Different Faces of Gender in the Marlik Cemetery (Northern Iran)

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By: Sepideh Saeedi

Embracing the embodiment and performance of gender, partially portrayed in the tangible archaeological data, provides an opportunity in order to make gender visible and to illustrate some details of all genders’ lives in the past. The mortuary rituals are the objective representations of the individuals in the past and ultimately reside in the consciousness of the living members of the society. The quality of a burial represents how the buried individual was perceived among the community members. Actual gender and status relations in the society as well as their ideological portrayal are the determining factors of the ways cemeteries were formed in the past. In this blog post, I introduce one of the many faces of gender represented in the Marlik cemetery in Northern Iran. I suggest the strong possibility of existence of a third gender that was neither a male nor a female in this cemetery.

The location of Marlik cemetery

Marlik cemetery is located on the highlands of Alborz Mountains harboring the southern shores of the Caspian Sea. The tombs are filled with a fascinating variety of gold, silver, bronze, and pottery objects, testifying to the wealth of their owners and sophisticated craftsmanship of their makers. The people of Marlik left no written records. They seem to have belonged to a group who spoke an Iranian language, and migrated to the Caspian Basin and settled on the northern slopes of the Alborz Mountains during the second half of the second millennium B.C.E.

The excavations in this cemetery were conducted in the early 1960’s and although the work of the excavator (The late Dr. Ezat O. Negahban) has been commendable in many respects, regrettably the excavated skeletons have not been analyzed in terms of their sex and age. Nonetheless, even if such study were to be initiated, it would have been severely hampered by the very poor preservation of the bones due to the humid climate of the area. Therefore for the purpose of practicality, I have accepted the primary assumption of the excavator in regard to the possible gender of the buried person. He attributes the tombs with the large quantity of jewelry combined with the presence of a limited number of weapons to women and respectively the tombs with a large and varied number of weapons with limited amount of jewelry to men.

The frequency of different graves in the Marlik cemetery

The frequency of different graves in the Marlik cemetery

Interestingly graves bare of any expression of gender through mortuary items form the majority of these graves. Almost half of these graves were void of any items; the other half contained very few objects. It is remarkable to note that although Marlik has became famous as a “royal cemetery”, apparently members of different social classes were buried in this place and the cemetery was not confined only to the elite members of the community. In general vessels, and craft related objects are the most prevalent items in these genderless graves.

Jewelry and weapons

Attribution of female gender to some graves is based on the higher concentration of jewelry items in these graves. Some of these jewelry items seem to be exclusive to the female graves with only few exceptions. This fact makes a different gender attribution to the graves containing potential female exclusive jewelry, questionable. For example, Headbands or the so-called diadems are one of these likely female exclusive jewelry items. These headbands are very similar to the ones reported to solely accompany female bodies in the Royal Cemetery of Ur as well as the slightly later cemetery of Kish. These headbands are narrow strips of gold or bronze wrapped around the head. Similar to the Royal Cemetery of Ur, some of these headdresses were worn around the head in such a way that small leaves attached to them were dangled above the forehead. Two female graves in Marlik contained these small gold leaves. Three out of the 14 recovered diadems have been found in two graves originally attributed to males by the excavator. One of these graves has an almost equal concentration of weapons and jewelry. The only other piece of jewelry in this grave is a gold pendent with the sun motif on it. All other 7 pendants with this motif have been recovered from tombs associated with women. The similar sun motif or the octagonal star has been associated with different goddesses in the ancient Near East, for example: Ishtar in Ashur, Hurian Shushga in Anatolia and Shapash in Ugarit. Based on this observation this grave could have belonged to a person of possibly younger age, who owned fewer and equal amount of jewelry and weapons. A situation that makes the attribution of a male or female gender to this individual problematic.

Headbands or diadems recovered from Marlik

Headbands or diadems recovered from Marlik

Pendants with the sun motif on them recovered from Marlik

Pendants with the sun motif on them recovered from Marlik

Another grave with a diadem present in it, contained a relatively high concentration of weapons as well as jewelry. This grave that enclosed only one skeleton, strongly challenges the binary split between women associated with jewelry and men associated with weapons. This grave might belong to a third gender warrior pushing the gender boundaries through being buried with jewelry items usually accompanying females of the community, or equally could belong to a female warrior who was permitted to enter the masculine domain and own swords, daggers, spearheads, armor and shield. This person was symbolically buried on top of his/her weapons arranged together on a stone slab wearing a complete set of jewelry. This grave along with many other most certainly female graves that also contained weapons illustrate the ambiguities, variability, permeability, and changeability of gender construction and negotiation in Marlik.

Another form of jewelry that is exclusively present in female graves consists of pendants shaped like pomegranates. Wild pomegranates naturally grow in this area abundantly. Eleven pieces of pomegranate shaped pendants have been found in two of the tombs associated to women, 9 pieces in all five tombs containing two skeletons and one piece in a grave that has been attributed to a male king by the excavator. Weapons are the third frequent funerary objects in this tomb after Jewelry and vessels followed by figurines and tools. This grave embodies yet another representations of a fluid gender identity challenging the preconceived and fixed male-female division and potentially demonstrating a unique gender or a social construct within a non-heterosexual categorization.

Anthropomorphic figurines

From 13 anthropomorphic figurines 10 of them have been found from one of the female graves. There are incised dots on the waists and legs of female figurines possibly representing tattoos or ornaments or just outlining and exaggerating the sexual organs. These figurines have small conical projecting breasts with small holes on the center indicating nipples. Their waist is fairly thick and buttocks are large and backward projecting. The female genitalia are carefully detailed and prominent. Their short cylindrical legs end in large flat feet, with five cuts indicating six toes on each foot.

Example of Female figurines

Example of Female figurines

Obviously there is an attempt to discern biological sex through depicting anatomical sex in these figurines. However this depiction is only limited to sexual organs and female/male bodies are not differentiated in terms of height or exaggerated muscles.

One of these two female figurines has a spouted bowl attached to her chest. The sexual organ of this woman is more exaggerated in compare to the other female figurines. It is plausible to think that she is offering the ritual libation during the burial. Two of the male figurines are depicted in a similar position holding a spouted bowl attached to their chests. Despite all other male figurines from this cemetery these two do not have any weapons attached to their bodies. In other words among the male figurines only those whose gesture is similar to a female figurine (holding a spouted bowl in front of the chest) lack weapons. These figurines could represent yet another distinct culturally constructed gender category in Marlik. A gender category that was mystified and naturalized by certain social and religious beliefs requiring performing specific ceremonial acts during the burial.

Male figurines offering holding a vessel

Male figurines offering holding a vessel


Assumptions about the universal and essential qualities of the binary feminine beauty and masculine violence are challenged in Marlik on the basis of the presence of conflicting and diverging gender attributes in the mortuary context. Representation of gender categories in these graves possessed permeable borders that were created through various means of sexual identity, personal mentality, or social and even religious roles.

I argue that hegemonic and counter-hegemonic masculinity as well as femininity were manifested at this cemetery, since characteristics and values of masculinity and femininity are selectively adopted by potentially women, men and other unique genders. For instance although we have assumed that weapons are represented as male objects, they are not restricted to men’s graves. At least 26 pieces of weaponry have been recovered from seven graves attributed to females with high degree of probability. Whether these weapons were actually used by these women or not, owning them as funerary object in their graves, is a representative of a counter-hegemonic quality to the hegemonic notion of male military dominance. The presence of weapons as prestige goods which are directly related to the power structure, in the graves owned by both women and men, shows that boundaries defining different gender profiles were not fixed but negotiated and permeable.

We can certainly reexamine the notions of relational prestige, sexual difference and duality of essential male ad female in the Marlik cemetery. In another example individuals performing a ritual act of offering ceremonial libation share an important quality; they are all stripped of weapons and the sexual organ of the female performer is depicted with more exaggeration. Individuals create the appearance of gender through performance and repeated stylization of the body. The artists who made these figurines, portray them while performing their own unique gender as well as the ritual ceremony.

The Western definition of sex, sexuality and gender dubbed to be universals have been discredited not just across cultures, but also within them as in the case of Marlik cemetery. The perception of predetermined categories of males and females makes the understanding of sex and gender outside the modern cultural milieu, problematic. Archaeologists must expect complexity, ambiguity and fluidity of sexual identities not only with the assigned primacy of the masculine-feminine pairing but also within non-heterosexual categorization.


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