According to the Oxford Dictionary, archaeology is ‘the study of human history and prehistory through the excavation of sites and the analysis of artefacts and other physical remains’. Archaeology is about people – but when it comes to reconstructions, including people in our depictions of the past creates a whole list of problems.
Some illustrators avoid this problem entirely by not including people in their reconstruction drawings – sites are drawn clean and unoccupied, removing the uncertainty and difficulties that including people would bring. In some cases, this is perfectly acceptable, depending on the information that we are trying to convey. However, I think that in general it is important to include people in our reconstructions, so long as we consider the issues involved carefully. The past was a place where people lived, after all.
What are these issues? Perhaps the biggest issue is a tendency to place our own beliefs and ideas about the world onto past societies. This is all too easy in reconstructions, where everything from a person’s clothing to where they are positioned in the picture can be seen as conveying a message. When creating these images, we are forced to make decisions on how to portray archaeological uncertainties, and it’s easy to fall back on stereotypes.
Unfortunately, this is something that I did in my own drawings of Star Carr, a Mesolithic site in Yorkshire. My painting depicted a woman sitting in a camp, looking after her baby. I hadn’t intended to say anything about gender or the division of labour in hunter-gatherer societies, but I had by unthinkingly drawing the scene in this way.
Still, it’s easy to see where these ideas came from – prehistoric people depicted with modern gender stereotypes are very, very common. The image of Man-the-Hunter/Woman-the-Homemaker is frequently reproduced (Bender 1989). The images below were created by Zdenek Burian (1905 – 1981) a Czech painter and book illustrator, who played a central role in the development of reconstructions. They depict scenes from the Upper Palaeolithic, a period just before the Mesolithic, but show the same stereotypes:
Burian’s paintings are beautiful and engaging, but what do they tell us about gender roles in the past? In the two images above, only men are seen engaging in hunting or ritual activities. Inevitably, whether creating or viewing an image, we all bring personal assumptions and understandings into our interpretations because we live within our own society and this affects the way we view things. But we can’t assume things were the same in past societies!
What evidence is there for gender roles in the Mesolithic? In reality, not very much. Zvelebil (2003) argued that gender distinctions were just not that important in Mesolithic hunter-gatherer societies, in terms of status and social differentiation. Drawing men as hunters and women as homemakers also ignores other factors, such as experience, which might have affected roles.
What might Burian’s work look like, if our own assumptions about gender roles are ignored? Below, I’ve sketched a version of Burian’s ‘Encampment of late Palaeolithic hunters’ in which some of the people have been switched so that there are no obvious gender roles. Instead of a male hunter in the centre of the picture, a woman is shown with a bow and arrow, standing in what is perhaps a position of authority. The original can be seen at the top of this post.
I don’t know a lot about gender or the Mesolithic, but the way we portray people is an important issue in visual representation. Reinforcing stereotypes in images has implications for the way people view the past. These drawings can affect the thinking of both the academic and the public, and we should recognise this when we create reconstructions.
Bender, B. (1989) ‘The roots of inequality’, in D. Miller, M. Rowlands and C. Tilley (eds.) Domination and Resistance, 83-94. London: Unwin Hyman.
Zvelebil, M. (2003) ‘People behind the lithics. Social life and social conditions of Mesolithic communities in Temperate Europe’, in L. Bevan and J. Moore (eds.) Peopling the Mesolithic in a Northern Environment, 1-26. Oxford: British Archaeological Reports, International Series 1157.