Wednesday, March 10, 2010

White Feminist and Writer Artemis March, on the Story Patriarchs Won't Tell You about Ancient Europe

Artemis March, PhD, MBA, Vassar graduate, and former Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute, has been evolving her own brand of narrative nonfiction for twenty years without realizing it was preparing her to write this book. A sociologist by training, she first got into the storytelling business at the Harvard Business School where she designed dozens of teaching case studies, many of them best-sellers, for students and executives. Numerous articles and her work with clients reveal the largely invisible patterns and practices which foster or inhibit the spread of successful innovations and breakthrough organizational paradigms. Her consulting practice focuses on patient-centered care at every stage of life. In Dying into Grace, Dr. March draws on her signature gifts to distill the core structure organizing caregiving, give form and voice to a dance of ephemeral moments and subtle movement, and create a groundbreaking, relational paradigm that releases the transformative potential in dying.

Artemis wrote a beautiful book called Dying Into Grace: Mother and Daughter... A Dance of Healing. For those who have time with a dying elderly loved one, and for more on this book, please see *here*. Moving on to an examination of a different kind of death and story-telling: the death of the non-patriarchal past to a patriarchal present, and the challenge to tell another story. Please click on the title below to link back to the source of this article on the blog Reclusive Leftist.

Hiding the Truth in Plain Sight: Exhibition of Prepatriarchal Old European Artifacts

By Artemis March, Ph.D. · Tuesday, March 9th, 2010 ·
Female Figurine Fired Clay Cucuteni, Drăguşeni, 4050–3900 BC Botoşani County Museum, Botoşani: 7558 Photo: Marius Amarie
Female Figurine, Fired Clay
Cucuteni, Drăguşeni, 4050–3900 BC
Botoşani County Museum, Botoşani: 7558
Photo: Marius Amarie

In honor of Women’s History Month, I’m pleased to present this guest post by my friend Artemis March. — V.S.

When I heard about the extraordinary exhibit of 250 artifacts from prepatriarchal “Old Europe” (c. 6500-3500 BCE) that will be shown at 15 East 84th St, NYC—the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World (ISAW)—until April 25, I wanted people to know about it. For those of us who are familiar with Old Europe and its monumental implications for women, it becomes a matter of: when can I get to NY? But for anyone who doesn’t—and that’s probably most of us—why should she bother to fit it into her busy schedule?
Rest assured that I wouldn’t be making a big deal about this exhibit if it were just about recovering more pieces from the past that enrich the Old Story—which is the direction in which the NY Times and the archaeological establishment would point us. It’s much more than that. It’s about undoing the erasure of women, gender-balanced social worlds, the sacred conceived and imaged as female, and of scholars who dare to see and tell Another Story. It’s about countering the erasure of those whose research threatens the monopoly of the patriarchal story and its alleged innateness and universality. It’s about forestalling the co-optation of the most powerful paradigm-breaking case yet unearthed.

As Mary Daly used to say, by distorting and disappearing our past, they have ravaged and purloined our present and our future. Disappearing acts have gone on for millennia, and they are going on right now, right in front of us. They can be blatant and concrete, as in the absence of women on our currency, our stamps, and the paucity of female statuary in our public life—a situation Lynette Long has recently taken on. They can be as elemental and profound as changing cosmological deities and their stories from female to male—a transition that the late Paula Gunn Allen tracked in numerous Native American traditions, and observed is still taking place. Disappearing acts can be far more devious, complex, and multi-layered as is the case with bringing these Old European artifacts forward.


The well-presented, beautifully-lit exhibit of artifacts on loan here from museums in Bulgaria, Romania, and Moldava gives visibility to the physical residues of Old European cultures. It is not to be missed. At the same time, the cultural meanings and political significance of those artifacts are being distorted and disappeared by those who have framed and interpreted the exhibition in its catalogue, wall panels, and lectures. These same biases are reflected in the NYT article that alerted many people about the exhibition, thereby beginning to shape the lens through which they see it.

Reading that article or the wall panels at the exhibit, you would never know that the Lithuanian-born archaeologist Marija Gimbutas was the one who had discovered and named Old Europe, excavated many of its artifacts, and brought forward many more that had been languishing in the back rooms of Eastern European museums (she could read about 20 languages). You would never know that it was she who recognized that these artifacts belonged to distinct-yet-related cultures in southeastern Europe—thus giving rise to the umbrella term Old Europe. You would think that the current crop of (predominantly male) archaeologists came up with this idea all by themselves.

Reading the NYT article or the wall panels at the exhibit, you would never know that her recognition of their distinctive commonalities arose via their marked contrast with the weapons-focused artifacts of the Indo-Europeanized cultures that replaced them and in which she was a world-class authority. You would not have a clue as to why this Old European civilization was “lost.” You would think that it had been “rescued from obscurity” by the male archaeologists who put together the exhibition rather than by Marija. You would never realize how these unnamed archaeologists are advancing their own careers by appropriating parts of her work that they can safely reframe and slip into the Old Story.

You would never know that Old Europe points to Another Story behind the patriarchy. Instead, they slide it into their one and only Story—the Androcentric Story, in which all societies and cultures are assumed/projected to have been formed by men, about men, for men, and organized around hierarchy and domination. Take one example.

As you enter the gallery that displays some of the gold artifacts found in a cemetery at Varna (a mid-fifth millennial trading center on the western edge of the Black Sea), the very first wall panel slips in the phrase “Old European chieftains” to identify those buried with the biggest stashes of gold ornaments. The curatorial archaeologists who framed the exhibit are not at all shy about assuming that only chieftains could warrant such gifts in the afterlife. Such boldness contrasts sharply with how agnostic the wall panels are on many subjects, especially with regard to how this civilization came to be “lost.”

It is instructive to note what they dance around (the role of external groups, especially the “steppe elements” putatively equated with the Indo-Europeans, in disappearing Old Europe) and what they conveniently treat as fact: male centrality and hierarchy in Old Europe—despite all the evidence against the existence of chieftains, hierarchy, and domination, and favoring matrilocality, matrilinearity, and gender balance. Such evidence is trumped by unstated androcentric assumptions: gold jewelry found with men = prestige items = hierarchy = domination = male authority. When women are buried with gold jewelry (as some were) or ceremonial ornaments, the assumption is that they were trying to look attractive to men, or that they were a big man’s wife—not that they were honored as clan mothers, wise elders, or priestesses.

Yet it is the latter interpretation that fits with the traditional burial patterns of Old Europe prior to the acceleration of trade, the appearance of the Varna cemetery, the infiltration of “steppe elements” into the Danube Valley, and the appearance of defensive measures such as fortifications—all beginning around 4400-4300 BCE. Old European burials were communal, and grave goods symbolic of the person’s gifts and skills in the life just passed. Elder women were the most honored and clearly central to the symbolic and spiritual life of the community. By contrast, Indo-European burials were for individual men. Grave goods were his possessions for the afterlife; they sometimes included women, servants, and/or horses. The Varna cemetery appears at that transitional moment, and does not seem to fit either pattern.

Despite its not being representative of Old Europe, the curators not only use gold artifacts to map hierarchical assumptions onto Varna, but also project them back onto 2000 years of Old European development and fluorescence. They thereby conflate the social structure that they impute to Varna with the social structure of Old Europe of the preceding two millennia. By setting the parameters of Old Europe between 5000 and 3500 BCE and naming the exhibit by this period, the curators have conveniently blurred all that, mixing up traditional Old European patterns with those affected by the intrusion of expansionary elements whose values and social structures were their antithesis. The consequence (and the purpose?) of this conflation is to perpetuate the lie that all societies of any complexity are organized around male hierarchy and that its seeds are present in all societies.

To appreciate the enormity of what’s at stake here, I invite you to read Joan Marler’s summary of Gimbutas’ work discovering and reconstructing Old Europe (OE), and another about her interpretation of its demise and the prehistoric transition to patriarchy in Europe. Marler is executive director of the Institute of Archaeomythology, dedicated to developing interdisciplinary approaches to the study of prehistoric and present cultures.

The disappearing acts perpetrated through the OE exhibit are hardly unique. Another example is the archaeological team at a key Neolithic site in Asia Minor (Çatalhöyük). Marguerite Rigoglioso exposes the strategies and tactics through which they deny evidence of, and even the possibility of, prehistoric female deities and female authority, and try to marginalize and discredit Gimbutas and others who have the courage to name what they see rather than project a patriarchal pattern onto every prehistoric society.

Marler’s and Rigoglioso’s work helps to bring home an appreciation of the some of the layers and complexity of the struggle to reverse millennia of female invisibility and the intense political struggles over the all-important issues of patriarchal origins and its finite existence rather than its alleged innate nature. Male entitlement, sole male authority, and male control over women are not god-given or “how things are,” but integral to an historically finite, socially constructed type of socio-political system that’s been around for only a few thousand years.

Logistics: The ISAW museum is closed on Monday, open 11-6 Tuesday-Sunday and until 8 on Friday. It is housed in a lovely, six-story townhouse just off Fifth Avenue. It is handicapped accessible, with an elevator just to your left as you come in that takes you up the ten steps or so to the first floor where the two galleries are. Another elevator goes to all floors, including the basement where restrooms are located. If you drive into the City, street parking is possible even during the day, but you do have to slug the meter every hour. A quarter gives you ten minutes, so bring a roll of quarters.

Admission to the museum is free. On the first floor, there is an unattended coatroom, and three guards on duty. Cameras are not allowed. There is a guest book, and you can also get a form from the office to give feedback. Catalogues are kept in that office. The 4-pound, $50 “catalogue” is a beautifully designed, hardcover book produced in Italy, full of gorgeous photographs, letters from museum directors who loaned the artifacts, and ten articles by archaeologists. It is an excellent record of a once-in-a-lifetime exhibit, the mentality of the archaeological establishment, as well as of how the process of erasure works.

They do not allow chairs in the two galleries, but when you need to sit, there is a bench in the foyer that overlooks two spectacular pieces and has a map mural at which to gaze (which is in the catalogue as well). I was there around 5 PM prior to a lecture, and then again mid-morning into early afternoon. I saw a small but steady stream of quietly engrossed visitors—predominantly women, but many men as well.
©Artemis March, Ph.D

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