Reflections on Identity and Ethnicity in the Ancient World
Lauren E. Talalay
Kelsey Museum of Archaeology
University of Michigan

Identity is a complex, multidimensional phenomenon. Variously and not always clearly defined across disciplines, the subject of identity witnessed a surge of interest after World War II. The political and social changes that emerged in the wake of the War fostered heated discussions of national character, ethnicity, and personality (Erikson 1950, 1958; Herdt 1994:45). Today, despite what must total hundreds of thousands of pages on the concepts of collective and individual identities, there is no agreement about the precise functions that identity serves at both the personal and social levels or on how identity is formed, maintained, dissolved, and recreated.
The complexity and elusiveness of the topic, however, seems to create an irresistible challenge to scholars who feed in a variety of academic habitats, and, as this conference shows, provides a rich environment for discussions of ethnicities and the relationships of individual and collective identities to material culture.
A prolegomenon to All for One or One for All? (Re)constructing Identity in the Ancient World, this brief introduction aims to problematize the concept of identity and offer perspectives that, hopefully, will prove useful to archaeologists, art historians, and others who study the past through texts, literary evidence, and/or material culture. Reflecting some of the issues raised by the presenters in this conference, I begin with some theorizing, move to an exploration of group and negotiated identity, then to a discussion of archaeology and the construction of modern political identities, and finally to a consideration of gendered identity.
As current scholarship attests, contemplating identity is a convoluted enterprise. At the individual level, identity answers the question, "Who am I in relation to other people?" On the social level, it answers the query "Who are we in relation to other human groups?" (Mach 1993:4). Neither question is easy to answer and in both cases, issues of integration, adaptation, conflict and the symbolic nature of human communication must be considered (Mach 1993:4). Given the dynamic aspects of identity, it is not surprising that attempts to find an objective set of criteria that can serve as a definition, particularly for ethnic and collective identities, prove frustrating (Hall 1997:19). It is, however, heuristically beneficial to tackle the subject by isolating several questions, all of which are either implicitly or explicitly addressed by the presenters in this conference: What kinds of artifacts and literary evidence are constitutive of what kinds of identity? How do they reflect and participate in negotiated dispositions over time? Under what conditions will societies encourage individual, self-determined or personal rather than collective and social indentities? And, how politicized is the relationship between archaeology and the construction of modern identities? In order to answer these questions, we need to design a basic vocabulary and formulate some theoretical guidelines.


The difficulties inherent in defining identity notwithstanding, we can productively start with a baseline. Identity usually refers to one of several related but distinct notions: 1) the collective set of characteristics by which something is recognized; 2) the set of personal or behavioral characteristics by which an individual is known as a member of a group; 3) the quality or condition of being the same as something else; and 4) the distinct personality of an individual regarded as a persisting entity (American Hertitage Dictionary: Second College Edition).
Cleary not a monolithic concept, identity entails a set of interrelated conditions or characteristics, which for the purpose of this introduction, are conceived as a helical construction. The plaits in this DNA-type model include one strand for the concept of essences, one for the idea of sameness or likeness, and one for the notion of difference. Any attempt to understand identity in the ancient world must take these fundamental properties into account.
If, for example, we want to recover something of the identity of a hypothetical third century AD male living in the town of Frascati, Italy, we would need to gather first, some essential "facts" about him (e.g., social status, age, profession, life history) and second, the ways in which he is similar and different from contemporary individuals of similar and different statuses, ages, genders and professions. It is also critical to know whether the final attributes we arrive at are those which are self-perceived and self-defined (by our third century male) or externally arbitrated and externally defined--by his contemporaries or by the archaeologist or philologist who has undertaken the research.
On the surface, this "fact-finding" expedition appears straight- forward. At the heart of this process, however, is a more complex debate, or what has been labelled the identity thesis versus the difference thesis (Sampson 1993:84-93).
The identity thesis adopts an essentialist view: objects and people have an essential nature, an inherent property that gives them a recognizable identity. Individuals who collectively share that essence partake, on some level, of the same identity. The coherence of that identity is guaranteed through time, regardless of the multiple guises in which it may appear (Sampson 1993:85). For example, in the identity thesis model an essential definition of male, female, homosexual, or heterosexual identities would be viewed as immutable through time.
The difference thesis is positioned elsewhere at the starting gate. Differences rather than essences render the identities we currently experience or study. Whatever something is cannot be fathomed without understanding the nexus of comparisons that construct its qualities (Sampson 1993:86). All things are defined in comparison with something else. Moreover, those comparisons can shift over time. Rather than assume, for example, that a unified core identity or definition exists for male, female, homosexual or heterosexual, the difference thesis would consider these identities as composite, variable, and plastic. What might be construed as a core identity or essence is actually a changing social accomplishment: certain identities simply become dominant over time as they are continually reaffirmed by social institutions and cultural practices (Sampson 1993:86,112-113).
Despite what may seem like so much rhetoric in these opposing theoretical stances, the debate raises an important question for the study of identity in the ancient world. When we look for group or individual identity in the archaeological record or in the literary evidence, are we searching for an enduring phenomenon-- a stable, intrinsic, and independent property of a person or a group-- or for a dynamic and processual phenomenon that is culturally and historically contingent (Mach 1993:5-6)?
Current wisdom does not favor the idea that identities, past or present, entail an enduring phenomenon. Ethnic identity in particular is more often described as socially constructed and subjectively perceived (Hall 1997:19). Although there is much to recommend this view and I agree that identity is largely a social phenomenon, we should not loose sight of the possible enduring aspects of any given identity. We would perhaps do best to don stereoscopic lenses, focusing on both the enduring and the situated aspects of personal and social identity. While definitions of self, others, and groups in both the ancient and modern worlds are surely based on shifting, situational, and subjective identifications that are rooted in daily and historical experiences (Jones 1997:13), these identifications also have tap roots that extend to an unchanging bedrock which define an essence. It is arguable, for example, that a Neolith from Franchthi, a Minoan from Knossos, a Mycenaean from Tiryns, a Roman from Frascati, and a Greek from Athens had well-defined understandings of his or her individual or collective identity but those identities were variously (re)defined depending on who was (re)configuring the definition and what socio-cultural, economic, or political ends that construction was intended to serve.
The ambiguous and changing nature of identity also allows us to consider the extent to which identities are self-constructed. In societies where there are avenues for such self-determinations, identities can serve as effective means of negotiating social and power relations at various levels. Gender is particularly susceptible to such self-constructions and, as is evident in our modern society, the choice of gender or the degree of ambiguity in one's gender can serve as validation of or resistance to cultural norms.
If we accept the scenario that identities, past and present, are largely contingent, that culture, language, and politics continually mediate essential identities, we confront the Herculean task of deciphering how to sort out these relationships. It is productive to begin with small steps, starting with the question of how artifacts can be employed as emblematic indices marking group and/or ethnic boundaries.


Late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century scholars of archaeology were particularly intrigued by the subject of collective and ethnic identities. Focusing on geographical variations in material assemblages, they argued that ethnicity was passively reflected in material culture. Researchers correlated ethnicity with homogeneous and bounded clusters of artifacts, suggesting that typologically similar objects found within a given spatial and temporal domain indicated shared ethnicity or close interaction among unified ethnic groups. Given that framework, ethnicity could be "mapped" by plotting, for example, similarities in pottery styles, stone tool types, architectural forms, mortuary choices, and even floral and faunal remains that might reflect dietary preferences (Hall 1997:111; Jones 1997).
Doubts concerning these kinds of assumptions were raised as early as the 1920s and 30s (Jones 1997:106) but debate focused largely on the meaning of archaeological types. Did typologies reflect artificial and "etic" categories imposed by archaeologists or the cognitive and "emic" categories of the makers (Jones 1997:107)?
In the 1960s a more fundamental question was raised by the so- called new archaeologists. The equation of ethnic identity with homogeneous and bounded artifact (or other) clusters only made sense if one assumed that culture was "normative". Normative views implied that practices, beliefs, and behaviors within a given group conformed to prescriptive rules and that every member of the group learned and participated in those rules or norms (Jones 1997:24). Binford was the first archaeologist to argue cogently that this view was dangerously simplistic, since culture was participated in differentially by different groups of individuals. Cultural systems integrated individuals and social units, by means of various institutions, into broader units that had different levels of corporate inclusiveness (Binford 1965: 205).
Ethnic systems and other forms of group identities are no longer seen as static, homogeneous, impermeable, and normative. Rather, they are defined as "untidy," heterogeneous, fluid, and transient (Jones 1997:131). Group identity is a dynamic process, involving inclusion and exclusion and active maintenance of cultural boundaries in the process of social interaction (Jones 1997:28).
In his recent book, Ethnic Identity in Greek Antiquity, Hall has gone so far as to argue that any quest for an objective definition of an ethnic group is doomed to failure. According to Hall, ethnic groups (as opposed to other social and associative groups) are defined by associations with a specific territory and a shared myth of descent (Hall 1997:32). The critical criteria of group membership are not based on attributes such as physical features, language, and religion but are "...socially constructed and renegotiated, primarily through written and spoken discourse" (Hall 1997:24). Genetic, linguistic, religious, and common cultural features therefore become symbols that are manipulated according to subjectively constructed boundaries (Hall 1997:32). Equally important, Hall observes that ethnic (and other collective identities) are more likely to be salient in multi-ethnic situations, particularly where one group perceives itself to be threatened or is seeking to advance itself (Hall 1997:131).
The challenge for archaeologists, art historians, and Classicists, then is to determine how language and material culture are related to the dynamic nature of ethnic and other group identities. As several writers have observed, ethnic behavior and other collective group identities do not affect the totality of a society's material culture, only those categories that are consciously selected to carry social or political meaning under specified circumstances (Weissner 1984, 1989; Morgan 1991:134; Hall 1997:135)
In the last decade a number of archaeologists and anthropologists have wrestled with these issues, with instructive work emerging from individuals such as Ian Hodder (1982, 1986), Maureen MacKenzie (1991) Robert Larick (1986), and Polly Wiessner (1983, 1984, 1989, 1990). Time permits me to discuss only the work of Hodder and MacKenzie.
Hodder's ethno-archaeological studies in Zambia, Kenya, and the Sudan were among the first to show that differences and similarities in the material culture of various groups do not passively reflect separate or shared ethnicities or group affinities. The situation is far more complex, with ethnic and group identities variously expressed by and negotiated through an array of objects, ranging from the mundane to the decorative. Moreover, not all objects need be highly visible.
For example, in the Baringo district of north central Africa the geographic distribution of very visible spear types and rather inconspicuous calabashes mediate very specific aspects of group identity. Employed for both within-group and inter-tribal contacts, the spears are the possessions of young, unmarried, and in many ways unempowered men. These spears, however, do not serve as the primary weapon of warfare--the bow and poison arrow being the weapon of choice. Nor is the spear often used for hunting. Despite the fact that these spears are not employed much in any "practical" sense, young men in the district are rarely seen without them. A young Tugen or Pokot leaves his spear outside a compound when he enters, but otherwise almost always carries one, whether herding, dancing or participating in other activities.
The importance of the spear lies in its symbolic power to signal a young man's virility and strength; it is directed toward both young available women and older men. In the Baringo area, men are prevented from marrying until their age-grade matures (which for some may be 30 years old). Older married men, who rarely carry a spear but use instead a wooden staff, maintain a monopoly over wives and cattle. The spear is seen as part of the mechanism by which young men demonstrate their unity and strength in the face of dominant elders. Members of the younger cohort from one tribe often copy types and decorations of other tribal groups who might be well known as feared raiders and warriors (Hodder 1982:66-68).
To read the similarities in spear types that cross-cut tribal boundaries in the Baringo district as an indicator of, for example, ethnic affinities, would be incorrect. The coincidence in spear types over the area reflect and participate in very specific kinds of collective identities for men.
By the same token, the Baringo district calabashes, which are employed mainly for storing milk, are the domain of women who decorate them in a kind of silent discourse. Women design their own calabashes; some designs exhibit widespread distribution, although marked localizations in decoration are more common. Men pay little attention to these modest pieces and consider them of marginal importance. For the women, however, they provide a source of local independence. Unlike female attire, which is strictly controlled and tends to reinforce tribal conformities, women can freely select their calabash designs and disrupt certain social boundaries (Hodder 1982:68-73).
Equally instructive is the study by Maureen MacKenzie of the Telefol string bag, or bilum, found in central Papua New Guinea (PNG). Like the spears and calabashes described by Hodder, these bags mediate and justify roles within and between men and women, select age grades, and certain kin. Bilums of all sizes are characteristic accessories of men, women and children, as well as mythical spirit-women who carry potent substances in these net containers. The bags contain, carry, and store everything from infants and food to utilitarian objects and sacred human relics. At the most obvious level the bilum is used to construct and reinforce the opposition of the sexes: men and women carry very different types of bags for gender-specific activities. Invariably, men carry the bilum on their back, women from their heads. The bags reflect the oppositional qualities of each sex, placing men and women firmly in their differentiated and separated realms of activity (MacKenzie 1991:191).
On another level, however, the bags express the overlapping and mutually supportive roles of the sexes, which are constantly under negotiation. Some bags, like the elaborate bird-feather bilum used in male cults, are the product of "multiple authorship" (MacKenzie 1991:192). The finely worked loops of evenly spun string, which are created by the women, provide the framework onto which iridescent feathers are selected and attached by the men. The productive contribution of each sex underscores the reciprocal partnership of men and women (MacKenzie 1991:192).
For the Telefol, then, the bilum is one of the most important signifiers of identity, a complex product used in varying social and ritual realms that reflect and participate in the ongoing negotiations between the sexes (MacKenzie 1991:29). It is worth noting that the bilum has recently become an important national symbol in PNG. As diverse cultural groups combine into one viable nation, the string bag is emerging as a symbol of PNG's unity. Used extensively as a visual symbol on murals, architectural facades and street sculpture, the bilum serves to validate the role of women and reinforce PNG's claim to be a modern state with traditional roots (MacKenzie 1991:19-21).
These ethnographic investigations provide valuable analogues for the study of identity in past societies. On the one hand, they help sustain the view that various levels and aspects of individual and group identity are indeed "sutured" into material culture, from the humble string bag to the finely wrought metal spear. On the other hand, as the authors repeatedly observe, artifacts do not passively reflect identities but actively participate in the on-going crafting of self and group definition. They can act to classify, confront, justify, limit, and redefine personal and social identities. Although it may seem obvious from the perspective of our fast-moving society, individuals and groups constantly redefine, realign, and recraft themselves. We should not dismiss the fluid nature of identity as a modern phenomenon. Continual redefinition and recrafting of people and groups were surely part of all ancient cultures.
The ethnographic studies also serve as cautionary tales, warning us not to assume that stylistic and formal similarities in the material culture of a large geographic area necessarily reflect ethnic affinities. While stylistic similarities in the material culture of sites almost invariably indicate some kind of on-going communication or contact, the strategies that give rise to those similarities can be variable and complex.
Like Hodder and MacKenzie, the presenters at this conference consider the subject of group boundaries and the ways in which collective identities are negotiated in various social and political contexts (see Sessions One, Two, and Three). The papers accommodate a wide range of topics, geographical and chronological foci, as well as various methodological approaches.
Although the three papers in the first session are classed under "Individual Identity"," the presenters, Andrew Keetley, W. Marshall Johnston, and William Hafford, ultimately reinsert the individual into larger social and political contexts. In fact, each one of these authors suggests that the most complete way to understand individual identity is to contextualize it into the collective consciousness of the times.
The topics of perceived identity, discourses of boundaries, and the "us versus them" dichotomy form the focus of the remaining papers on group and negotiated identities.
Both Yelena Rakic and Sarah J. Kielt examine aspects of Near Eastern glyptic art. Using seals and sealings from greater Mesopotamia of the third millennium, Rakic investigates how these small but highly significant works of art signal collective identification, and by extension, possible ethnic identities among different groups that are usually classed linguistically (e.g., Sumerians, Akkadian, Elamites). Kielt considers the same type of data, namely seals and sealings, using the evidence to examine Uruk expansion in fourth millennium Syro- Anatolia. She analyzes material from the site of Arslantepe, searching for clues to the relationship between local and Uruk-related "intrusions" into the local administrative systems of the site.
E. Kent Webb's concern with group boundaries is quite different. He revisits the Athenian Tyrannicide narrative, recasting it as part of the on-going and all-important discourse on privileged citizenry in the ancient polis. Unlike previous scholars, Webb mines ideological expressions, not legal, political, or territorial aspects, to recover the designation of class, gender, and group boundaries in classical Athens.
Matthew Trundle also places his study in the Classical Age. Trundle looks at the unusual and layered nature of identity among Greeks in military service overseas. Greek mercenary soldiers, who comprise a kind of moving polis, are communities unto themselves. Their identities are shifting and artificially manufactured--outsiders who label themselves as Greeks despite the fact that they often fight fellow Greeks in the employ of another paymaster. Like other Greeks, they also define themselves by the city-states from which they hail.
The complexities of self-defined and other-defined identity raise the important issue of dominant and weaker identities--the tensions that often exist between an "us" and a "them." That topic is explicitly considered by both Anthony Leonardis and Lauren Hackworth Peterson. Using a variety of archaeological and literary sources, Leonardis examines the conflicts between the native Sabellian population of south Italy and the long-established and dominant Greek presence in Magna Graecia. To better understand the possible interplay between these two populations, he employs an anthropological model generated by work on the Metis, a term meaning "half-breed" that was given to the Native peoples who intermarried with European fur-traders in the northwestern plains and parklands of North America.
Peterson also looks at the issue of identity in the Italic peninsula, attempting to reinstate the voice of a Roman libertinus or former slave. She works not through the stereotypical images presented in texts such as the Satyricon, but through the house decoration of one former slave whose domus was uncovered at Pompeii. The picture that emerges from her research stands in stark contrast to the one perpetuated by the texts.
Tying all of these papers on group and negotiated identity together is an emphasis on the discursive and contingent nature of ethnic and group identities. The creation and maintenance of collective identities requires strategies--a conscious effort to define and bolster ones distinctiveness (Hall 1997:3). Each one of the presenters tries to define those strategies more closely in a particular setting of the ancient world.


The four papers in the last session raise a very different kind of question: How do the politics of modern identity affect definitions of identity in the ancient world? As many postmodern scholars and post- processual archaeologists have observed, all interpretations of the past are politicized, some more transparently than others. The topic of archaeology as a contemporary political practice and the ways in which it intersects with the construction of cultural identity has been the source of debate for more than a decade (e.g., Ucko, 1983, 1987, 1995; Trigger 1984, 1989; Gathercole and Lowenthal 1990; Stone and MacKenzie 1990; Shanks and Tilley 1992; Jones 1997:6). The most famous case of nationalistic appropriation, of course, is the political manipulation of the past in Nazi Germany (Veit 1990). The papers in the last session urge us to observe the observer, and in the process re-evaluate the enterprise of interpreting the past.
Taking Kenneth Dover's path-breaking book Greek Homosexuality as her model, Minna Duchovnay asks how the interests and cultural dispositions of a scholar affect his or her theories and how students can develop the ability to evaluate work that may be both covertly and overtly politicized. Sarah Lepinski broaches the subject of modern reconstructions of past identities from a slightly different angle. She questions the validity of current understandings of Neo-Assyrian identity, arguing that modern conceptions are based on paradigms popularized by eighteenth and nineteenth century scholars and on the force of ancient myths. Equally important, she suggests that current scholarship has not critically taken into account the attributes of identity that the Neo-Assyrians consciously choose to perpetuate in their material culture.
Katharine Woodhouse-Beyer transports us to a very different part of the world, looking at the material remains from an early nineteenth century Russian American provisioning Company in the Kodiak archipelago. Attempting to understand the process of creolization on the archipelago, she explores material correlates of change in gender and sociocultural relations.
Finally, Diana Loren and Emily Stovel discuss a critical problem between archaeologists and indigenous populations. As archaeologists move to embrace more fluid models of a multi-ethnic past, indigenous populations in North and South America are fighting to recover archaeological evidence that supports their enduring heritage and autochthonous presence. The conundrum, as stated by these authors, is " How do we as archaeologists, explore ethnic plurality in the recent and distant past without denying indigenous groups the power to define their own histories?"
While these papers in the last session provide us with a mixed bag geographically and chronologically, they are all concerned with the affects that modern cultural filters have on interpretations of past societies and with the question of who can or should legitimately "own" or appropriate the past. Who can or should arbitrate between multiple and competing interpretations of the past (Jones 1997:10)? As conflicts within and between groups continue to erupt on the global stage, these kinds of questions will become ever more critical. We are not likely to find satisfactory answers soon, but the dialogues amongst all involved will continue to provide food for thought.


As the final topic, I turn to a brief discussion of sexual and gendered identity, focusing on the appearance of sexual ambiguity in the Greek Neolithic. Although few of the papers in this conference consider gender and identity explicitly, the subject has been the focus of various publications during the last few decades (for anthropological and archaeological discussions see, Ortner and Whitehead 1981; Moore 1988; Gero and Conkey 1991). Like the other aspects of identity explored at this conference, sexual and gendered identity are the product of dialogues--dialogues between the modern researcher and the evidence he or she interprets, dialogues between men and women who live in the society under study, dialogues about boundaries and definitions between the empowered and the unempowered, and dialogues about self-construct and self-determined individuality.
Although it is extremely difficult to extract information about sex and gender from prehistoric contexts, the corpus of figurines from Neolithic Greece provide us with tantalizing glimpses. The Greek Neolithic has produced approximately 3600 figurines: 2300 in private collections in northern Greece, largely from surface collecting by private individuals, another 1200 in northern Greece from sites excavated during the earlier part of this century and approximately 120 examples from southern Greek excavations and surveys (for discussions on various aspects of the Greek Neolithic, see Halstead 1981, 1993; Torrence 1986; Cullen 1985; Runnels and van Andel 1988; Hansen 1991; Perles 1992; Talalay 1993, in press; Vitelli 1993; Demoule and Perles 1993; Papathanassopoulos 1996; for figurines see Wace and Thompson 1912; Ucko 1968; Hourmouziadis 1973; Gimbutas 1986; Gimbutas et al. 1989; Talalay 1993, in press; Gallis and Orphanidis 1996; Kokkinidou and Nikolaidou 1997).
Although no one has yet determined the percentage of sexed figures in the corpus, I suspect that only a small percentage of the 3600 figures can be reliably defined as male or female. Many of the pieces are uninformative fragments (e.g.,legs, arms) and a fair number, though nearly complete, give no indication of sex.
Traditional interpretations of Neolithic figurines in Greece have stressed the large percentage of female figurines and the relative dearth of male images. While this observation is by and large correct, it ignores the important "fact" that portrayals of sexless or sexually ambiguous examples (at least to our modern eye) are plentiful. Equally significant are the handful of dual-sexed images--images having both male and female sexual attributes--, and what I term "visual puns"-- figures that can be defined as male or female, depending on which way they are viewed. These representations of "other" genders, long dismissed by scholars, force us to pursue a very different avenue in our thinking about ancient gender identity.
The androgyne pieces are particularly intriguing. Three recently published examples come from private collections (Gallis and Orphanidis 1996:180,186,187). Each one shows a seated individual in a posture almost invariably reserved for males. The figures all have female breasts and male genitals. As far as I know these dual sexed images are very rare in prehistoric contexts (see however, a well-known piece from the Tisza culture in Hungary, Korek 1987:55).
Very different in form from these androgynes, though conceptually similar are three pieces that can be read as either male or female, depending on how they are viewed. Held one way, they portray a male phallus and testicles, held at another angle, they depict female breasts and a neck and head. The three are virtually identical, two coming from Late Neolithic levels at Tharrounia and one from Late or Final Neolithic Kitsos. As a point of interest, it is worth mentioning that comparable pieces have been recovered in Upper Palaeolithic levels of France (Kehoe 1991).
The existence of dual-sexed and dual- or crossed-dressed individuals in the myth, art, and rituals of various cultures is a global phenomenon. The ancient Mediterranean provides us with several examples. In the Classical world, the most famous "intersexed" individual was Hermaphroditus, who is mentioned by a several ancient writers including Theophrastus (Char. 16. 10) and Ovid (Met. 4. 285-388) and not infrequently depicted in later Greek, Hellenistic, and Roman art. Other references to gender transformations in the Graeco-Roman literature can be found in the myth of Teiresias, who was metamorphosed into a woman and then back to a woman (Ovid, Met. Bk. 3), the story of Iphis, who was originally a girl and then transformed into a boy (Ovid, Met. Bk. 9), and several references by Pliny in his Natural History (Bk. 7.36). Pliny tells us of girl changed into a boy at Casinum, a man transformed into a woman at Argos, and, oddest of all an African women transformed into a man on his/her wedding day.
The concept of dual-sexed individuals or the inversion of gender roles is also embedded in several Greek rituals which involve the exchange of cloths between men and women (see Canterella 1992: 212 ff.). Every year in Argos, for example, at the hybristika, men wore women's clothing and vice versa (Plutarch, De mult. virt. 245 E). In Sparta, wives received their husbands on the first night of marriage in men's clothing and shoes and with heads shaven (Plutarch, Lyc. 15, 5).In Cos, the reverse was practiced: husbands dressed as women to receive their wives.(Plutarch, Quaest. Graec. 304 E).
Comparable rituals are reported in the ancient Near East as well. We know from one Mesopotamian text of a New Years' festival in which specially dressed individuals approach the goddess Inanna with their right side covered in male clothing and their left in women's dress. The New Year's procession also includes women carrying male weapons and men carrying hoops, which are usually emblematic of females. The precise meaning of this ritual is not known, but it is interesting to note that Inanna is sometimes referred to as the goddess who can change man into woman and woman into man (Leick 1994:157-159).
Old Babylonian texts also refer to an enigmatic Sal-Zikrum, or what appears to be a class of priestess that has both male and female attributes (Driver and Miles 1939).
These provocative textual references as well as the sexless and androgynous images from Greece raise intriguing questions regarding the notion of gender and the portrayal of sex in the Greek Neolithic. Were the sexless images viewed as truly 'neuter', transcending sexual classification altogether? Or, were they seen as somehow subsuming both male and female sexes? Do the androgynes reflect some kind of biological phenomenon that acquired meaning over time or were they entirely symbolic? (To my knowledge, true hermaphrodites (XXY) are rare in the gene pool). What does the melding of sexes in the visual repertoire of the Greek Neolithic tell us about sexual identity -- were shifting genders somehow related to negotiations of power and social relations?
Let us consider some possibilities. If the sexless figures were considered truly neuter and devoid of any sex or gender, they might have been employed as signifiers for concepts that were without sexual or gender connotations. The 'nikisi' figurines of west equatorial Africa seem to represent just such neuter images. They appear to be intentionally designed as asexual protective spirits which are employed in a variety of rituals, including initiation rites and medical curing ceremonies (Greub 1988:38 ff.).
On the other hand, the sexless pieces could have been viewed not as devoid of sexual referents but rather as capable of moving in and out of various sexual categories (e.g., male, female or dual). The explicit lack of sexual attributes would have presented the users with a choice whereby the designation of sex might be determined by the image's particular use at a given time or by temporary clothing or ornamentation (A comparable signaling of sex by distinct cultural, not biological, markers is known from the ethnographic record).
The dual-sexed images, which admittedly are quite rare in Greece, may have embodied a different concept of sex or gender identity. In these androgynous pieces, care is taken to represent the primary sexual characteristics of both males and females, underscoring rather than suppressing biological traits. Unlike the sexless images, which may subsume both sexes by avoiding the notation of sexual traits, these images portray both sexes by explicitly depicting breasts and genitals.
Taken in aggregate, the corpus of Neolithic figurines urges us to contemplate gender ascriptions that include more than the traditional male/female, either/or dichotomies. If we jettison the conventional binary opposition we are left with the possibility that the early preliterate communities of Neolithic Greece employed multiple or even fluid gender categories, at least in their visual repertoire. Such categories would include male, female, neuter, dual-sexed, and possibly a dynamic classification that moved in and out of sexual/gender identities. In some ways, this conclusion should not come as a surprise: the existence of several genders, gender-crossing and shifting categories is known from a variety of cultures and there is no reason to doubt that such melding of identities were part of life in the distant past.
The mere existence of these multiple categories suggests that gendered identities were not uncomplicated choices in Neolithic Greece. Some levels or realms of Neolithic Greek society, be they sacred or profane, may have encouraged a conscious and self-constructed determination of gender that remained open to alteration during one's lifetime.
While such suggestions are clearly speculative, it is important to keep in mind that, as many feminists have observed, the presumption of a universal binary gender system exerts a hegemonic force in research. These kind of "mind-forg'd manacles", to use William Blake's term, have often limited investigation of gender configurations within cultures. Not all cultures form beliefs about the sexes based on "logical oppositions...; the sexes appear more as gradations on a scale" (Ortner and Whitehead 1981:6-7). If we situate gender under the rubric of "identity" and all the dynamic aspects that characterize identity, we will be better able to accept that gender in the ancient world may have been very fluid.

The issues raised in this conference touch upon a myriad of topics that hold importance not just for the ancient world but for the modern world as well. Today, ethnic conflicts, cultural patrimony, and gender clashes have moved front and center onto the global stage. Struggles for group self-definition and empowerment are played out daily. Since the 1960s conflicts have flared up between gay/lesbian and heterosexual groups in various parts of the world, between Serbs, Croats, and Muslims in Bosnia, Hutu and Tutsi in Burundi, Greeks and Turks in Cyprus, Catholics and Protestants in Ireland, Christian Armenians and Muslim Azerbaijanis in the former Soviet Union, and Native Americans and local populations, to name just a few (Hall 1997:1). At the core of these conflicts is the concept of identity. Who are we as individual people and how do we define ourselves as associative groups? How do we negotiate and communicate those identities over time? What features of individual definition allow us to move in and out of varying collective identities?
Complex social systems allow for a multiplicity of social roles. As one writer has observed, the topic of identity is always multifaceted: "It is like trying to make sense of the reflections on a prism, each side offering new and different possibilities" (Fitzgerald 1993:15). The papers presented at this conference permit us to turn the prism around in several lights and gain new insights into various identities that structured the ancient world.


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