Gender and burials: Prehistory version

Congratulations! It’s a boy…. uh, girl?…… um, it’s – it’s a skeleton!

Burial archaeology largely depends on being able to make clear, neat little categories. Age, sex, grave goods, large and important graves, or little and insignificant graves. These are the sorts of things you can make charts on and draw up a population estimate from. They’re the sort of things that you can use to make conclusions about the sort of society people lived in. So, what’s the problem?

Well, perhaps you’ve heard of the research done on Viking warrior burials by the University of Western Australia? They went through the remains that had already been examined and, after a closer look at the bones themselves they found that almost half the “male” warriors were actually women. Is this under-representation normal?


But why?

Well, the problem lies with us. Or at least, the previous generations of archaeologists. When the field was beginning the only people really accepted into the fold were, sadly, white men from Victorian Europe. They were hugely affected by ideas of empire, “superior” races, and unchanging gender roles. In other words, they were taking their own societies and forcing the past to match them. Re-writing history to either explain or justify the way things were in their lifetimes.

What made these Victorians think the female graves were male warriors? Simple: their grave goods. Warrior graves always had swords, spears, and other battle equipment. Female graves had oval brooches and…. well, that’s about it, really. The skeletons themselves became nothing more than a backdrop for the grave goods which (to the stereotypical Victorian scientist) were clearly “for men” or “for women”.

Of course, the past doesn’t like to be confined by modern society. Particularly not when societies in the past had to deal with things that modern society rarely has to worry about. When your town could come under siege from enemies who want to kill or enslave everyone, saying who can grab a sword and who can’t depending on whether they wear a dress seems rather petty. Not to mention stupid, since that’s half your defending force ordered to sit on the sidelines.

Nowadays, archaeologists have far more women working in the field (not to mention people of colour, members of the LGBTQIA community, and people from different religious or socio-economic backgrounds). This means we’ve got a much wider pool of knowledge, experience, and backgrounds available to assess the data and help us understand it. More people can confuse things, but they can also ask questions that a narrower selection wouldn’t think to ask. They can point out flaws, oddities, and solutions that would otherwise not occur to us. This all means better examination of the evidence.

That’s probably why the sexing of skeletons has become important again – but not too much. Knowing the sex is one thing; how that translated into gender and social roles or responsibilities is completely another. Modern burial archaeology balances out the skeletal data with the grave goods and how they were buried to try to get a better sense of the individual as well as the society. To understand why a young man might be buried with several spindle whorls (traditionally considered a “women’s tool”) while an old woman might be buried with a shield and dagger.

Any questions? Points to bring up? Please leave a comment or send a question!


Bonedigger out.


The unchanging Beaker Culture?

The Beaker Culture of the Neolithic Bronze Age is, perhaps, one of the “purest” cultures that existed way back when. We’re talking 2900 – 1800 B.C.E, here, that’s some serious staying power. And some serious membership material. From Britain to central Europe, everyone everywhere had the same stuff buried with them. If you wanted to be part of the Beaker club, you had to have the right pottery, an awesome archery arm-guard (or two), copper daggers, and some fancy decorated buttons.

Featured image: The Avesbury Archer’s grave goods – classic Beaker Culture burial (from

Not to mention, you had to buried in the right way: in your own individual mounds with all your amazing Beaker Culture stuff around you. This was a massive change from earlier burial practices. Before, everyone was laid to rest in large stone structures called “megaliths” (aka “large stones”, because archaeologists are simple and straightforward folk) and brought out on special occasions to join the rest of the tribe/town in the event. To go from group burial in open structures, where the ancestors remained part of the living community, to single burials in closed-off mounds, which required just as much work to make, is a huge step. From the group, to the individual; from the “present” ancestors, to the “absent” dead.

Why the change? Honestly, we don’t know. Without written records or folk stories, we never will. We can only track the change and acknowledge the difference in the materials left behind. Welcome to the frustrating part of the archaeological world.

But getting back to the Beakers…

Here’s the other strange thing about this new, fashionable burial style: It doesn’t change. Britain, France, Spain, Germany, Italy – all of the burials have exactly the same things included in them. Any differences are superficial; certain decoration motifs may only appear in one area and not another, or perhaps one group of people prefer their beakers to have longer necks. Other than that, nothing else deviates from the set pattern.

Burial mounds. Daggers. Archery arm guards. Buttons. Beakers. This is what makes a Beaker Culture burial, no matter where or who you are apparently.

Except in one place.

The Carpathian Basin in and around Hungary is the furthest East the Beaker Culture ever travelled, arriving around 2500 B.C.E. Did it catch on? Yep. Was it just as unaltered as elsewhere? Absolutely not.

The people of the Basin mixed the traditional Beaker recipe with their own ideas of what should be included as grave goods. They placed swords, arrows, and spears alongside the usual copper daggers. Brooches and belts accompanied the buttons. A single Beaker vessel was alright, but would the dead need more? Well, they included cups, bowls, and larger storage vessels with food or drink in the mounds.

As with anything else in archaeology, this leads us back to the eternal question: why? What was it about the Carpathian people that made them alter the set formula so much? Is this an example of people not respecting the Beaker traditions enough to follow it like everyone else, or a case of people liking it enough to include it into their usual burial traditions? Was this Basin an area where several cultures met, so the people had no problems with adopting a bit of this or that? Was that why we don’t see this sort of change anywhere else?

With more research and excavations, perhaps we’ll be able to answer these questions. For now, share your ideas and theories below, and keep on digging!

Bonedigger out.

The Bone Digger blogs…

I have been adventuring in muddy fields and scorching dust-bowls alike for a good few years now and I’ve finally decided I’d do something about it.

And by that, I mean, share some of the weird, some of the wonderful, and some of the interesting things that I’ve come across in my time as an archaeologist. I started before I was even a student (fresh faced and just dipping my toes into the world of trowels), I’ve dug throughout my years at uni, and even in the commercial world (which was a way different experience than anything I’d had before). Bottom line – you can be sure there will be a lot to tell.

But more than that, I also want to share some of the theories and news that I find really, really, hold-me-back-I’m-about-to-Geek interesting. Why? Because, well come on, humans are amazing and fascinating and the way that we grew and learned and developed in all climates and environs and despite all difficulties is – for lack of a better word – just cool!

So stay tuned for articles (tagged as appropriately as I can) and stories. The ones that have happened to me will be tagged as “Tales from the trenches” and names will be changed to Protect the Innocent, but everything else will be 100% truthful and accurate. And send a question or two my way if you find something confusing or if you just want to know more.

Bone Digger out.