evidence.

6. Queer archaeology is practiced in the present.

Unlike most archaeological research, queer archaeology does not place its gaze onto the past, but on archaeological practices in the present. It criticizes and exposes how we conduct and theorize archaeology today. According to Dowson (2000), “queering archaeology empowers us to think what is often the unthinkable to produce unthought-of pasts”. Queer theory is practiced in the present and is about the present. Queer archaeologists have made many substantial statements about the past, but this is not the primary concern.

7. Queer archaeology is positionality, not positivity.

For most queer archaeologists, queer theory is not about positivism. Queer archaeology is not concerned with making definitive, objective claims about the past. Rather, queer archeology is about establishing certain positionalities (Dowson 2000). Queer archaeology situates itself against the dominant and the normative. Above all, queer archaeology is a critique and a framework in which to understand the past. This is not to say nothing can be known about the past, rather it is to say queer archaeology is not a method nor theory to come to “facts”. It is a framework to run other methods and theories through to come to conclusions about the past.

8. Queer archaeology is NOT a bounded, restricted set of theories or methods.

As queer archaeology is primarily a critique and conceptual framework, it has few rules beyond opposing normative assumptions about the past and present. The lack of defined and rigid boundaries is one of queer archaeologies greatest strengths (and possibly weaknesses, a point I will return to in a later post). The critiques inherent to any queer archaeological analysis can be incorporated into any and all kinds of studies, from the social (Alberti 2001) to the mathematical (Chilton 2008). No matter your theoretical preferences or methodological focus, there is no reason not to incorporate queer archaeology into your work.

9. Queer archaeology is something we DO.

Although queer archaeology is often relegated to the high theory of academia, it is at its strongest when it is applied at every step of the archaeological process. Queer should be used as a verb – to queer is something we do. Queering the past is only impactful when it is fully incorporated into our research designs, our field and laboratory methods, and in our final analyses. Queer theory is about engaging with the past, doing archaeology, and working with its many publics from a different perspective.


How do we do queer archaeology? How do we turn “queer” from a static, meaningless adjective into an active, meaningful, and impactful verb? This and more will be the topic of my post next week. In the meantime, comment below!


References Cited:

Alberti, Benjamin
2001  Faience goddesses and ivory bull-leapers: The aesthetics of sexual difference at Late Bronze Age Knossos. World Archaeology 32(2):189-205.

Blackmore, Chelsea
2011  How to Queer the Past Without Sex: Queer Theory, Feminisms, and the Archaeology of Identity. Archaeologies 7(1):75-96.

Chilton, Elizabeth
2008  Queer Archaeology, Mathematical Modeling, and the Peopling of the Americas. Paper presented at the 48th Annual Meeting of the Northeastern Anthropological Association, Amherst, MA, March 7-9, 2008, as part of the symposium “The Sex Life of Things: Archaeologies of Sex, Sexuality, and Gender.”

Dowson, Thomas
2000  Why queer archaeology? An introduction. World Archaeology 32(2):161-165.

Halperin, David M.
1995  Saint Foucault: Towards a Gay Hagriography. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Reeder, Greg
2000 Sex-sex desire, conjugal constructs, and the tomb of Niankhhnum and Khnumhotp. World Archaeology 32(2):193-208.

Richardson, Diane
2006 Bordering Theory. In: Intersections Between Feminist and Queer Theory, edited by Diane Richardson, Janice McLaughlin, and Mark E. Casey, 19-37. Palgrave, New York.

Voss, Barbara
2008 Sexuality Studies in Archaeology. Annual Reviews of Anthropology 37:317-336.


About the Author:

Nathan Klembara is currently a second year MA/PhD student at Binghamton University. He received his Bachelor’s Degree from Mercyhurst University. Since beginning his graduate work at Binghamton in 2015, he has focused on identifying loci for queer analyses in the Upper Paleolithic, with a particular attention on the Paleolithic burial record. His current fieldwork is concentrated at the open air Magdalenian site Peyre Blanque, under the direction of Drs. Margaret Conkey, Kathleen Sterling, and Sebastien Lacombe. In addition to queer theory, his research interests include the sociopolitics of archaeology, landscape archaeology, death and dying, identity construction, and personhood.


  • Richard M. says:

    “Archaeologists have an ethical imperative to… enforce the fluidity and contextual nature of human identity. ”

    What? Why? Isn’t the fluidity of gender, sexual orientation, ethnic, racial, and other identities an insight into humanity brought to us by social sciences, including anthropology/archaeology? It does not require “enforcement” by archaeologists, any more so than Einstein’s theory of relativity requires “enforcement” by physicists.

    “Queer archaeology is not concerned with making definitive, objective claims about the past. “

    Archaeology requires and is improved by diverse perspectives, but I’m beginning to wonder, is the field no longer welcoming to those who see it as a discipline that strives to make verifiable claims about past human behavior based on empirical evidence? How does queer archaeology, in explicitly eschewing objectivity and facts, help archaeologists make sound interpretations about the past from observable evidence?

    Respectively, from your description, queer archaeology sounds to me more like a political position/moral stance than a useful theoretical perspective. Anti-discrimination is moral position that, as an LGBTQ ally, I agree with, but I’m still struggling to see how coupling that position with archaeology would necessitate abandoning the pursuit of objective knowledge about the past. Perhaps those of us laboring under a scientific epistemology are unknowingly (or insidiously?) perpetuating an oppressive, heteronormative system of knowing? Gay scientists I know don’t think so.

    I believe the statement I quoted at the beginning of this reply is a dangerous inversion of the relationship between the political and the academic that would ultimately undermine the stated objectives. Isn’t academic objectivity and scientific rigor what makes our claims reliable and credible? I realize that we could review a long and tortured history of dubious scientific claims that were racist, homophobic, or otherwise problematic, but thankfully unverifiable claims don’t withstand scientific scrutiny long.

    In fact, at present, doesn’t it do more political good to assert the fluidity of gender identities and sexual orientation as scientific fact demonstrated by the social sciences, rather than merely a conceptual “positioning” used to deconstruct the normative assumptions/ignorant biases of a particular unenlightened political philosophy? The critique of attempts to naturalize binary identity categories is certainly valid in my view, but this isn’t really a problem in archaeology, is it? How many archaeologists do you know who seek an “erroneous version of the past… to maliciously serve the present?” No doubt we are all imperfect, biased beings that can never achieve true objectivity, but can’t those biases be overcome in our discipline via explicit theoretical frameworks, interdisciplinary approaches, scientific rigor, peer review, a healthy dose of cultural relativity, and time?

    Perhaps in the next installment, where it will be explained how to queer archaeology, you can elaborate on why this matters for improving the discipline of archaeology to folks like me who just don’t get it yet, and also let us know if/where science fits in, because after all “No matter your theoretical preferences or methodological focus, there is no reason not to incorporate queer archaeology into your work.”

    • Nathan Klembara says:

      Thank you for your comments. I will try and address as many of your questions and concerns as I can.

      Perhaps “enforcement” of the fluidity of identity was not the best word choice, but I argue that archaeologists, as social scientists, should ensure that our work continues to demonstrate that identity is fluid and contextual, and not fixed nor rigid. Einstein’s theory of relativity may not need to be “enforced” by physicists, but physicists need to present work that supports it. Anthropologists/archaeologists do bring certain insights into identity, but at times we let those insights fall by the wayside.

      Queer archaeology is political – as most of archaeology, and science, is – but I don’t think it eschews facts or verifiable scientific claims. Queer archaeology itself is a position, or a critique, that is oriented against normative assumptions. However, this does not supersede or invalidate those methods and theories that are attempting to make veritable claims. It is only attempting to expose untrue or unjust assumptions in those methods and theories to create better and more accurate veritable claims. I do think many would argue that, while science itself is not inherently heteronormative, the manner in which science has been practiced thus far has been heteronormative. These claims are the same as the racist science that your referred to – scientists only recognized they were racist because there was push-back, there was a critique. Few recognized the racism in the science, just as few recognize the heteronormativity today.

      Racism and other – for lack of a better term – oppressive, inaccurate science has and does stand for a long period of time. The peer review process is self-reinforcing. People who challenge the norm are rejected, don’t get published, and don’t get jobs in the field. Peer review is not a fool-proof process. The practice of science is never objective, it is never self-correcting. It requires researchers to stand up and point out where things are not working, and where they can be fixed.

      This is why queer archaeology is about positionality. It is identifying where scientific claims are made dubious by the assumptions of the researchers making them. It is to help scientists make better claims about the past. It does not ignore facts or data – I would not subscribe to queer archaeology if it did. Like feminist archaeology, it is about demonstrating that so-called objective facts are not so objective – and shows how to make them more so.

      Finally, when I was discussing the “erroneous future…malicious present”, I did not mean to imply that archaeologists were doing this. Rather, politicians and other political action groups outside of the academy use the past to support their own oppressive political claims. They argue that homosexuality is bad unnatural because homosexuality is a recent invention (which its not), or that women belong in the home because they have always been in charge of the domestic sphere (which they haven’t). Archaeology is political, people use it for their own political ends, and we have to ensure that an accurate view of the present is presented to the public so curb this.

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