Archaeology Reveals its Roots
I’ve heard it said that young feminists today think a concern over patriarchy is passe´. So many other national ills require our attention — racism, climate change, discrimination against immigrants; the list is long. The struggle for equal gender power doesn’t seem to compare with these other challenges in modern America.
But there is a fallacy in this argument that prevents us from seeing the true nature of patriarchy. Sexism or dominance relations between men and women may be the most obvious sign of patriarchy, but at the root of this political/cultural system lies a more basic issue — wealth creation and the power of the elite.
There are more explanations for patriarchy than you can count on one hand, so over the past year, I’ve found myself delving into Sumerian studies in search of its historical roots. One millennium after another into the past: 2000 BCE, 3000, 4,000 years before the Christian era: Abraham and the rise of all male Gods; Gilgamesh and his assaults on the natural world; King Sargon of Akkad, the first identified imperialist. The growing military, political and spiritual power of men compared to women was obvious. But what was not clear at first is where this all started and why.
To make the question more urgent, I knew about the work of archaeologist Marija Gimbutas who described egalitarian societies during the Neolithic era (prior to the 4th millennium), when beliefs in female divinity were deeply imbedded and integrated with the natural world. I wanted to know what happened to that cultural system. Where did the goddess go? Why did men assume authority over women and maintain it for so many years? (The centennial of Gimbutas will be celebrated this month, so the question is especially relevant)
One explanation for patriarchy that caught excited attention several years ago was the alphabet — the invention of writing around 3500 BCE in Mesopotamia. Author Leonard Shlain argued that writing favored left-brained men with their abstract language over women who were mentally more holistic. Possible, but culturally influenced.
More recently the invention of agriculture has been considered the root of patriarchy because men acted to control property, passing it down through their family line. That could only be done by controlling women and women’s reproduction. Likely.
But agriculture and settled village life started 5,000 years before patriarchy. During that time men and women shared equal authority in many parts of the developing world including in Mesopotamia’s “fertile crescent,” (now modern-day Iraq).
One day I happened upon a paper on women and rise of urban society in the earliest known city in the world — Uruk — during the 4th millennium. Voila!
Archaeologist Katherine I. Wright at University College London set out to understand whether women were subordinated in the 4th millennium BCE when writing, mass production and more intensive agriculture first appeared. What she found convinced her that this “urban revolution” came with a massive and successful effort by elites to overturn female power based on clans. A new political system shifted power to men along with control of slaves and an undifferentiated class of workers.
The shreds of material evidence are thin, but suggestive. Images of nude men and women, some bound, with no clothing or facial features, or even much sexual identity, are shown carrying goods to a clothed man who holds a staff. The only figures with any clothing appear to be elite men and the goddess Inanna to whom the goods are eventually offered. So, there is a goddess in this new urban culture, but one who is part of a religious order that profits from the wealth being generated.
Meanwhile, images that had been prolific during the earlier millennium were almost completely gone from the record. Artifacts from the earlier era had been dominated by sexually explicit female shapes, highly decorated to indicate clothing, jewelry or other body adornments. These were the kinds of artifacts Gimbutas had seen in an Old European context.
But in early Uruk there were few or no images of females as sexual beings in the new era of city formation. Instead they were “sexless, carefully covered up, or crude and lacking in details,” Wright said.
In the emergent writing, terms referring to men indicated various roles and activities; terms for women seemed to denote just one characteristic — “female,” except for a special word for “mother.” Evidence like this indicated to the archaeologist that the 4th millennium was a transitional period when the archaic state began to form. Gender, particularly women’s reproductive role, was central to that process. Uruk elites were mounting a “massive challenge” to traditional authority based on ancient patterns of kinship where women played a far more central role.
So what does this tell us? It says that slavery and class structure came together with a suppression of female power — all in the context of urbanization. If privilege and wealth maintain patriarchy, its endurance is easy to understand and horribly difficult to dismantle. The only hope I see is the growing economic and political power of women — not because women are better than men individually, but because there is good evidence that cultures where women control many or most resources, equality of all kinds is prevalent. Gender equality makes better men and women; financial power in the hands of women is central to that process.
This month, the United Nations held a forum where politicians, corporations and activists pledged the largest financial support to gender equity they’ve ever made — $40 billion. Maybe we can change the system. It’s good to remember that, as women, we have more to do in this world than perpetuate dominant male patterns. Let’s not join the greedy patriarchal culture that sucks away the spirit of all but a few.