An analysis of graves from a Persian civilization that dates back three thousand years indicates that the buried there did not adhere to the rigid gender binary that is only now beginning to break down. The author claims that viewing sex and gender through the lens of western lens has influenced archaeological studies.

A growing number of people are taking sides in the ongoing cultural battle over whether it is appropriate for individuals not to identify with the gender they were given at birth. The most obvious example is the current administration’s desire to remove all references to intersex and transgender people from public records. They also try to stop transgender people from joining the military and from having their gender changes recorded in public records.

Some people believe that a strict gender binary that is attached to easily determinable sexual characteristics has been around since the beginning of time. People who say they are transgender are often portrayed as newcomers to the community. This is because postmodern values support this idea. Megan Cifarelli, a professor at Manhattanville College, has a different point of view. She says that this is the case. The gender binary is culturally specific and is at variance with the beliefs of many, perhaps even the majority, of past civilizations.

Cifarelli has investigated the graves in the Hasanlu area of northwestern Iran. Around three thousand years ago, the town of Hasanlu suffered the misfortune of being situated on a path frequently visited by opposing armies. As a result, the community was repeatedly sacked and destroyed.

After the site was abandoned 2,800 years ago, the graves still there were left alone until archaeologists found them. They then carefully noted the bodies and items they found in the graves.


After looking at their reports, Cifarelli found two separate groups. Each group had things that most likely belonged to a man or a woman. On the other hand, about 20% of the graves had male and female objects in them. This suggests that the people of Hasanlu believed in a third gender or saw gender as more of a spectrum than a rigid dichotomy. Her hypothesis is supported by a gold bowl showing a person with a beard acting out parts typically associated with women.

A group of people sitting around a table Description automatically generated with low confidence These details from the Hasanlu golden bowl include bearded figures engaging in gender roles traditionally assigned to women. Image courtesy of the Penn Museum

Even though Cifarelli hasn’t published her findings yet, she has been talking about them at archaeological conferences and giving talks to the public about them.

Cifarelli mentioned that the reactions received at academic conferences have been positive. Many Native American societies acknowledged the existence of more than two sexes, such as the “two-spirit” people. Archaeologists specializing in ancient Middle Eastern cultures have not previously been exposed to Cifarelli’s interpretation; however, archaeologists studying ancient American cultures are aware of this and typically avoid making hasty judgments regarding the gender of corpses they uncover.

Still, Cifarelli pointed to the recent decision by the Supreme Court of India to recognize third-gender hijras as an example of how Asian cultures respected gender diversity before European colonizers pushed these ideas down. This recognition came from Cifarelli’s research into the history of gender roles in India.

Cifarelli is challenging not only the belief that those in other cultures viewed gender as a binary but also how archaeologists classify the sex of bodies. Incomplete bones have traditionally been assigned a gender based on the presence or lack of a weapon or an object more typical of a female’s home within the burial place.

Cifarelli says that this has been replaced by a medical model, which says that by using scientific methods, bodies can be overtly sexual. A sizable chunk of the general population can’t tell.

She says that some of these people would have been what we now call “intersex.” However, archaeologists have thought they were either male or female and tried to put them in the right place, assuming that their culture had the same ideas about what it means to be male or female as ours does.

Cifarelli knows that not everyone will agree with her findings, nor will they understand them. People believe she must be some crusading radical relegating modern identity politics to the distant past. However, she is attempting to remove the weight of identity politics that were prominent in the 19th century. Even though it can be a difficult uphill battle: At one of the public events that she attended, a man spoke to her and guaranteed that it was simple to determine the gender of a dead person’s body. Women have one more rib than men do. Cifarelli characterized the concept as difficult to respond to in public.

A picture containing text, outdoor, old, stone Description automatically generated The Hasanlu lovers, two skeletons, both probably male, who appear to be kissing, have long challenged heterosexist assumptions in archaeology, which Cifarelli is taking further. Image courtesy of the Penn Museum

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