Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Queer Archaeology Rocks!

In celebration of this year’s World Diggers Day I’d like to feature a gay archaeologist who has played a significant role in the interpretation of one of the most enigmatic of archaeological topics – prehistoric rock art – and who pioneered the science of Queer Archaeology. His name is Thomas Dowson.

You may be familiar with images of the cave paintings at Lascaux in France of the rock art of the aboriginal Australians at Uluru. Cave paintings exist all around the world. There was a time when archaeologists couldn’t believe that there was any connection between them across the continents, but Thomas Dowson formed a theory which suggested they were – and he used South African rock art to illustrate it.

Thomas Dowson was born in pre-independence Zimbabwe. On the farm where he lived there were old paintings on rock outcrops which were to influence his decision to switch from geology to archaeology at university.

During the 1980 and 1990s he worked closely with David Lewis-Williams, one of the world’s leading experts on rock art. Together they studied the rock art of South Africa and the San people in particular. Up until then archaeologists only had vague ideas of how rock art fits into a society’s narrative history. Very few paintings would be dated and could have been painted between hundreds or thousands of years ago, so they were virtually ignored. Thomas Dowson showed that they were more important than most archaeologists had thought.

What Thomas was to claim was that much of the rock art was produced and influenced by shamanistic experiences and trances. When seen in this context many previously unexplained and enigmatic images in cave paintings become more understandable, such as human-like images with strange heads which could easily be portrayals of the shamans themselves wearing masks. Quite often the paintings would have been made by the shamans themselves during or immediately after their trances.

This theory didn’t go down well with the archaeological establishment. However, other archaeologists were coming round to a similar theory about other cave paintings on other continents. While there may still be some debate over individual examples the concept of shamanistic rock art has become an established part of scientific research.

And we have Thomas Dowson to thank for that, because he was instrumental in establishing the field of rock art studies in its own right. He co-wrote several leading books on the subject and came to the attention of the University of Southampton in the UK. They invited him to establish the world’s first postgraduate degree course on rock art.

The other academic discipline Thomas pioneered was Queer Archaeology. As an openly gay man he experienced homophobia and followed the emerging discipline of Queer Theory.

Queer Archaeology is very much a subject of the 21st century. It was in the October 2000 edition of “World Archaeology”, the world’s leading academic journal on the subject, that Thomas Dowson proposed and set out the concept of Queer Archaeology. That 2000 edition broke new ground. Queer studies had hitherto been more associated with the social and political sciences. Thomas had felt that archaeology should not be excluded from queer interpretations.

As with many other scientific subjects archaeology was dominated by male heterosexual thought. It was with some trepidation that Thomas approached the editorial board of “World Archaeology” and suggested an issue devoted entirely to Queer Archaeology. In a later interview he admitted that he was so nervous that he could barely speak and a colleague had to finish giving his ideas to the board. To his relief (and probable astonishment) his idea was accepted and he was appointed editor of the October 2000 edition.
Since that issue was published many other archaeologists have been looking at queer interpretations of some sites and artefacts. My short series of articles on archaeology in my “Ology of the Month” in April 2013 give some examples.
As far as Thomas Dowson is concerned he has set the ball rolling and has let others develop his concept of Queer Archaeology. He laid out the initial concept and can be claimed as its founding father.

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