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



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.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of AnthropologyUniversity of Wisconsin-MilwaukeeMilwaukeeUSA

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