Women in Material Culture: Gender Dominance in Conceptualization

When it comes to the portrayals of women in ancient material culture, it is hard not to feel a little deflated. After all, most of the depictions of women that remain were made by men, and the cultural significance they served were probably also tailored to men. For example, wine cups made for men and by men, depict erotic images of women, or men and women, and were thus used by men at men-only parties. These erotic images of women were none other than visual stimuli for men, thus it is their desired conceptualization of women, and not necessarily the actuality.

Another example of the vagueness of women in ancient material culture are their funerary tombs or sarcophagi. More specifically, the etruscan sarcophagus of the aristocratic Etruscan woman, Seianti Hanunia Tlesnasa, is a great example of how idealized women were in the culture, as well as the culture’s conception of the afterlife as well. Because Seianti’s skeleton was still quite intact inside the sarcophagus, scientists were able to do a modern reconstruction of her face and features. Compared to the portrait displayed on her lounging eternal counterpart, Seianti’s skeletal reconstruction of her face differs a noticeable amount, in that the artist had gone to some length to make her appear younger and “improved” (Neils, 22). What I wish archaeologists could figure out today about this sort of thing is if it was her husband that requested the improved features, the artist who did it out of cultural norms, or the wife herself who wanted to appear as her younger, best self for all of eternity, of which I couldn’t blame her for. After all, how much has really changed in a couple thousand years?

Take Facebook for example. How many of us are guilty of photoshopping a “profile picture”, even as little as changing the lighting, in order to make ourselves appear more attractive to the whole of the Internet, and world for that matter? How awesome do we try to make our lives appear to be on our Facebook profiles? It is in human nature to want to leave some sort of legacy, of validation that we were here on this earth, and that we were the best human we could be. We want people to know that we are attractive, driven, successful; all the cultural expectations of contemporary individuals. Thus a lot of these funerary sarcophagi detailing the virtuous, motherly and goodly wives of antiquity are not far off from the Facebook walls of today. Even if it was the men who designed the funerary sarcophagi for their women, as it often was, that is not far off from today, as men constantly dictate and reinforce women’s images of themselves, especially due to the overbearing presence of media, and social media. Thus it would almost appear that human instinct is truly engrained into us from the beginning, which explains why, although we have tried to change and have come a little further in the quest for equality of the genders, the common thread of men’s dominant conceptualization of women appears to be a constant through time.

Neils, Jennifer. Women in the Ancient World. Trustees of the British Museum: London, 2011.


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