I looked expectantly around the room the sea of faces equally expectantly gazing back at me. Such is the nature of being a student-centred teacher in a classroom of teacher-centred students.
There was a patient silence. They knew I’d give them the answer if they waited long enough.
“Americans are massive”.
Sniggers erupted around the speaker, a lean boy in the back row.
Stereotypes. In my cross-cultural communication class we were thinking about how cultural stereotyping affects international business.
I thought about my American colleagues at the Xian Jiaotong University City College (Xian, China) where I was teaching English.
Alice was very overweight and when she returned to the US the voluminous skirts she lefte behind made good puppy-beds for the strays I would adopt. Susannah, on the other hand, was lean. Alice was from the south, Susannah from the north. I’ve never been to America. I wondered if place of origin had something to do with diet. Climate or food traditions? Generosity of portion sizes?
Archaeology is full of them and figurines seem particularly susceptible.
Take breasts, for example. Many figurines have them but they by no means are modelled in the same way. Some breasts are indeed massive, others tiny points. Breasts have a number of uses and meanings. Massive breasts may mean discomfort and inconvenience for the bearer, dollar signs for the profiteer. Swollen breasts mean dinner for a newborn, interrupted nights for the new mother.
What do breasts on figurines mean for archaeologists?
Figurines with breasts = fertility = abundance and plenty in a parsimonious world = successful human pregnancy = bringing home the bacon = all manner of good and lovely things = dispersal of nasty and unwanted things.
I am not suggesting breasts are not good things; I am questioning how we know that ancient people believed that breasts would be an appropriate symbol for good things. It seems to make common sense to us, that a part of a woman’s body which nurtures babies should be a symbol for good things in life. But while not everyone today would agree that breasts are the only appropriate symbol of good things (think about it, breast feeding in public was until recently not the ‘done thing’ and in many places is still frowned upon), others might think that there are more suitable symbols such as bunches of flowers, or nicely wrapped gifts, or a warming bowl of soup, or a good book, or a dog resting his chin on your knee.
It’s personal, isn’t it?
Perhaps figurines have nothing to do with stereotypical theories of bringing good things and averting bad things. Maybe figurines have something to do with personal choice.
So how do archaeologists find personal choice in the material record when the aim is reconstructing a historical context or determining whether excavated bones represent a domesticated animal? In other words, does the culture-history or the processualist schools of archaeology allow for a study of more than society-as-a-whole?
If archaeologists only study society-as-a-whole, don’t we fall into trap of stereotyping the people of the ancient past?
What do you think?