Sex and Gender as Culturally Significant in the Harappan Civilization
Written by Megan Gamache
Strife surrounding sex and gender identity are often assumed to be modern issues or simply issues constant across time. But contemporary civilizations are different than those found thousands of years ago. Why should we assume that sex and gender are static or historically unimportant? If we accept that sex and gender should be understood in their own context, the question arises: how should we approach learning about sex and gender in historical and archaeological records? Moreover, how do we do so without forcing our own preconceptions onto the subject?
The following paper will consider the archaeological depiction of sex and gender in Harappa. Harappa is of particular interest because it is the earliest urban center of South Asia. The Harappan Civilization, also known as The Indus Valley Civilization, stretches over modern-day Pakistan and northwest India. The Harappan Civilization started to take shape around 4000 B.C. and peaked from 2500 to 1900 B.C. Archaeology and the material record are of vital importance in the Harappan context as the written language remains undeciphered. Terracotta figurines are the most common anthropomorphic artifact of the Harappan Civilization, making them the primary archaeological evidence of sex and gender in this context. This paper will argue that if care is taken to avoid androcentric and ethnocentric assumptions, terracotta figurines can provide insight into the Harappan perception of sex and gender.
This paper will present traditional South Asian archaeological views of sex and gender and revise these outdated understandings with the help of feminist perspectives. It will consider why terracotta figurines are important, present how gender is identified in these figurines, and posit ways that Harappan people might have perceived the body. Influenced by Sherri Clark, sex will be defined as biological differences in visible anatomy and gender as the individual’s sense of self beyond pure anatomy. The theoretical framework for understanding gender will be influenced by Elizabeth Grosz’s perception of the body and the archaeological perspectives of Lynn Meskell and Rosemary Joyce. The theory will then be used to present the archaeological record of terracotta figurines, relying largely on Sherri Clark’s data from 2003 and 2009 on terracotta figurines in Harappa. The paper will argue that a revised perception of sex and gender as a lived experience triggered by social factors will allow terracotta depictions of Harappan sex and gender identity to be understood as culturally significant.
Gender in Mainstream Archaeology of South Asia
Archaeology in South Asia, and archaeology elsewhere, is not always unbiased. There is a long history of colonial and culture-historic influences on South Asian archaeology. The recent rise in post-processualism finally allows South Asian archaeology to minimize androcentric and ethnocentric approaches. Post-processualism emphasizes the subjective nature of interpreting data and encourages the questioning of long-held assumptions. Notably, for this paper, post-processualism questions traditional assumptions about social norms, sex, and gender.
One of the questions post-processualism asks is: how does Western ideology permeate, consciously or subconsciously, the interpretation of archaeological research? One answer is that this bias results in a disregard for the feminist perspective. This has led to an undertheorized and oversimplified understanding of gender. Pamela Geller explains that trying to understand gender without the feminist perspective is like examining class relations without Marx or evolution without Darwin.
One pertinent example of disregard for the feminist perspective is the uncritical interpretation that most female figurines in the Harappan Civilization represent a single Mother Goddess. This homogenizing theory of female figurines in Harappa is unsubstantiated. Meskell writes that “to assume a priori that there is a goddess behind every figurine tantamount to interpreting plastic figures of Virgin Mary and of ‘Barbie’ as having identical significance.” While the belief in a Mother Goddess is not an impossibility, there is not enough evidence to conclude that every female figurine is representative of a single Mother Goddess. This indicates how uncritical interpretations of gender lead to problematic claims.
Understanding the Body as a Site of Lived Experience
In order to understand how depictions of the body can be a source of information on sex and gender identity, the body itself must be understood. Grosz argues that we must first understand the body as amorphous without an inherent identity. To establish itself, the body requires social triggering, ordering, and management. In other words, “the body is a plane over which the grid is laid to mark certain points of focus and intensity.” Different cultures and societies will have different social triggers and ordering and will, therefore, bestow different identities upon its inhabitants. Modern gender studies suggest gender identity has links to age, social class, physical ability, sexuality, ethnicity, life cycle, and kinship.
In order to understand how the body receives inputs that shape and form identity, the body must be seen not only as a static surface of society but rather as a site of lived experience. This concept of lived experience is vitally important in archaeology to bridge the gap between the material record and the interpretation of the human experience. Due to its complexity, the process of understanding lived experiences should be seen as an ongoing dialogue between material and immaterial that draws on several fields of academics. Theorizing identity, even in archaeology, should include discussions of other academic discourses within the social sciences. Archaeology can interpret the body as a lived experience of complex intersections, including the biological and the social, the collective and the individual, and social constraint and free will.
Terracotta Figurines as Vessels for Cultural Transmission
The goal of this paper is to use this lived experience theory of the body to argue the cultural significance of sex and gender in Harappan terracotta figurines. To do so, terracotta figurines must be understood and justified as important to Harappan culture. Terracotta figurines are the most commonly anthropomorphized artifact in the Harappan archaeological record. Approximately 10,000 figurines have been found so far, most of which date to the peak of the Harappan Civilization, between 2500 and 1900 B.C. This record represents only twenty percent of the site, which might limit the ability to get the whole picture. The fact that terracotta figurines have been found at several sites within Harappa suggests that they are a regional expression of culture. Continuity through the Harappan Civilization is important because it signifies cultural transmission and only through stable cultural transmission can archaeologists gain information about a culture.
The production of the figurines also suggests that they have cultural importance. Harappans were capable of using molds, a very practical means of production, but instead chose to handcraft each figurine. Doing so suggests that the process of creating the figurines contributed to an ideology more important than practicality or efficiency of production. The creation process being culturally significant suggests that the figurines themselves were culturally significant as well.
Investigating Gender through Terracotta Figurines
Now arises the question: how did Harappans depict sex and gender in their terracotta figurines? It is important to keep in mind that, especially in art, gender identification is difficult and not always as expected when viewing through Western mindsets. For the Harappan context, identification is broken down into primary and secondary sex characteristics for archaeologists. Primary sex characteristics are anatomical representations of biological sex, including breasts and genitalia. Secondary sex characteristics are more interpretive representations of sex and gender, including ornamentation, clothing, braided hair, and beards. This is not a perfect system, and there is an over-identification of female figurines. Twice the number of figurines have been identified as female than those identified as male. This is because many figurines are fragmented beyond recognition and figurines with intact male genitalia, the main male identifier, are numerically low compared to the number of figurines with intact breasts.
Female sex identification is largely via primary sex attributes. The presence of conical breasts makes up 94 percent of probable female figurines out of the 10,000 figurines that have been excavated. However, female portrayal is not limited to just breasts. While visible genitalia is rare on female figurines, most, 85 percent, of probable female figurines wear a belt or skirt covering the pubic area. The covering of the pubic area could have been to obscure sexual attributes. This would suggest that gender expression extended beyond simple anatomy, and Harappans did not need exposed genitalia to be identified. More identifiers of Harappan females include the presence of a fan-like headdress or multiple necklaces. It is also thought that pigtails are suggestive of females in a wider view of Harappan art. Every characteristic added onto the blank canvas of the body is a manifestation of cultural triggers deemed important by Harappans to identify females.
Male identification via primary sex characteristics is largely due to visible genitalia, comprising 39 percent of probable males. Additionally, the presence of small flat nipples comprises 50 percent of probable male figurines. Male nipples, smaller and flatter than what are identified as female breasts, are also frequently found with the presence of beards, which suggests that beards are also representative of males. Each of these identifiers, and possibly the lack of variety compared to the female representation, is symbolic of different triggers that the Harappan culture decided were important enough to depict.
While male and female identification makes up the majority of identifiable figurines, there are cases with no explicit female or male attributes and cases with both female and male attributes. Hermaphroditism is not enough to account for gender ambiguity, as has been posited before because it is statistically rare. The presence of gender-ambiguous figurines suggests a personal identity outside of a gender binary.
There are also cases in the Harappan record that exhibit therianthropy, or part-human part-animal creatures. There are several seals and sealings at Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa depicting half-human half-bovine therianthropes. Also, there are terracotta figurines with human bodies and animal heads. Therianthropic depictions incorporating humans with plants have even been reported. Several of these are argued to be female humans, with an emphasis on the presence of female genitalia or pregnancy. However, there is not enough evidence done in therianthropy in Harappa to form conclusions on how gender might have varied other than to say that the presence of therianthropy suggests a cultural understanding of humans in relation to animals and plants.
Cultural Theories Evidenced from Harappan Figurines
The creation process of terracotta figurines suggests a cultural ideology around the body. This allows for hypotheses to form for a greater understanding of Harappan culture. For instance, the fact that the standard of manufacturing was to combine two separate vertical halves could be indicative of the Harappan understanding of creation. It is possible that handcrafting the figurines in this way was a reenactment of birth or a human creation story. This is supported by the Harappan choice of material, clay, which could indicate that Harappans subscribed to the belief that humans were originally created from clay, a common belief in other ancient Near Eastern ideologies.
It is also important to note that, while only 10 percent of figurines have evidence of pigment, most of these pigments were burned bone pigment. Burned bone suggests a personal connection with the figurines as bone usage is very symbolic in many cultures. The addition of an organic material could even have been seen as imbuing the figurine with a life force. It is also possible that once created, the figurines had a social life of their own, and once that expired or transformed, they were discarded. This is supported by the fact that most figurines are found in trash piles.
The fact that the creators added primary and secondary sex attributes indicates that if the figurines had cultural value, sex attributes also had cultural value. If the body is a blank canvas such as the aforementioned theory proposes, then every aspect added onto the blank canvas can be understood as a result of societal and cultural factors imposing on Harappan individuals. The figurines’ ornamentation, hair style, depiction of physical attributes, and location of the found figurines, could all be the materialization of social triggers and cultural values.
Furthering the concept that gender depiction had cultural importance in depictions of the Harappan body, the presence of therianthropes is important even as a minority of the figurine record. The presence of therianthropic figurines in art supports the idea that the human form is something that is experienced and not always physically visible. While not much is done in South Asian therianthropic analysis, it is acknowledged that “the relationship between animals, anthropomorphic figures, and therianthropic figures are key, and deserve further study.” The presence of therianthropy is suggestive of a body image that is culturally richer than the human form alone.
Terracotta figurines suggest depictions of males and females through a variety of culturally significant primary and secondary sex attributes such as genitalia, breasts, and beards. But the figurines also indicate that there is more to Harappan personhood than just these physical attributes. Examples of terracotta figurines that do not have obvious sexes, figurines that exhibit both male and female sex, and figurines that exhibit neither sex exist in the Harappan record and should not be discounted. They might symbolize a perception of gender beyond just masculine and feminine. An emphasis on the process of creating these figurines is suggestive of placing importance on something more than just the physical body, possibly even a metaphor for humankind’s creation. Furthermore, the presence of therianthropy in the Harappan record could be a rich area for information on gender perceptions. Considering this and given the theory of a lived experience shaped by social order, it is understood how sex and gender were culturally relevant during the Harappan Civilization.
Studying gender in archaeology has become intrinsically related to feminist theory and revised definitions of sex and gender. In Harappa, terracotta figurines have a newfound importance in sex and gender studies, suggesting male, female, and gender-ambiguous identities among Harappan individuals. As this paper has argued, Harappan gender identity should be understood as culturally significant. Acknowledging this will allow for increased study of anthropomorphic figurines and therianthropic artifacts that will advance the understanding of sex and gender in the Harappan Civilization.
 Jonathan Kenoyer, “The Indus Valley Tradition of Pakistan and Western India.” Journal of World Prehistory 5, no. 4 (1991): 331–385.  Sharri R. Clark, “Representing the Indus Body: Sex, Gender, Sexuality and the Anthropomorphic Terracotta Figurines from Harappa,” Asian Perspectives 42 (2003): 304–328.  Sharri R. Clark “Representing the Indus Body,” 305.  Nicole Boivin and Dorian Q Fuller, “Looking for Post-Processual Theory in South Asian Archaeology.” In Archaeology and Historiography: History, Theory and Method, 4 (2002): Manohar.  Ibid.  Pamela L. Geller, “Identity and Difference: Complicating Gender in Archaeology,” Annual Review of Anthropology 38 (2009): 65–81.  Ibid.  Ibid.  Sharri R. Clark, “Material Matters: Representation and Materiality of the Harappan Body. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 16, no. 3 (2009): 231–261.  Lynn Meskell, “Goddesses, Gimbutas and New Age archaeology” Antiquity 69 (1995): 82  Candice Marie Lowe, “All the Harappan Men are Naked, but the Women are Wearing Jewelry,” In Ungendering Civilization, (Routledge: London, 2004).  Elizabeth Grosz, Space, Time and Perversion: Essays on the Politics of Bodies (Routledge, 1995).  Ibid.  Tim Yates, “Frameworks for an Archaeology of the Body,” In Interpretative Archaeology, edited by Christopher Tilley, (Berg, 1993), 59.  Lynn Meskell, “The Intersections of Identity and Politics in Archaeology,” Annual Review of Anthropology 31 (2002): 279–301.  Rosemary A. Joyce, “Archaeology of the Body,” Annual Review of Anthropology 34 (2005): 139-158.  Ibid.  Meskell, “The Intersections of Identity and Politics.”  Ibid.  Meskell, “The Intersections of Identity and Politics in Archaeology.”  Clark, “Material Matters.”  Ibid.  Naman Parmeshwar Ahuja, “Early Historic Moulded Terracotta: Their Invention and Antecedents,” in Early Indian Moulded Terracotta: The Emergence of an Iconography and Variations in Style circa Second Century BC to First Century AD, (Proquest LLC, 2017).  Willeke Wendrich, “Body Knowledge, Identity, and Communities of Practice,” in Archaeology and Apprenticeship, (University of Arizona Press, 2013).  Clark, “Material Matters.”  Ibid.  Shubhangana Atre, “The High Priestess: Gender Signifiers and the Feminine in the Harappan Context,” South Asian Studies 14 (1998): 161–172.  Clark, “Representing the Indus Body.”  Ibid.  Ibid.  Ibid.  Clark, “Representing the Indus Body.”  Clark, “Material Matters;” Clark, “Representing the Indus Body.”  Clark, “Representing the Indus Body.”  Ibid.  Atre, “The High Priestess.”  Clark, “Representing the Indus Body.”  Ibid.  Ibid.  Clark, “Representing the Indus Body.”  Ibid.  Atre, “The High Priestess.”  Ahuja, “Early Historic Moulded Terracotta: Their Invention and Antecedents.”  Ibid.  Ibid.  Clark, “Material Matters.”  Clark, “Material Matters.”  Ibid.  Ibid.  Ibid.  Ibid.  Ibid.  Ibid.
 Anne Solomon, “Body Images: Understanding Therianthropes in Rock Arts,” in What Ever Happened to the People? Humans and Anthropomorphs in the Rock Art of Northern Africa, pp. 531–540. (Brussels, 2015).  Nicole Boivin, James Blinkhorn, Jamie Hampson, Ravi Korisettar, and Michael Petraglia, “New Methodological Approaches to Indian Rock Art: Preliminary Report From the Kurnool District Archaeological Project,” Man In India 91, no. 2 (2009): 235–257.  Geller, Pamela L. Geller, “Identity and Difference: Complicating Gender in Archaeology,” Annual Review of Anthropology 38 (2009): 65–81.  Clark, “Representing the Indus Body.” References Cited
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Geller, Pamela L. “Identity and Difference: Complicating Gender in Archaeology.” Annual Review of Anthropology 38 (2009): 65–81.
Elizabeth Grosz, Space, Time and Perversion: Essays on the Politics of Bodies. Routledge, 1995.
Joyce, Rosemary A.“Archaeology of the Body.” Annual Review of Anthropology 34 (2005): 139–158.
Kenoyer, Jonathan Mark. “The Indus Valley Tradition of Pakistan and western India.” Journal of World Prehistory 5, no. 4 (1991): 331–385.
Lowe, Candice Marie. “All the Harappan Men are Naked, but the Women are Wearing Jewelry.” In Ungendering Civilization, pp. 187–195. Routledge, London, 2004.
Meskell, Lynn.“Goddesses, Gimbutas and New Age archaeology.” Antiquity 69 (1995): 74–86.
Meskell, Lynn. “The Intersections of Identity and Politics in Archaeology.” Annual Review of Anthropology 31 (2002): 279–301.
Solomon, Anne. “Body Images: Understanding Therianthropes in Rock Arts.” In What Ever Happened to the People? Humans and Anthropomorphs in the Rock Art of Northern Africa, pp. 531–540. Brussels, 2015.
Wendrich, Willeke. “Body Knowledge, Identity, and Communities of Practice.” In Archaeology and Apprenticeship, pp. 1–19. University of Arizona Press, 2013.
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