You are here

If I say that the Polyxena Sarcophagus was designed for a woman, does that make me a TERF? Identity politics and power now and then.

Catherine M. Draycott

Durham University

When it was discovered in 1994, the surprisingly elaborate Polyxena Sarcophagus, decorated on all four of its sides with relief sculptures mostly comprising female figures, was immediately assumed to be the burial monument of a female living in the Granikos Plain on the south shore of the Propontis in about 500 BC. Subsequently, sexing of the bones found within the sarcophagus concluded that the occupant was a male – an ‘inconvenient truth,’ as Richard Neer has said. This presents a kind of reverse scenario to that of other burials, most obviously the Viking warrior burials where sexing of bones has determined the deceased was of female sex (if not ‘gender’). Scholars are now divided over whether the sarcophagus was originally designed for a woman, and subsequently used for the burial of a man, for various potential reasons, or whether it was made for a man in the first place. Neer has attempted to show how the iconography of the reliefs can be read to work for male identity.

Another possibility is that the iconography is gender neutral, which if so would be unusual and therefore significant for the cultural history of occupation in the Granikos Plain area. This paper describes the sarcophagus and puts it into the context of seemingly gendered funerary art of its time, but rather than simply arguing the probability that it was made for a woman, the primary aim of the paper is to raise the question of what is at stake in gendered interpretations of this monument and break the academic fourth wall by discussing how I as an interpreter feel the 21st century implications of weighing in on a monument made over 2,500 years ago. In trying not to impose binary gender structures onto the past, is there a risk of imposing modern gender fluidity onto the past instead, and in doing so inadvertently undermining the role and presence of women in places like the Granikos Plain? And does the idea of ‘women’s power and place’ in the ancient world demand binary gendering that intersects with the thoroughly 21st century TERF debate?

Session/Panel Title

Sisters Doin' it for Themselves: Women in Power in the Ancient World and the Ancient Imaginary

Session/Paper Number


Share This Page

© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy