Week 22 SCRAP Reading Group: Gender and Crafting

Last week’s reading was selected by Kathryn Reese-Taylor and focused on gender and multicrafting. Thank you to all who participated in this fruitful discussion. See below for summary and questions.

Traci Ardren, Alejandra Alonso, and T. Kam Manahan (2016). The Artisans of Terminal Classic Xuenkal, Yucatan, Mexico: Gender and Craft During a Period of Economic Change. In Gender Labor in Specialized Economies: Archaeological Perspectives on Male and Female Work, edited by S. Kelly & T. Ardren, pp. 91-115. University Press of Colorado, Boulder.


This chapter, by Ardren, Alonso, and Manahan, focuses on Terminal Classic multi-crafting in a large elite household at the site of Xuenkal, strategically located 45 km north of Chichén Itzá, mid-way along the most direct route between the urban center and it’s port site. The authors propose that Xuenkal weathered the political and economic instability that resulted in the abandonment of many centers in northern Yucatán by adopting practices that resulted its rapid integration into the political economy of Chichén Itzá. To address this hypothesis, the authors examine the household economy of FN-129, rectangular basal platform with the remains of various superstructures built during the Terminal Classic period. They present the evidence for various types of crafting activities in the FN 129 household, including shell bead production, textile production, and lithic production. In addition, the spatial distribution of various categories of artifacts is discussed, with some overlap being noted.

To address the issue of gendered production, the authors use the theory of complementarity as applied to gendered concepts of space to undergird a discussion of activities within domestic space, an area long recognized to be under female supervision. They conclude that the integration of these activities into the household implies the women, as well as children and the elderly, played essential roles in the production of goods for exchange, at least in the FN 129 household. Perhaps more interesting was the comparison made with ancient economies undergoing intensification in other parts of the Americas. In the two cases presented (Inka and Zuni), the economic intensification involved a need for increased labour and resulted in a concomitant restructuring/loosening of gender roles.

Discussion questions:

  1. The argument for the inclusion of women in crafting activities is predicated on theories of complementarity that drive a gendered analysis of space, i. e. women are “in charge”of the domestic sphere , while men had responsibilities in agriculture and provisioning. However, given the roles of women depicted in other contexts, such as the Calakmul murals and the elite women as ambassadors and warriors in public art, should theories of complementarity as the basis for our understanding of gender among the prehispanic Maya be reconsidered?
  2. Given that most crafting in the Maya region was conducted in households, does the evidence at Xuenkal imply a change in gendered roles regarding production during the Terminal Classic in the Chichén Itzá region?
  3. Does an intensification of production that includes an increase in the labour pool inherently result in a loosening or restructuring of gendered roles of production?
  4. What types of evidence is needed to conclusively argue for gendered production?
  5. As the economy of Terminal Classic Chichén Itzá expanded and intensified, why was multi-crafting, a practice with some degree of longevity in Maya economies, used by local regional economies, such as that at Xuenkal, to integrate themselves into the Chichén network (as opposed to increased specialization or mass production)?
  6. The authors suggest shell bead production, textile weaving, and lithic production were major economic activities within the FN 129 household and imply that these were used for tribute or exchange within the Chichén Itzá economic network. However, is the evidence for production beyond the needs of the household present in all instances?