Breaking Down Binaries: Gender, Art, and Tools in Ancient Costa Rica



Giant metate-like stone sculptures, found in all regions of Costa Rica, though in various forms, continue to fascinate researchers. Archaeologists contrast these sculptures with other, more utilitarian metates in order to determine their purpose and meaning. They create two groups—metates used by women for grinding subsistence foods and elaborate metates used by men for ritual purposes. This chapter challenges the binaries of tool/art, utilitarian/elaborate, and female/male that essentialize gender and homogenize historical variability. Figurine and burial data demonstrate women's connection to elaborate metates and ritual. In addition, ceramic figurines depict flexibility in gender roles at least within the stratum of ancient Costa Rican society that they depicted. This instance of stereotyped gender attribution and the absence of attention to the possible dynamism of women's lives shows the importance of a feminist approach to archaeology and the need to draw on multiple lines of evidence to answer archaeological questions.