Tuesday 10 July 2012

Putting It Straight About - the Gay Caveman

This month is British Archaeology Month. I mentioned a handful of gay archaeologists in my post on World Diggers Day, and today I want to expand our horizons further.

We must remind ourselves that attitudes towards sexuality and gender have changed over the centuries and our definitions may not be appropriate, particularly in a society that existed so long ago that very little survives from it.

So you can imagine the media frenzy created a little over a year ago when headlines began to appear in newspapers declaring “The First Gay Caveman Found”.

The background to the story takes us across Europe to Prague. Czech archaeologists found the burial of a man who lived about 4,700 years ago. He belonged to a culture known as Corded Ware, so called because of the frequent use of cord impressions on their pottery. This civilisation stretched across most of northern central Europe.

Even though the skeleton was identified as a man the burial objects suggested something else. Instead of the usual male artifacts like weapons or hand tools this man was buried with none. What intrigued archaeologists most, though, was that this man was buried on his left side facing west. This is the usual position in which women from the Corded Ware culture were buried. But there weren’t any of the usual female burial goods either – cooking pots and jewellery.

You can imagine the conclusion people came to first. Media journalists being what they are, several newspapers tried to reconstruct the man’s whole life-style from the barest minimum of evidence.

Archaeologists jumped at the media immediately. To journalists archaeologists are just nerd in stripy jumpers and took no notice. So you can imagine how much the archaeologists shouted when a couple of months ago, just a year after the story first broke, the media trumpeted the discovery of “the gay caveman’s village”.

Journalists were informed last year that the sexuality of the buried man was unknown. If he was alive today, apart from being very old, the man could prosecute the media under current law for assuming anything about his sexuality based on nothing but their own preconceptions. Just because a man is buried in a female manner it doesn’t make him gay, bisexual, transgender or anything. Without grave goods we can’t even say if he or his culture regarded as such. No-one knows if the Corded Ware people even had any specific attitudes towards different sexualities.

So far archaeologists haven’t come up with a particular reason why the man was buried like this. He could have been buried in preparation for a proper burial later elsewhere; he could have been a visitor from a different culture and buried by the Corded Ware people this way (as early Christians often buried non-Christians in a different manner); or that this man was unknown to the villagers, a stranger found dead outside the village, and they didn't want to insult his memory by burying him in a manner he may not have understood or approved of.

As far as the name “caveman” is concerned, the Cored Ware culture existed in the Chalcolithic period, part of the Bronze Age. They were capable of building their own homes and villages and didn’t live in caves. “Caveman” is popularly given to people living 35,000 years ago – the Neanderthals or Cro-Magnons. The Corded Ware people lived no more than 5,000 years ago.

Surely the world has produced at least one intelligent journalist who knows enough maths to work out the difference between 35,000 and 5,000. Until it has I suppose we can look forward to reading more inaccuracies and misinformation on the subject.

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