Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Southeast: Gender Roles

Rodning, Christopher B. 2008. Mortuary practices, gender ideology, and the Cherokee town at the Coweeta Creek site. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 30: 145-173

            This article focused on the Coweeta Creek site located in southwestern North Carolina within the upper Little Tennessee Valley. The dating of the site spans as early as the 1400s to the 1700s. Furthermore, Rodning focused on mortuary patterns of Coweeta Creek, as well as the grave goods that were present within certain burials. Such mortuary patterns and grave goods reflected gender roles and gender ideology before and after European influences, as well as reflecting rituals and myths surrounding the Cherokee culture.
            Rodning points out the definition he uses of gender role, that being the “cultural practices that involve members of one but not all gender groups within a community.” He goes further to point out that the community may have recognized other genders and that gender roles reflect spatial dimensions within the community such as hierarchy.
            Through examining the mortuary patterns of this site, Rodning came to a few conclusions. There were burials located in, by, or near the townhouse that had a greater number of goods, as well as having greater variation in goods. The townhouse was the public space within the community. Rodning used ethnohistoric data to describe the uses of the townhouse, it being occupied mostly by men. He then said that it makes sense that there were men, as well as children, buried by the townhouse. Children may have been buried by the townhouse in recognizing their potential future roles in being men, being involved in such things as warfare, diplomacy, or trade. Rodning goes on to speculate that the men’s roles in warfare, diplomacy, and trade were due to increased influences and contact of Europeans.
In addition, other structures were people were buried included houses, or domestic structures. Within these burials were located primarily women, however presence of males within some burials causes difficulty in determining any clearcut correlation. Using ethnohistoric data, Rodning says that women were very powerful within the domestic sphere, and thus the communities were matrilocal.
Within burials with determined women, grave goods such as turtle shell rattles were present. These rattles were used in ceremonies in which women would dance. Other goods buried with women included shell beads and ground stone celt. The woman that was buried with ground stone celt may have had higher status and was possibly comparable to “Beloved Women.” “Beloved Women” as well as “Beloved Men” were seen as ceremonial leaders and were usually elders.
Furthermore, Rodning goes on to describe differences precontact and postcontact within the mortuary patterns. Precontact, grave goods were more common with women than with men. Then postcontact, grave goods became more common with men than with women. Rodning speculates this is due to the increased influence of Europeans and having typically male leadership roles. Rodning points out that grave goods may have simply been the possessions of the individuals, and is a reflection of increased availability of items postcontact.
The last conclusion Rodning came to was the connection between the close proximity of the burials and public spaces. He pointed out that the people would be walking by these burials every day. These burials were then seen as part of the “built environment,” possibly having effects between and among the people within the community present as well as thereafter.
The importance of these conclusions lies in the connections between ethnohistoric data Rodning uses and the mortuary patterns and grave goods in relation to gender dynamics and gender ideology. The burial locations reflected men’s role in their community and their involvement within the townhouse more so than the burial of women around domestic spheres. However, using ethnohistoric data, Rodning says that there is a greater likelihood that women were buried near domestic spheres because they were powerful figured within those realms, as were men to the townhouse. Additionally, grave goods became more prevalent and had greater variation after European contact. Women and men were seen to have similarities in grave goods, such as the ground stone celt indicating that women and men both could be ceremonial leaders within the community. Importance also presents itself in the article in that it shows the trend and influence European contact had within this community. Rodning mentions other sites, such as the King site where similar differences are seen.

Thomas, Larissa A. 1996 A study of shell beads and their social context in the Mississippian period: a case from the Carolina Piedmont and Mountains. Southeastern Archaeology 15(1): 29-46

            Larissa Thomas focused on mortuary remains located within the Piedmont and Mountains region in the southeast. Thomas chose comparing the Mountains to the Piedmont because of the Mountains region’s proposed greater social complexity. Thomas points out that she wanted to show that these two regions in fact have more similarities than differences, more similarities in material culture such as shell beads. In choosing which sites to analyze, Thomas used three criteria: group belonging to culture areas, groups having occupations from A.D. 1000 to 1500, and sites that have adult remains so that the sex can be determined. Of these regions, only fifteen sites were found to fit the criteria. From these fifteen sites, there were 153 recovered individual remains, 58% including any sort of grave goods and 27% including shell beads.
            Thomas begins her article by describing previous research on mortuary remains in Mississippi societies. She says that the processual paradigm usually used in not sufficient because social status was analyzed only through burial treatment and grave goods present. Thomas goes on to say that there is a need to recognize horizontal variability because it helps in lessening misrepresentations of social reality. In other words, there is a need to focus on other aspects than status, power, prestige, and wealth and on aspects like kinship, economic contexts, or political roles people may have had.
            Thomas goes further on to explain how wealth does not necessarily always mean status. She says that status is conceptualized as a fixed entity- when it should not be. Status should be seen and understood as more of a fluid and abstract concept. Furthermore, Thomas explains that shell beads were fairly common and it did not depend on one’s status of whether or not they had shell beads. Thomas cites that shell beads were essentially “primitive money.”
            An important aspect Thomas describes deals with aesthetics and display of shell beads. She says that people can create and convey to others visual impacts of whether or not they wear ornaments. These ornaments were also a way in which people could engage in nonverbal communication. However, these visual impacts can have varying meanings and Thomas says it is important to understand the possible conveyed messages people received.
            In comparing the Piedmont groups of men and women to those of the Mountains region, Thomas says that there was no difference between men and women in how common they were buried with shell beads. There also was not a difference in the number of beads that were buried with men or women between the two regions. There were weak associations though: women tended to have more bead than men in both regions. Another overall conclusion Thomas was able to discern was that men and women both used shell beads in the same way in both regions. She also says that status may have been stressed more within the Mountains region because of social hierarchy tendencies of Mississippian culture influencing the region. This furthered Thomas’ notion that shell beads cannot be adequately used as a form of status, only an estimation of one’s wealth.
Moreover, Thomas describes specific colors as being significant such as white. White symbolized fertility, rebirth, and well-being. People who wore white shell beads would send “powerful, positive social statements” to others. In addition, Thomas says that the data- combined with ethnohistoric data- suggests women had freedom in taking on different social positions, as well as men. Thus, women and men possibly had equal status, prestige, and power within society by filling the same roles. This is important in that it shows and supports a more egalitarian society still in existence as opposed to Mississippian influence having more hierarchical organizations. It is also important because this finding is similar to what others see within this region- that women and men are able to step into and take on each other’s roles within society.


  1. In one of the articles I read, the researchers used stable isotopic analysis to compare two Southeastern sites, Corbin Mound and East St. Louis Stone Quarry (ESLSQ). At the ESLSQ site there were isotopic differences between males and females, suggesting that males from the ESLSQ site consumed much more maize than the females did. This difference seems to suggest sex-based differences in food preparation roles or consumptiion patterns. This possibility is also evident when examining the difference in the rate of caries between males and females; males tend to have a higher rate than females. The rate of caries is in very close relation to the amount of C4 consumed, which again ties back to the different consumption patterns, food processing, and preparation factors which seem to differ between genders. The isotopic difference between sexes is only found in the ESLSQ sample and not the Corbin Mound, this suggests that these two groups’ feasting rituals, subsistence practices, or status or sex-based dietary preferences or practices may have differed.

    Hedman, Kristin M.
    2006 Late Cahokian Subsistence and Health: Stable Isotope and Dental Evidence. Southeastern Archaeology 25.2:258-274

  2. In doing research on non-projectile lithics in the Southeast, my findings suggested that certain tools, such as the adze and endscrapers, as well as residue of red ocher were signs of a female working in the area, as women would have been more likely to be skinning and cleaning the hides of animals (Walthall & Holley 1997). It’s interesting to read in your research, then, no evidence of any of these tools found in Rodning’s analysis of grave sites, even where sites were concluded just to house belongings of the deceased. An early study I read suggested that several people were buried not only with ceremonial objects, but also the tools they commonly used (Halsey 1984). Again, it is interesting to see no evidence of that, again, in this research, especially when it is pointed out that there was a switch into similar types of objects found between both males and females—as such, it could have been possible to see women buried with tools of their trade, but no such findings.

    Walthall, John A. and George R. Holley
    1997 Mobility and Hunter-Gatherer Toolkit Design: Analysis of a Dalton Lithic Cache, Southeastern Archaeology, 16(2):152-162.

    Halsey, John R.
    1984 The Ceremonial Pick: A Consideration of Its Place in Eastern Woodlands Prehistory. Midcontinental Journal of Archaeology 9(1):43-62.