Identities Are Hard to Get At

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Categories: Modern, Not an expert
Some stranded seaweed on a Salish Sea beach at about 1/3 of full tide

A few weeks ago, I talked about how an identity is something to which someone says “I am that.” After a series of unfortunate events between 1914 and 1948, educated people stopped talking about race, gender, and ethnicity as essences and started to talk about them as identities or social categories. This change was meant to reduce the amount of murder, enslavement, and forced migration in our world. But when we try to understand the ancient world, identities in the proper sense are not very helpful.

As a famous scholar said, “I must have something to work on!” Historians, archaeologists, and linguists study the material traces of the past not the past itself. We do not have access to people’s beliefs. Internal mental states are not racked in the storage rooms of museums between potsherds and dress pins. We study objects like inscriptions, swords, and bones.

We can read the writings of a few male aristocrats like Cicero or St. Augustine and see how they presented themselves. But people who left this much writing about themselves are very few and very unusual. The writings of Cicero and Augustine were preserved because rich medieval Christians admired them and believed they were extraordinarily eloquent, not because they were typical aristocrats let alone typical people.

We can read letters and documents and public inscriptions and these tell us all kinds of things about people who were not male or not aristocrats. But these rarely say much about the social categories that are important in our society, and when they do they are often saying something which is disputed. As I wrote in chapter 4 of my first book, people in Mesopotamia rarely tell us their ethnicity. Ethnic labels are usually used in the third person and refer to groups, so they tell us what category third parties assigned people to.

We can assign ancient names to a language or a cult. But people are usually given names, rather than naming themselves, and they often have multiple names which they use in different contexts. One of my room-mates in Innsbruck went by Martin or Deepesh depending on who he was speaking with. My paternal ancestors changed their name to Manning which is an Anglicized spelling of an Irish name. Which name someone chooses to use, or which name is chosen for them, usually tells us about the surrounding society not about their heart.

We can examine bones in a grave and assign them a biological sex and an age (although neither is perfectly reliable). If you know someone’s sex you can make a very good guess at their gender, but that is not the same as asking them or asking someone in their community. We can examine goods placed in a grave and link them to a nation or a gender. But people do not bury themselves; for the most part, grave goods tell us how survivors wanted to present their relative (and linking objects to nations or genders is much more complicated than it seemed 70 years ago).[1]

These days we can study ancient DNA and declare who someone was biologically related to. But knowing that my paternal ancestors were Irish does not tell you whether I identify as Irish. If I had been dumped into a plague-pit in the Inntal sometime in 2020, an archaeologist in the 4th millennium CE could probably deduce that I grew up around the Salish Sea and had ancestors in the British Isles, but they could not tell whether I was Canadian, American, or an Austrian who lived overseas as a child.

If someone is very public and insistent about an aspect of themself, that is often because this aspect is disputed. Converts often terrify people born into a religion with their enthusiasm to learn all the rituals, memorize all the teachings, and respect all the taboos. The children of immigrants joints the nativist mob beating up the next generation of immigrants. The nouveau riche construct fanciful genealogies for themselves. The cynical scoundrel creates a charitable foundation to dispose of some of the money he squeezed out of the people who just got the pay for doing the work. In ancient history, we are usually not equipped to say which of these stories is true or false. We are lucky if we have reasons to doubt one.

We can say quite a lot about class and sex and ethnicity and ancestry and religion and language and community membership and sexuality in antiquity. We can talk about a wide range of people from rich to poor, men and women, elders and adults and children. But we just can’t talk about identity very often, and when we can talk about identity it is usually the identity of a rich literate man. Its not that someone’s sense of their own ethnicity is more or less important than the city they were citizen of or the label that people who saw them in the street gave them. But internal mental states do not survive in the ground, and they can not be copied and recopied on papyrus and parchment and paper. If you want to understand people in the ancient world, focusing on internal subjective identities is not very helpful.

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[1] Side note: at Deir el-Medina, in New Kingdom Egypt, some people did spend time in their life buying, building, and decorating their own tombs and grave goods. But even then, it is other people who read or remember their wishes and choose how to carry them out. Trimalchio in the Satyricon is worried that his heir will take over his splendid tomb, and I am told that some tombs at Petra have inscriptions cursing anyone who buries someone within without permission.

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