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The value of mothers to society: responses to motherhood and child rearing practices in prehistoric Europe

Periodic Reporting for period 3 - VAMOS (The value of mothers to society: responses to motherhood and child rearing practices in prehistoric Europe)

Reporting period: 2019-07-01 to 2020-12-31

Analysing the link between reproduction and women’s social status, this project explores social responses to pregnancy, birth and childrearing from the late Neolithic to the late Iron Age (c. 3000–15 BC) through case studies in central Europe. Motherhood and childrearing, often seen as natural, mundane and inevitable parts of women’s lives, are also cultural and historically contingent practices that build the foundations of societies. Exploring the value of mothers to society aids in understanding important long-term developments such as social stratification, increasing population density and the entrenching of gender roles during the three millennia under investigation.
Bringing together the latest developments in archaeological science, including palaeo-pathology, dental analysis, ancient DNA and isotope analyses, with innovative interpretative approaches, this project explores whether all women were expected to become mothers, highlights alternative lifeways, evaluates risks and consequences of becoming a mother and reflects on the social value of reproductive success.
It is the first study that systematically predicts the probability of whether or not a woman has given birth using palaeo-pathological markers, explores the age at first motherhood and the number of children per woman, and contextualises the findings with an in-depth status analysis of women’s graves.
Graves of pregnant women, double burials of women and children, and infant burials provide further data. The study extends to childrearing (care, feeding, but also abuse, neglect and infanticide) and explores how children were treated after death for insights into their significance. Current political discourses about mothers in society and workforce frequently refer to ‘natural’ and ‘ancient’ childrearing practices. This project contributes significantly to our understanding of motherhood and counters naive narratives of childrearing in prehistory with science-based information.
The project explores social responses to pregnancy, birth and early child rearing in Bronze Age Central Europe and developed a methodological package to investigate motherhood through a combined theoretical and bio-archaeological approach. After setting up the management framework, research environment and website, we worked on literature review and the methodology. Study protocols, GIS environment and data management structure were designed and implemented. In the first half of the project duration, archaeological and anthropological data collection focussed on the Bronze Age.
Methods included an assessment of the spatial distribution of graves of infants, pregnant women, double burials of women and children; the gender and age analysis of material culture; the evaluation of status differences expressed through funerary treatment as well as in the quality and quantity of grave goods; osteological analyses (age at death, sex, body height, pathologies, with an emphasis on pelvic changes), 14C dating, tooth cementum annulation, δ13C/δ15N isotope and aDNA analyses as well as demographic modelling.
We finished data acquisition from the Early Bronze Age case studies Unterhautenthal, Zwingendorf, Schleinbach, Pottenbrunn and Franzhausen I, and the middle Bronze Age site of Pitten is currently being analysed. In parallel, we tackle the main Late Bronze Age case study Inzersdorf, which includes cremations.
We examined skeletons of Bronze Age sites for pathologies, focusing on changes in the pelvic region that may be related to pregnancy and childbirth. We developed a recording system to describe the changes and evaluate the ‘probability of parity’. The intensive work led to the presentation of anatomical features that have not been described in the literature before (newly ‘preauricular extension’ and ‘preauricular notch’). In addition to strain through pregnancy and childbirth, we also worked on other life-style indicators such as evidence for interpersonal violence, occupational stress, and malnutrition, all of which may provide insights into the social status of the deceased.
In early Bronze Age case studies, we found a young age for first time mothers in their late teens, and no particular differentiation between different kinds of women that could be explained by reproductive success. Age and gender were clearly the most important components of identity expressed in the funerary ritual. The typical age of first motherhood corresponds to high status values, which suggests a link between reproductive age and potential, but not necessarily actual, reproductive success. The lifetime maternal mortality risk can be estimated at around 10-15%, with women giving birth to between 7 and 8 children on average if they reached the age of menopause.
In addition to the methodology outlined at the beginning of the project, we added three innovative research components. The biological age of buried individuals plays a significant role in the way we interpret them. For that reason, we go beyond the conventional ageing of individuals based on morphological characteristics by adding tooth cementum annulation (TCA), a histological method that involves analysing thin sections of dental roots under the microscope to our methodology.
An important aspect of the mother-child relationship is breastfeeding and weaning. In order to understand which foods may have been used after breastfeeding, we applied organic residue analysis to vessels with which young children were fed. In collaboration with Julie Dunne and Richard Evershed from the Chemistry Department of the University of Bristol, we developed a minimally invasive strategy to sample Bronze and Iron Age feeding vessels for molecules absorbed into the ceramics matrix.
We are testing a new method to accurately sex the remains of infants and juveniles (Steward et al 2016, 2107) based on the extraction of Y-chromosome-specific amelogen from tooth enamel through acid etching followed by analysis with nanoflow liquid chromatography mass spectrometry. Compared to DNA based sexing, which is very expensive and dependent on preservation of DNA, this new method is very cost effective and will bring important new insights into gender-biased upbringing, violence or access to food.
Late Bronze and Iron Age vessels that may have been used to feed infants © Photo: Katharina Rebay-Sa
Katharina Rebay-Salisbury and Doris Pany-Kucera in the Natural History Museum, Vienna © Photo: Luiza