Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory

, Volume 23, Issue 3, pp 870–899 | Cite as

Her Mirror, His Sword: Unbinding Binary Gender and Sex Assumptions in Iron Age British Mortuary Traditions

  • Alexis M. JordanEmail author


At the site of Hillside Farm, Bryher, on the Isles of Scilly, a materially rich single Iron Age inhumation was discovered containing the unsexable fragmented remains of one adult with a number of high-quality metal grave goods including an iron sword with a bronze scabbard and a bronze mirror. Swords and mirrors have long been considered high-status, oppositionally gendered grave goods that crosscut regional divisions in the pre-Roman British Iron Age (c. 800 B.C.–A.D. 43). Their combined presence within the burial of a single individual represents a touchstone within the ongoing unraveling of a long-held, interconnected set of reified binary sex and gender assumptions that have permeated discussions of British Iron Age mortuary contexts. In better recognizing this web of “binary binds,” we can deconstruct the a priori, exclusionary, interconnected sex and gender assumptions that configure how we investigate the terms of engagement between materials and persons in these burial contexts. Crucial to this analysis is an approach to patterning that (1) does not begin with a search for sex and gender as evidence of male and female dichotomies, (2) sees the potentiality for any component of a mortuary assemblage to have multiple points of significance, and (3) embraces data ambiguity. Developing such critical approaches will ultimately contribute to the deployment of more inclusive forms of analysis that do not reify sex and gender as the primary organizing principles within mortuary contexts, aiding scholars in avoiding assumptions that bind sex and gender analyses into artificially binary paradigms.


Gender Sex Mortuary Iron Age Cornwall Devon Britain Sword Mirror 



First and foremost, I would like to thank Lara Ghisleni and Emily Fioccoprile for their unending support and tireless efforts in aiding me with the editing of this paper. I would also like to thank the JAMT editors, Catherine Cameron and Jim Skibo, for their assistance and patience. Thank you to the anonymous reviewers for their thoughtful comments. I am also indebted to Charles Johns for the reprint of his image and the insights provided on his current research. Thank you to AGE (Archaeology and Gender in Europe) for sponsoring the European Association of Archaeologists session in which this paper was created. Finally, many thanks go to Bettina Arnold for her support throughout this process.


  1. Arnold, B. (1991). The deposed princess of Vix: the need for an engendered European prehistory. In D. Walde (Ed.), Proceedings of the 22nd Annual Chacmool Conference: the archaeology of gender (pp. 366–374). Calgary: University of Calgary.Google Scholar
  2. Arnold, B. (2006). Gender and archaeological mortuary analysis. In S. Milledge Nelson (Ed.), Handbook of gender in archaeology (pp. 137–170). Walnut Creek: AltaMira Press.Google Scholar
  3. Arnold, B. (2012). The Vix princess redux: a retrospective on European Iron Age gender and mortuary studies. In L. P. Torreira (Ed.), La Arqueología funeraria desde una perspectiva de género (pp. 215–232). Madrid: Servicio de Publicaciones de la Universidad Autónoma de Madrid.Google Scholar
  4. Arnold, B. (2016). Belts vs. blades: the binary bind in iron age mortuary contexts in Southwest Germany. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory.Google Scholar
  5. Ashbee, P. (1954). The excavation of a cist-grave cemetery and associated structures near Hughtown, St. Mary’s, Isles of Scilly, 1949–50. The Archaeological Journal, 111, 1–25.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Ashbee, P. (1979). The Porth Cressa cist-graves, St. Mary’s, Isles of Scilly: a postcript. Cornish Archaeology, 18, 61–80.Google Scholar
  7. Bintliff, J. (1984). Iron Age Europe in the context of social evolution from the Bronze Age through to historic times. In J. Bintliff (Ed.), European social evolution. Archaeological perspectives (pp. 157–226). Bradford: University of Bradford.Google Scholar
  8. Bolger, D. (2013). Gender prehistory—the story so far. In D. Bolger (Ed.), A companion to gender prehistory (pp. 1–19). Malden: Wiley-Blackwell.Google Scholar
  9. Brewster, T. C. M. (1980). The excavation of Garton and Wetwang Slacks. Wintringham: The East Riding Archaeological Research Committee.Google Scholar
  10. Brück, J. (2004). Material metaphors: the relational construction of identity in early Bronze Age burial in Ireland and Britain. Journal of Social Archaeology, 4(3), 307–333.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Buikstra, J., & Ubelaker, D. (1994). Standards for data collection from human skeletal remains. In Arkansas archaeological survey research series no. 44. Fayetteville: Arkansas Archaeological Survey.Google Scholar
  12. Childe, V. G. (1940). Prehistoric communities of the British Isles. London: W. and R. Chambers.Google Scholar
  13. Claassen, C. (1992). Questioning gender: an introduction. In C. Claassen (Ed.), Exploring gender through archaeology: selected papers from the 1991 Boone conference. Monographs in world archaeology (pp. 1–10). Madison: Prehistory Press.Google Scholar
  14. Collis, J. (1972). Burials with weapons in Iron Age Britain. Germania, 51, 121–133.Google Scholar
  15. Collis, J. (1981). A theoretical study of hill-forts. In Hillfort studies (pp. 66–77). Leicester: Leicester University Press.Google Scholar
  16. Collis, J. (1996) Celts and politics. In P. Graves-Brown, S. Jones, C. Gamble (Eds.), Cultural identity and archaeology: the construction of European communities (pp. 167–178).Google Scholar
  17. Cripps, L. (2007). Re-situating the Later Iron Age in Cornwall and Devon: new perspectives from the settlement record. In T. Moore, E. Moore, & C. Haselgrove (Eds.), The later iron age in Britain and beyond (pp. 140–155). Oxford: Oxbow.Google Scholar
  18. Cunliffe, B. (1996). The Iron Age burials of Guernsey. In B. Burns (Ed.), Guernsey: an island community of the Atlantic Iron Age (pp. 83–116). Oxford: Oxford University Committee for Archaeology, Institute of Archaeology.Google Scholar
  19. Cunliffe, B. (2005). Iron age communities in Britain: an account of England, Scotland, and Wales from the seventh century BC until the Roman conquest (4th ed.). London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  20. Diaz-Andreu, M. (1996). Constructing identity through culture: the past in the forging of Europe. In P. Graves-Brown, S. Jones, & C. Gamble (Eds.), Cultural identity and archaeology: the construction of European communities (pp. 48–61). London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  21. Diáz-Andreu, M., & Lucy, S. (2005). Introduction. In M. Diáz-Andreu, S. Lucy, S. Babić, & D. N. Edwards (Eds.), The archaeology of identity: approaches to gender, age, status, ethnicity, and religion (pp. 1–12). New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  22. Doucette, D. L. (2001). Decoding the gender bias: inferences of atlatls in female mortuary contexts. In B. Arnold & N. Wicker (Eds.), Gender and the archaeology of death (pp. 159–177). Walnut Creek: AltaMira Press.Google Scholar
  23. Edwards, B., & Pope, R. (2013). Gender in British prehistory. In D. Bolger (Ed.), A companion to gender prehistory (pp. 458–479). Malden: Wiley.Google Scholar
  24. Fitzpatrick, A. P. (1996). ‘Celtic’ Iron Age Europe” the theoretical basis. In P. Graves-Brown, S. Jones, & C. Gamble (Eds.), Cultural identity and archaeology: the construction of European communities (pp. 238–255). New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  25. Fitzpatrick, A., Brunning, R., Johns, C., Minnitt, S., Moore, T., & Mullin, D. (2007). Later Bronze Age and Iron Age. In C. J. Webster (Ed.), The archaeology of South West England: South West archaeological research framework resource assessment and research agenda (pp. 117–144). Taunton: Somerset County Council.Google Scholar
  26. Fox, S. C. (1958). Pattern and purpose: a survey of early Celtic art in Britain. Cardiff: National Museum of Wales.Google Scholar
  27. Fried, M. (1968). On the concepts of ‘tribe’ and ‘tribal society’. In J. Helm (Ed.), Essays on the problem of the tribe. Proceedings of the 1967 Annual Spring Meeting of the American Ethnological Society (pp. 3–20). Seattle: University of Washington Press.Google Scholar
  28. Garrow, D., & Gosden, C. (2012). Technologies of enchantment? Exploring celtic art: 400 BC to AD 100. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Geller, P. L. (2005). Skeletal analysis and theoretical complications. World Archaeology, 37(4), 597–609.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Geller, P. L. (2008). Conceiving sex: fomenting a feminist bioarchaeology. Journal of Social Archaeology, 8(1), 113–138.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Geller, P. L. (2009a). Biology, bodyscapes, and heteronormativity. American Anthropologist, 111, 504–516.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Geller, P. L. (2009b). Identity and difference: complicating gender in archaeology. Annual Review of Anthropology, 38, 65–81.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Gero, J. M. (2007). Honoring ambiguity/problematizing certitude. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory, 14, 311–327.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Ghisleni, L., Jordan, A. M. & Fioccoprile, E. (2016). Introduction to “binary binds”: deconstructing sex and gender dichotomies in archaeological practice. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory.Google Scholar
  35. Giles, M. (2000). ‘Open-weave, close-knit’. Archaeologies of identity in the later prehistoric landscape of East Yorkshire. Sheffield: Department of Archaeology and Prehistory, University of Sheffield.Google Scholar
  36. Giles, M. (2012). A forged glamour: landscape, identity and material culture in the Iron Age. Oxford: Oxbow Books.Google Scholar
  37. Giles, M., & Joy, J. (2007). Mirrors in the British Iron Age. In M. Anderson (Ed.), The book of the mirror: an interdisciplinary collection exploring the cultural story of the mirror (pp. 16–31). Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.Google Scholar
  38. Harding, D. W. (2016). Death and burial in Iron Age Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  39. Härke, H. (1990). “Warrior Graves”? The background of the Anglo-Saxon weapon burial rite. Past and Present, 126, 22–43.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Härke, H. (1992). Changing symbols in a changing society: the Anglo-Saxon weapon burial rite in the seventh century. In M. Carver (Ed.), The age of Sutton Hoo (pp. 149–166). Woodbridge: Boydell Press.Google Scholar
  41. Hencken, H. (1932). The archaeology of Cornwall and Scilly. London: Methuen & Co LTD.Google Scholar
  42. Hill, J. D. (1989). Re-thinking the Iron Age. Scottish Archaeological Review, 6, 16–24.Google Scholar
  43. Hill, J. D. (2006) Are we any closer to understanding how later Iron Age societies worked (or did not work)? In C. Haselgrove (Ed.), Les Mutations de la fin de l’age du fer; Celts et Gaulois IV Bibracte 12/4 (pp. 169–180).Google Scholar
  44. Hodder, I. (1978). The spatial organization of culture. London: Duckworth.Google Scholar
  45. Hodder, I. (1982). Theoretical archaeology: a reactionary view. In I. Hodder (Ed.), Symbolic and structural archaeology (pp. 1–16). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Holbrook, N., Davenport, P., Evans, D., King, T., Leach, P., & Webster, C. (2007). Roman. In C. J. Webster (Ed.), The archaeology of South West England: South West archaeological research framework resource assessment and research agenda (pp. 151–162). Taunton: Somerset County Council.Google Scholar
  47. Hunter, F. (2005). The image of the warrior in the British Iron Age- coin iconography in context. In C. Haselgrove & D. Wigg-Wolf (Eds.), Iron Age coinage and ritual practices (Studien zu Fundmünzen der Antike Band 20) (pp. 43–68). Mainz: Akademie der Wissenschaften und der Literatur.Google Scholar
  48. Inall, Y. L. (2016). Burials of Mar al character in the British Iron Age. In G. J. Erskine, P. Jacobsson, P. Miller, S. Stetkiewicz (Eds.), Proceedings of the 17th Iron Age Research Student Symposium, Edinburgh 29th May - 1st June 2014, edited by (pp. 44–61). Archaeopress: Oxford.Google Scholar
  49. Johns, C. (2002)-3 An Iron Age sword and mirror cist burial from Bryher, Isles of Scilly. Cornish Archaeology 4142:1–79.Google Scholar
  50. Johns, C. (2012). Isles of Scilly historic environment research framework: resource assessment and research agenda. In Historic environment. Truro: Cornwall Council.Google Scholar
  51. Jones, S. (1997). The archaeology of ethnicity: constructing identities in the past and present. New York: Routledge.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Jones, S. (2007). Discourses of identity in the interpretation of the past. In T. Insoll (Ed.), The archaeology of identities: a reader (pp. 44–58). New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  53. Joy, J. (2008). Reflections on celtic art: a re-examination of decoration. In D. Garrow, C. Gosden, & J. D. Hill (Eds.), Rethinking celtic art (pp. 78–99). Oxford: Oxbow.Google Scholar
  54. Joy, J. (2009). Reinvigorating object biography: reproducing the drama of object lives. World Archaeology, 41(4), 566–582.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Joy, J. (2010). Iron age mirrors: a biographical approach. BAR British Series 518. Oxford: Archaeopress.Google Scholar
  56. Joy, J. (2011). Exploring status and identity in later Iron Age Britain: reinterpreting mirror burials. In T. Moore & X.-L. Armada (Eds.), Atlantic Europe in the First Millennium BC: crossing the Divid (pp. 468–487). Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  57. Joyce, R. A. (2008). Ancient bodies, ancient lives: sex, gender, and archaeology. New York: Thames & Hudson.Google Scholar
  58. King, S. S. (2010). What makes war? Assessing Iron Age warfare through mortuary behaviour and osteological patterns of violence. Bradford: Division of Archaeological, Geographical and Environmental Sciences, University of Bradford.Google Scholar
  59. Kirkham, G. (2011). Something different at the Land’s End. In A. M. Jones & G. Kirkham (Eds.), Beyond the core: reflections on regionality in prehistory (pp. 101–112). Oxford: Oxbow Books.Google Scholar
  60. Kossinna, G. (1911). Die Herkunft der Germanen. Leipzig: Kabitzsch.Google Scholar
  61. Laqueur, T. (1990). Making sex: body and gender from the Greeks to Freud. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  62. Lucy, S. (2005). Ethnic and cultural identities. In M. Diáz-Andreu, S. Lucy, S. Babić, & D. N. Edwards (Eds.), The archaeology of identity: approaches to gender, age, status, ethnicity, and religion (pp. 86–109). New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  63. Marshall, Y. (2013). Personhood in prehistory: a feminist archaeology in ten persons. In D. Bolger (Ed.), A companion to gender prehistory (pp. 204–225). Malden: Wiley-Blackwell.Google Scholar
  64. Moore, T. (2011). Detribalizing the later prehistoric past: concepts of tribes in Iron Age and Roman studies. Journal of Social Archaeology, 11(3), 334–360.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  65. Moyer, A. C. (2012). Deep reflection: an archaeological analysis of mirrors in Iron Age Eurasia, anthropology, University of Minnesota.Google Scholar
  66. Nowakowski, J. A. (1991). Trethellan farm, Newquay: the excavation of a lowland Bronze Age settlement and Iron Age cemetery. Cornish Archaeology, 30, 5–242.Google Scholar
  67. Nowakowski, J. A. (2011). Appraising the bigger picture- Cornish Iron Age and Romano-British lives and settlements 25 years on. Cornish Archaeology, 50, 241–261.Google Scholar
  68. Oakley, A. (1972). Sex, gender and society. London: Temple Smith.Google Scholar
  69. Palk, N. A. (1984). Iron age bridle-bits from Britain. Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh Department of Archaeology.Google Scholar
  70. Parker Pearson, M. (1999). The archaeology of death and burial. College Station: Texas A&M University Press.Google Scholar
  71. Pleiner, R., & Scott, B. G. (1993). The celtic sword. Oxford: Clarendon Press.Google Scholar
  72. Pope, R., & Ralston, I. (2011). Approaching sex and status in Iron Age Britain with reference to the nearer continent. In T. Moore & X.-L. Armada (Eds.), Atlantic Europe in the First Millennium BC (pp. 375–416). Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  73. Quinnell, H. (1986). Cornwall during the iron age and the roman period. Cornish Archaeology, 25, 111–134.Google Scholar
  74. Redfern, R. (2008) A bioarchaeological analysis of violence in Iron Age females: a perspective from Dorset, England (fourth century BC to the first century AD). In O. Davis, N. Sharples, K. Waddington (Eds.), Changing Perspectives on the First Millennium BC: Proceedings of the Iron Age Research Student Seminar 2006 (pp. 139–160). Oxbow: OxfordGoogle Scholar
  75. Rive, A. L. F. (1964). Town and country in Roman Britain. London: Hutchinson.Google Scholar
  76. Rivet, A., Frede, L., & Smith, C. (1979). The place-names of roman Britain. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  77. Rynne, E. (1976) The La Tene and Roman finds from Lambay, County Dublin: a re-assessment. Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy. Section C: Archaeology, Celtic Studies, History, Linguistics, Literature, 76C, 231–244.Google Scholar
  78. Sofaer, J. R. (2006). The body as material culture: a theoretical osteoarchaeology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  79. Sofaer, J. R., & Sørensen, M. L. S. (2013). Death and gender. In S. Tarlow & L. N. Stutz (Eds.), The oxford handbook of the archaeology of death and burial (pp. 527–542). Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  80. Spivey, N. (1991). The power of women in Etruscan society. Accordia Research Papers, 2, 55–68.Google Scholar
  81. Stead, I. M. (1969). An early Iron Age warrior burial found at St. Lawrence, Isle of Wight. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society, 35, 351–354.Google Scholar
  82. Stead, I. M. (1979). The arras culture. York: York Philosophical Society.Google Scholar
  83. Stead, I. M. (1991). Iron Age cemeteries in East Yorkshire (English Heritage Archaeological eReport 22). English Heritage Archaeological Report 22. London: English Heritage.Google Scholar
  84. Stead, I. M. (1995). The metalwork. In K. Parfitt (Ed.), Iron age burials from Mill Hill, Deal (pp. 60–157). London: British Museum Press.Google Scholar
  85. Stead, I. M. (2006). British Iron Age swords and scabbards. London: The British Museum Press.Google Scholar
  86. Stead, I. M., & Rigby, V. (1989). Verulamium: the King Harry lane site 12. London: English Heritage Archaeological Report.Google Scholar
  87. Stirland, A. (1989) The cremations from the iron age cemetery. In I. M. Stead, V. Rigby (Eds.), Verulamium: the King Harry Lane Site (pp. 24044). vol. 12. English Heritage Archaeological Report: LondonGoogle Scholar
  88. Stoodley, N. (1999). The spindle and the spear A critical enquiry into the construction of meaning of gender in the early Anglo-Saxon inhumation burial rite. BAR British Series 288. Oxford: British Archaeological Reports.Google Scholar
  89. Stratton, S. (2016). “Seek and you shall find.” How the analysis of gendered patterns in archaeology can create false binaries: a case study from Durankulak. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory.Google Scholar
  90. Thomas, C. (1985). Exploration of a drowned landscape. London: B.T. Batsford.Google Scholar
  91. Todd, M. (1987). The South West to AD 1000. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  92. Wait, G. A. (1985). Ritual and religion in Iron Age Britain 149. BAR.Google Scholar
  93. Walker, P. L., & Cook, D. C. (1998). Brief communication: gender and sex: vive la difference. American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 106(2), 255–259.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  94. Weglian, E. (2001). Grave goods do not a gender make. A case study from Singen and Hohenwiel, Germany. In B. Arnold & N. L. Wicker (Eds.), Gender and the archaeology of death (pp. 137–155). Walnut Creek: AltaMira Press.Google Scholar
  95. Whimster, R. (1977). Harlyn Bay reconsidered: the excavations of 1900–1905 in the light of recent work. Cornish Archaeology, 16, 61–88.Google Scholar
  96. Whimster, R. (1981) Burial practices in Iron Age Britain: a discussion and gazetteer of the evidence c. 700 B.C.-A.D. 43. British Archaeological Reports British Series I and II. 2 vols, Oxford.Google Scholar
  97. White, T. D., Black, M. T., & Folkens, P. A. (2011). Human osteology (3rd ed.). London: Elsevier Academic Press.Google Scholar
  98. Wilson, C. E. (1981). Burials within settlements in southern Britain during the pre-Roman Iron Age. Bulletin of the Institute of Archaeology, 18, 127–169.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of AnthropologyUniversity of Wisconsin-MilwaukeeMilwaukeeUSA

Personalised recommendations