The social status of motherhood in Bronze Age Europe


Franzhausen, Austria: grave of a wealthy women, c. 2000 BC (© Bundesdenkmalamt Wien)

This project explores social responses to pregnancy, birth and early child rearing as well as the link between women’s reproductive status and social status in Bronze Age central Europe. Motherhood and early childrearing are often interpreted as a natural, normal and inevitable parts of women’s lives, when in fact, they are sets of cultural practices that build the foundations of societies. During the Bronze Age (c. 2200–800 BC), important long-term developments took place, such as the beginning of social stratification and increasing population density. This project will investigate if and how the social status of women changed as they became mothers, and how reproduction was culturally embedded in different societies. It will aim to understand how the conceptualisation of motherhood changed over time, both at a culturally specific level and as a broader (pre-)historical phenomenon.

This project is the first that aims to systematically differentiate between women who became mothers and women who did not, and relate funerary practices and artefacts in the graves to this identity marker. It will explore if all women were expected to become mothers, highlighting that women might have had different pathways in life, and investigate the risk of becoming a mother as well as the social consequences of the transition to motherhood. The study extends to assessing practices of raising infants (feeding and care, but also abuse, neglect and infanticide) and analysing their treatment after death for further insights into the social value of reproduction.

Innovative archaeological and bio-anthropological methods will be applied to recently published Bronze Age cemeteries from Austria. The early Bronze Age inhumation cemeteries belong to three cultural groups with different burial practices (Únětice, Unterwölbing and Wieselburg). Middle and late Bronze Age cemeteries include cremated individuals. 

Archaeological methods include an assessment of the spatial distribution of graves of infants, pregnant women, double burials of women and children, and women who have/have not given birth, interpreting the symbolic dimension of co-buried objects, and evaluating status differences expressed through funerary treatment as well as in the quality and quantity of grave goods. Bio-anthropological methods include the palaeo-pathological re-assessment of female and infant skeletons, isotope analysis to assess infant feeding practices, and DNA studies to understand the genetic relationship between co-buried individuals and the sex of buried babies.

Bringing together the latest developments in archaeological science with innovative archaeological interpretations makes it possible to comment on current social issues. In an era in which political discourses about mothers in society and workforce frequently refer to what is supposedly ‘natural’ and ‘ancient’ about childrearing, it is important and high time to take a fresh look at how motherhood has been interpreted over time

Sampling of Bronze Age skeletons at the Natural History Museum, Vienna (© K. Rebay-Salisbury)
Scanning of pelvic bones at the Natural History Museum in Vienna (© K. Rebay-Salisbury)

Lectures

Vorträge

  • 20.6.2016
    The End of the Spectrum: Towards an Archaeology of Marginality, London: Motherhood and marginality
  • 21.5.2016
    Big Men or Women? Neue interdiszipinäre Ansätze der Frauenforschung für die Eisenzeit Mitteleuropas, Berlin: Big Mamas? Mutterschaft und sozialer Status im eisenzeitlichen Mitteleuropa
  • 21.3.2016
    Belgrade University, Serbia: The social value of mothers in later prehistoric societies: researching responses to pregnancy, birth and early child rearing in the Bronze and Iron Ages
  • 28.10.2015
    Isotope applications in archaeology, Vienna: Studying breastfeeding and weaning with isotopes
  • 14.11.2015
    AG Eisenzeit des West- und Süddeutschen Verbandes für Altertumsforschung, Hallein, Austria: Tod während Schwangerschaft und Geburt in der Eisenzeit
  • 4.9.2015
    21st Meeting of the European Association of Archaeologists, Glasgow, UK: The Social Status of Motherhood in Bronze Age Europe (Poster)
  • 22.7.2015
    Complexity in Iron Age Societies, Kiel, Germany: Reproduction, motherhood and the complexity of female identities
  • 28.11.2014
    Interpretierte Eisenzeiten – Interpreted Iron Ages 6, Linz, Austria: The Social Status of Motherhood in Bronze Age Europe (Poster)

Poster

Poster

Exhibition

Ausstellungen

  • Posterausstellung Nussdorf ob der Traisen – Urzeitmuseum
    Gemeinsam unterwegs mit Kind und Kegel – Mütter und Kinder in der Urgeschichte
    Eröffnung: Tag des Denkmals 25. September 2016
    Poster: Gemeinsam Unterwegs

Publications

Publikationen

  • K. Rebay-Salisbury, The social status of motherhood in Bronze Age Europe. The European Archaeologist 45 (Summer), Prag 2015, 45–46.
  • K. Rebay-Salisbury, Bronze Age beginnings: The conceptualisation of motherhood in prehistoric Europe, In: D. Cooper, C. Phelan (eds.), Motherhood in the Ancient/Classical World, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, in press.
  • K. Rebay-Salisbury, Tod während Schwangerschaft und Geburt in der Eisenzeit. In: S. Wefers, J. E. Fries, J. Fries-Knoblach, C. Later, U. Rambuscheck, P. Trebsche, J. Wiethold (Hrsg.), Übergangswelten – Todesriten. Neue Forschungen zur Bestattungskultur der mitteleuropäischen Eisenzeit, Beiträge zur Ur- und Frühgeschichte Mitteleuropas. Langenweissbach: Beier und Beran, im Druck