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Exploring The Mess Of Modern Bioarchaeology
“Archaeologists have discovered a 5,000-year-old skeleton which they believe may be the remains of a transgender person. The male skeleton was found in a suburb of Prague and is buried in a manner previously only seen for female burials. The body is believed to date from between 2900 and 2500BC and is from the Corded Ware culture of the Copper Age. Men’s bodies from that age and culture are usually found buried with their heads towards the west and with weapons. But this skeleton was found with its head towards the east and was surrounded by domestic jugs – as women’s bodies from the time are usually found. At a press conference in Prague yesterday, archaeologists theorised that the person may have been transgender or ‘third sex’. Kamila Remišová, the head of the research team, said: “From history and ethnology, we know that when a culture had strict burial rules they never made mistakes with these sort of things.”
Pink News, April 6th, 2011
A question I sometimes get asked on podcasts or in messages is “is there such a thing as a transgender skeleton?”, usually referring to human remains found in the prehistoric and early historic periods. On one level this question is ridiculous, of course not, the skeleton is an accurate reflection of biological sex, regardless of how its owner may have dressed it in life. But despite any rational attempt at a pushback, trans advocates and activists have successfully pushed themselves and their ideas into bioarchaeology and forensic anthropology, resulting in a semi open conflict within the disciplines over the meaning and characterisation of sex, once considered an immutable feature of the human body. So lets examine the current state of play.
Since at least the publication of Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble in 1990, most academics have become comfortable with the idea that sex and gender are two distinct phenomena - one related to your biology, the other as a kind of ‘performance’ of the social role your sex class is expected to play. To some degree this seems obvious, to be a man in Masaai culture is not quite the same thing as being a man in Mohawk culture. Yet only the most obstinate denialist of reality would argue that the roles men and women play have nothing to do with their biology.
Still, this split between sex and gender has become all pervasive. The National Health Service in the UK lists the definitions of both, along with a more modern term gender identity. This rather more radical concept is the idea that a person experiences an internal state which corresponds to a particular gender, and that this is more important than the biological sex one was born with. If the language sounds slippery and tricky, it is meant to be. Gender identity has no real definition, just a circular argument trying to describe what gender actually means.
This aside, the sex/gender difference has become well established in bioarchaeology and forensic anthropology. A standard introduction would run like this:
“To accomplish these goals, we first have to define a set of key concepts. We define sex as the biological state of being male, female or intersex, as indicated by sex chromosomes, gonads, internal reproductive organs, and external genitalia, amongst other features (Fausto-Sterling et al., 2012a). Sex, like developmental age, can be estimated from the skeleton through several mostly morphometric methods with varying degrees of accuracy (Milner and Boldsen, 2012). Gender is the culturally contingent range of biological, physical, behavioral, and psychological characteristics associated with a given sex.”
The effect of this has been relatively minimal, since the divide neatly maps onto the physical remains (sex) vs the clothing/grave goods/mortuary rites etc (gender). But this distinction seems almost reactionary when confronted with the more nebulous gender identity and ‘queer theory’ of more fringe approaches to bio and osteoarchaeology.
‘Destabilising’ the Category
A standard method in ‘queer’ and critical theory is to take concepts devised in literary and postmodern theory and apply them to the sciences. Bioarchaeology seems ripe for the taking in this regard since it contains a classic target category type - binary sex.
Binaries have long been attacked in postmodern literary theory; ideas such as ‘man vs woman’, ‘civilised vs uncivilised’ and ‘occident vs orient’ were deconstructed in the earlier postmodern waves and found to contain an implicit hierarchy, one is naturally assumed to be more important than the other. Queer theory takes this approach much further and actively seeks to ‘destabilise’ the binary, deliberately blurring the poles, deconstructing terminology and setting out to undermine firm social categories.
Naturally the biological distinction between male and female comes under particular ire for the queer activist. They seek to destroy the concept of binary biological sex (a trait which emerges so far back in evolutionary history it is shared by protists, plants and animals) and replace it with a constantly shifting messy series of uncertainties. A piece typical of this genre of thought notes:
“The perception of a hard-and-fast separation between the sexes started to disintegrate during the second wave of feminism in the 1970s and '80s. In the decades that followed, we learned that about 1.7 percent of babies are born with intersex traits; that behavior, body shape, and size overlap significantly between the sexes, and both men and women have the same circulating hormones; and that there is nothing inherently female about the X chromosome. Biological realities are complicated. People living their lives as women can be found, even late in life, to be XXY or XY.”
I don’t intend to use this article to outline a defence of basic biology, I assume my readers haven’t fallen for this kind of sophistry and accept the validity of biological sex as a given. However, the attack on the sex binary has come from multiple angles and it is worth outlining the main approaches and refuting what needs to be refuted:
Claim One: Sex is a spectrum because a number of chromosomal, gonodal, endocrine and phenotypic disorders exist which don’t easily fit into either sex ( eg Turner Syndrome & Klinefelter Syndrome)
Claim Two: Sexing a skeleton is an imprecise, subjective and biased process which is often ambiguous at best and prejudiced at worst
Claim Three: The sex/gender binary in bioarchaeology often reverts to privileging the biological category as true and the mortuary evidence for gender as interpretative
I have little interest in arguing with the first claim, since even entertaining the idea that sex is a spectrum, not a binary, is to engage with an analytical approach that favours a critical textual and philosophical method rather than anything based in reality. The other two I will explore next.
Sexing A Skeleton
A fundamental task of the bioarchaeologist or forensic anthropologist is to identify the skeleton or human remains as either male or female. Knowledge of this fact is obviously crucial for a criminal case and is invaluable information for any archaeological assessment - but without a chromosomal test, how can a skeleton be identified as either male or female with any confidence?
The methods for sexing a skeleton can be split into morphological (descriptive) and metric. Both are typically used in any case. Metric methods rely on large population studies where averages can be created to check against, while morphological methods derive from well established differences in skeletal shape and structure. Morphological methods include assessing the skull, pelvis, jaw and long bones, often on a 1-5 scale. Metric methods take these measurements and can statistically test them against population data sets.
The anthropologist or archaeologist will create a report based on the conditions of the remains and provide a ‘sex estimation’ which reflects their skill, experience and any metric or digital assistance they may have used. The opacity of the person’s identity is an epistemological problem for anyone working with human remains, you have a former person in front of you who was a male or a female, but you have a gap of mortality between you and, while the tools of forensics and osteology help the dead to speak, they aren’t always accurate.
To give forensic scientists and archaeologists their due - there is an enormous literature of blind testing to help refine models, techniques and winkle out any biases over morphological approaches. Some of these are truly amazing, to quote from one paper:
“The material involved in the study comprises 262 pelvic bones and 180 skulls of male individuals from two mass graves in Serbia. The material was examined separately by an experienced and an inexperienced physical anthropologists. Sex was correctly estimated by the experienced anthropologist in 100% of individuals using all of the 16 pelvic and cranial criteria.”
New automated digital imaging methods combined with ‘deep learning’ algorithms and other limited artificial intelligence programs are equally as impressive, with papers reporting up to 97% accuracy in estimation.
However, the majority of sex estimation cases are not subject to blind tests where the answer is known beforehand. In these cases estimation carries with it a level of imprecision, which is now called the ‘zone of uncertainty’ in the literature.
This is no surprise really, humans have a natural level of variation within any given population, and physical markers for sex, assuming they are even all present or in a decent condition, don’t always show themselves in an obvious way. Hence the room for doubt which has given wiggle space for gender activists to push back against the sex binary in estimation.
A Female Burial?
One of the classic problems of archaeology is trying to understand the identity of a buried or cremated person through the mortuary acts, grave goods and practices that can be detected. This gets far more complicated when we are looking at the prehistoric era, where our sources of analogy are ethnographic studies of forager and tribal peoples.
An absolute classic of this genre is the question of whether someone buried with a sword was a warrior in life? A good example is the reassessment of a Viking warrior grave found in Birka, Sweden. Grave Bj 581 contains martial grave goods, including swords and several horses. Osteologically the person had always been identified as a woman, but the grave goods raised doubts. Finally the issue was resolved through genetic testing, and the person found to be a woman.
Now we reach some contradictory and difficult problems:
Giving priority to her biological sex we might interpret her as a powerful female warrior, with implications for Viking society at large
Giving priority to the grave goods we might interpret her as transgender, and view her social gender as the more important
Dissolving both categories we could see her as a destabilising, ‘queer’ figure, who disrupts the social norms and challenges the gender binary
Older feminist archaeologists are likely to opt for the former, showing how women could command important roles traditionally reserved for men. Younger archaeologists are more likely to see the mismatch between her sex and ‘grave gender’ as proof of her status as a transman, or some kind of non-binary figure. In the case of the latter it is crucial to have as little ambiguity as possible with both sex estimation and gender interpretation.
Precisely these conundrums are becoming routine in modern archaeology. The gay news outlet Pink News gleefully reported the discovery of a Czech Corded Ware Culture burial where the sex of the individual did not conform to the binary burial type. In these situations the outcome you want is the one you get - the media reported the discovery of a ‘gay caveman’, despite being from the early Bronze Age. Conflating age, sex, status, ethnicity, gender, sexuality and potentially spiritual role all serves to create a confusion where activist groups can claim the discovery of ‘transgender skeletons’.
As we have seen, it is nigh on impossible to have the confidence in your interpretation to declare the mismatch between skeletal sex and social gender to be only possible in the case of a transgender person. Even this simple analysis overlooks the wealth of information for how gay men and women have been perceived culturally throughout history.
Forensics & Bone Surgery
A final wrinkle in this complicated mix of theory and practice is a niche concern among forensic anthropologists dealing with modern homicide cases - managing and working with skeletal remains that have undergone bone surgery to make them look visibly like the opposite sex, in almost all scenarios these are biologically men.
Some of this conversation has been framed through the tiresome critical language of ‘centering’ and ‘marginalisation’, such as this article from 2021:
“Due to disproportionate violence impacting the transgender community, forensic anthropologists may encounter the remains of trans individuals; however, it is unknown how often trans individuals are represented in casework and if practitioners have sufficient knowledge about trans bodies… The results indicate that 28.9% of respondents have worked with trans individuals in casework, but most forensic anthropologists were unfamiliar with forms and evidence of gender affirming procedures”
Other more level-headed papers merely approach the problem as an interesting but highly unusual problem in osteological examination, how to make sense of a skeleton that has been deliberately modified?
The most pertinent of these osteological problems is the existence of ‘Facial Feminisation Surgery’ (FFS). FFS refers to a series of procedures whereby the masculine attributes of the mandible and cranium can be surgically altered to be more in line with a typically feminine face. These include but are not limited to:
Forehead reduction and contouring
Genioplasty, chin contouring
Forehead reduction often involves cutting off the anterior portion of bone, shaving and contouring the forehead and reattaching the anterior section with wires by securing it to a hole made in the sinus wall. Similarly the anterior section of mandible can be removed and reattached with plates and screws. Acrylic burrs can be used to reduce the gonial angle, or flares can be removed with saws and rounded off.
In a sane world the discussion of forensic FFS analysis should remain quietly within the literature of the profession and have little impact on the wider culture, much as the rest of forensic work does. Sadly the conflation of the issues discussed in this article lead to idea like this post becoming mainstream:
Some Final Thoughts
As the post above shows, and the many articles I have referenced throughout, there is a desire and a push to make transgenderism a reality within bioarchaeology and forensic anthropology. The case of modern homicide victims displaying pins in their jaws seems clear cut, they most likely wanted to change their appearance from male to female in accordance with modern gender ideology. But the glaring bias within archaeology today is to accept wholesale progressive ideology and project it backwards as thought transgenderism was not a highly contingent social practice, only made possible in the 21st century.
I don’t have the space or the will to tackle gender ideology in its entirety here, but it seems straightforward that several things can be true at once:
Modern transgenderism cannot reflect the past in any meaningful way
The desire for some men and women to flout their social roles, either sexually or in some other way is a universal phenomenon
Burials may indicate a unusual, deviant, celebrated, powerful, marginal or other figure without ‘destabilising’ the binary
Shamans, slaves, certain priestly figures such as the eunuch galli of ancient Rome, and others may be buried or have skeletal markers of social difference. These do not make them akin to modern trans people. Perhaps in a future article I will tackle the broader question of how sex, gender, sexuality and so-called ‘third genders’ have been discussed in modern anthropology. But hopefully this article has clarified some issues and explained some of the many problems that go into sex estimation and burial interpretation in today’s academic research practices.