Gender History Documentaries

Last year, my team and I have participated in filming a documentary on gender (pre-)history in the Natural History Museum in Vienna. It was an exciting, interesting day. We answered a number of interview questions on motherhood in prehistory and the role of women in society. We were filmed walking around the museum and handling artefacts. I have not seen the end product yet, but here are the broadcasting dates (in German):

Geschlechterkonflikt – Frauenbilder der Geschichte
52 min. TV Dokumentation auf ARTE
07. März 2020 um 21:05 Uhr

TERRA X: Mächtige Männer – Ohnmächtige Frauen? Neue Fakten aus der Vergangenheit
43 min. TV Dokumentation auf ZDF
21. Juni 2020 um 19:30 Uhr

Gender History




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CRUMBEL stories

This gallery contains 10 photos.

Originally posted on Archaeo𝔡𝔢𝔞𝔱𝔥:
Having reviewed my keynote lecture at the 1st CRUMBEL workshop in Brussels on Wednesday 16th October  (and check out my Twitter Moment here), I want to briefly review the subsequent 2 days of presentations and posters on…

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Early Europeans bottle-fed babies with animal milk — The Bioarchaeology of Childhood | Sian Halcrow

via Early Europeans bottle-fed babies with animal milk — The Bioarchaeology of Childhood | Sian Halcrow

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Bony changes at the sacrum – can they give evidence on past pregnancies and parturition?

written by Doris Pany-Kucera, 12.9.2019 in Vienna

Physical anthropologists have long desired to assess past pregnancies and births on human skeletal remains. They developed different methods, building on features of the pelvis that differ between male and female skeletons. However, none of these features, e.g. the preauricular sulcus or dorsal pubic pitting, are always present on the pelvic bones after partuition. To this day, the topic remains hotly debated.

In the scope of our project, which aims to link women’s reproductive and social status in prehistoric societies, we combine context information from graves such as grave goods or grave depth with skeletal data. We therefore record a set of pelvic features on the skeleton. Some of the observed features like the preauricular sulcus seem to relate to the female sex. The so-called ‘true’ preauricular sulcus, a very deep groove at the ilium bone next to the sacroiliac joint, for instance, only occurs in females in this shape. The question that remains to be answered is why this is the case.

Doris blog_pelvis

A Bronze Age female pelvis under scrutiny. Photo: Luiza Puiu

The adaptation of the female pelvis to cope with childbearing begins in adolescence. In the Austrian Bronze Age, archaeological evidence indicates first births at an early age. We therefore also included adolescent females in our analysis. During the data collection, we noticed a large, bilateral bony extension in the front section of a sacrum, next to the auricular facet of the sacroiliac joint, in a female skeleton for the first time. The extension was hard to interpret, as it was not a simple arthrosis. It appeared to be something special, and we began to pay special attention on local modifications in this area. In the course of gathering further data, we found another change at this location in the shape of a notch; interestingly, it was in a juvenile female individual. From then onwards, we found both changes more frequently and recorded them systematically in our skeletal series. We decided to term them sacral preauricular extension and sacral preauricular notch and recently published our findings.

The scientific hypothesis to explain the described changes is that they stand in a causal relationship with pregnancy and birth events. We came to this interpretation on the basis of our results. First, we so far found the changes only in female skeletons aged 16 or over, and we have meanwhile analyzed more than 400 male and female individuals. Second, we also found the same changes in a so-called identified collection, where biological and socioeconomic data are available: they only occur in females with two or more children.

We believe that the formation of the sacral preauricular extension forms through increased compressional forces at this front section of the sacrum, most likely in the course of traumatic birth events. This includes deliveries with complications, such as prolonged labour – when the child’s head only barely fits through the mother’s pelvis. Additional mechanisms include that the hormonally induced increased pelvic joint mobility often leads to a postural change during pregnancy, and together with the weight gain contributes to the formation of the feature.

Furthermore, we suggest that the sacral preauricular notch arises from pregnancies and births at a young age, as we found the ossifying epiphysis at the sacrum to be affected in adolescents. Perhaps early physical work and early pregnancy may both explain at least the sacral preauricular notch, but we did not find distinct activity-related changes in the analyzed skeletons. We are therefore confident that the changes relate to pregnancies and births. The frequency of the bony modifications varied between the analyzed sites, which may partly be a result of preservation issues, but may point to different birthing practices or birth spacing.

In general, the interpretation of pelvic features in relation to pregnancy and parturition is still difficult, because we know little on the process of their formation. Many factors such as age, weight, stature, biomechanical and musculoskeletal conditions, pelvic dimensions, genetic disposition, hormonal influences, or workload may influence if they occur and what exactly they look like. To move the discussion forward, we are working closely together with anatomists, radiologists and pelvic floor experts of the Medical University and General Hospital of Vienna.

On 28 November 2019, the project team organizes a workshop on female pelvic features with national and international experts from different professional backgrounds in the Natural History Museum in Vienna. Book your space if you are interested!

Doris blog_pelvis1

Michaela Spannagl-Steiner and Doris Pany-Kucera working on pelves


Pany-Kucera, D., M. Spannagl-Steiner, S. Argeny, B. Maurer-Gesek, W. J. Weninger, and K. Rebay-Salisbury. 2019. Sacral preauricular extensions, notches and corresponding iliac changes: new terms and the proposal of a recording system. International Journal of Osteoarchaeology:

Pany-Kucera, D., M. Spannagl-Steiner, W. Parson, B. Rendl, C. Strobl, L. Waltenberger, and K. Rebay-Salisbury. accepted. Motherhood, Social Relations and Violence at Schleinbach, Lower Austria: re-examining and assessing the Early Bronze Age human remains Archaeologia Austriaca.

Rebay-Salisbury, K., D. Pany-Kucera, M. Spannagl-Steiner, F. Kanz, P. Galeta, M. Teschler-Nicola, and R. B. Salisbury. 2018. Motherhood at early Bronze Age Unterhautzenthal, Lower Austria. Archaeologia Austriaca 102: 71-134.


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AMELX or AMELY? Analysing sex-specific peptides in prehistoric tooth enamel

A new method of sexing juvenile human remains has recently been described in the literature (Parker et al. 2019, Stewart et al. 2017, Stewart et al. 2016), and it sounds almost too good to be true: sexually dimorphic amelogenin protein fragments can be identified in human enamel using high performance liquid chromatography.

Based on morphology alone, it is notoriously difficult to assign sex to children, as sexual dimorphism develops primarily after puberty. Osteologists therefore do not normally assign sex to children and adolescents under the age of about 16 to 18 (Cunningham, Scheuer, and Black 2016). In recent years, DNA analysis has been employed to determine the genetic sex of skeletons, but DNA analysis is destructive, its success depends on the preservation of the nuclear DNA and the costs are still prohibitive. The identification of peptides in tooth enamel, in contrast, is almost non-destructive – it only needs an incredibly small amount of tooth enamel gained by acid etching of a small area of the surface of the tested tooth. The tested area is hardy visible to the naked eye (wearing contact lenses, I could not see it).

As an archaeologists interested in age and gender, this is like a (slightly macabre) dream come true. We can finally answer a number of questions on sex-specific mortality patterns, on sex-preferences, and demography. Why is knowing the sex of buried children so important? We will be able to know if sex selection took place after birth and whether infanticide affected more girls or more boys. We can ask whether girls and boys were treated equally as babies and small children, for example in terms of access to food. We can investigate if children of both sexes were afforded the same burial rites. We will be able to tell if the sex of babies and infants was important, or if societies only responded to the differences between girls and boys later, as children matured. We will be much better able to understand how children ‘learn gender’, at what age girls and boys were socially recognized and treated as adolescents and adults. In summary, we can learn a lot about value systems linked to gender, about power relationships between the sexes, and about how they developed in past societies.


Department of Analytical Chemistry, University in Vienna

It is a lucky coincidence that Fabian Kanz, my collaboration partner in Forensic Medicine, has good contacts to the Department of Analytical Chemistry of the University in Vienna, where nanoLCMS/MS machines are part of the routine analytical equipment. Thanks to the efforts of Lukas Janker and Dina Schuster, a test on a series of modern deciduous and permanent teeth from individuals with known sex was successful, a laboratory protocol was established, and work on prehistoric teeth could begin. The first sex identification of a 5-6-year-old Bronze Age child via peptides in tooth enamel produced unambiguous results, as AMELY was clearly present. It’s a boy!

2019-06-03 14.00.55

Lukas Janker and Dina Schuster in front of the QExactive orbitrap mass spectrometer



Cunningham, C., L. Scheuer, and S. Black. 2016. Developmental Juvenile Osteology, 2nd edition. London: Elsevier Academic.

Parker, G. J., J. M. Yip, J. W. Eerkens, M. Salemi, B. Durbin-Johnson, C. Kiesow, R. Haas, J. E. Buikstra, H. Klaus, L. A. Regan, D. M. Rocke, and B. S. Phinney. 2019. Sex estimation using sexually dimorphic amelogenin protein fragments in human enamel. Journal of Archaeological Science 101: 169-180.

Stewart, N. A., R. F. Gerlach, R. L. Gowland, K. J. Gron, and J. Montgomery. 2017. Sex determination of human remains from peptides in tooth enamel. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Stewart, N. A., G. F. Molina, J. P. Mardegan Issa, N. A. Yates, M. Sosovicka, A. R. Vieira, S. R. P. Line, J. Montgomery, and R. F. Gerlach. 2016. The identification of peptides by nanoLC-MS/MS from human surface tooth enamel following a simple acid etch extraction. RSC Advances 6, 66: 61673-61679.


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Did we find Richard III’s maternal ancestor in a Bronze Age grave?

Recently, the results of our DNA analysis from the early Bronze Age site Schleinbach came in. We have been working on Schleinbach a bit longer than intended. It is an exciting site, as it includes single graves, a double and multiple burial, several individuals buried or deposited in former storage pits, and can tell us a lot about social relations and social stratification the Bronze Age. Many individuals have healed or perimortal fractures that suggest interpersonal violence.

We sent samples from two of the most interesting contexts to the Legal Medicine Department in Innsbruck, to test for maternal relationships between the buried individuals. Mitochondrial DNA is inherited only from the mother. Because it is present in many more copies per cell than nuclear DNA, mtDNA is more likely to be preserved in archaeological samples. Normally, offspring inherit an identical copy of the mother’s mtDNA, but random changes sometimes occur, which are then passed down the generations. Specific mutations characterize a haplogroup, a genetic group of people who share a common ancestor. MtDNA only shows a part of a person’s genetic history – the maternal linage.

Schleinbach 30

Double burial 30/31 from Schleinbach (Foto: Karl Kriegler, 1927)

The double burial 30/31 includes two male individuals who died at the ages of 27-30 and 30-35 years. Both had very similar perimortem fractures of the skull, which likely led to their death, and they were placed very closely together in a single grave. The bones of the feet overlap and the pelvic bones almost touch, giving rise to the suspicion that they were bound or wrapped together after death. It is unclear what happened to the men – perhaps they were executed by their own community, perhaps they died raiding a neighbouring village and were sent home dead and tied together, perhaps they died defending their own home during a surprise attack – we do not know. We only know they met a similar violent fate.

MtDNA analysis showed that the individuals did not only share the same haplogroup, the mitrochondrial haplotype was also identical, i.e. they share the same specific DNA sequences inherited together. The ‘brothers in arms’ were closely maternally related; perhaps they were indeed brothers, although we cannot exclude they were cousins or otherwise related.

Four individuals – an adult man and three children aged 3-4, 8-9 and 12 – were found deposited in a former storage pit at Schleinbach. Again, perimortal traumata suggest that at least one of the individuals met a gruesome fate, but it looks like all four died in quick succession. Only the two younger children, however, share the same mitotype and perhaps had the same mother. The 12-year-old was not their maternal sibling, and the adult man had his own haplogroup. It is thinkable that he was the father of the children.

In total, we had four different mitochondrial haplogroups in this sample – and of course the first thing to do is google them! The 12-year-old from the pit turns out to have J1c2 – a haplogroup shared with the famous King Richard III. He was king of England from 1483 to 1485, when he died in the Battle of Bosworth. Immortalized by William Shakespeare as a villain, his skeletal remains were rediscovered under a concrete car park in Leicester in 2012. Having lived in Leicester for five years, I got overly excited by the match.


Richard III (Wikimedia Commons)

Is it possible that we found Richard III’s maternal ancestor in a Bronze Age grave in Austria? There are many generations between them. Our 12-year-old lived between 1906 and 1743 cal BC, as radiocarbon dating has revealed, and assuming 30 years for a generation, this would be about 110 generations between them. Many grand-grand-grand-grand-grands to write.

Turi King from the University of Leicester, who led the DNA analysis of Richard III, and Walther Parson found out Richard III belongs to a relatively uncommon subclade J1c2c3, and there isn’t a perfect match between the individuals. The two were definitely related, but perhaps not as closely as to be of any significance. The most recent common ancestor for our Bronze Age individual and Richard III might have lived 7800 to 11800 years ago – this is the assumed age of the branch J1c2. It is estimated that today, about 17 million people worldwide share J1c2 (Behar et al 2012, Logan and Brinkman 2017).


Behar, Doron M., M. van Oven, S. Rosset, M. Metspalu, E.-L. Loogväli, Nuno M. Silva, T. Kivisild, A. Torroni, and R. Villems. 2012. Reassessment of the Human Mitochondrial DNA Tree from its Root. The American Journal of Human Genetics 90, 4: 675-684.

Buckley, R., M. Morris, J. Appleby, T. King, D. O’Sullivan, and L. Foxhall. 2013. ‘The king in the car park’: new light on the death and burial of Richard III in the Grey Friars church, Leicester, in 1485. Antiquity 87: 519–538.

King, T. E., G. G. Fortes, P. Balaresque, M. G. Thomas, D. Balding, P. M. Delser, R. Neumann, W. Parson, M. Knapp, S. Walsh, L. Tonasso, J. Holt, M. Kayser, J. Appleby, P. Forster, D. Ekserdjian, M. Hofreiter, and K. Schürer. 2014. Identification of the remains of King Richard III. Nature Communications 5: 5631.

Logan, I. S., and D. N. Brinkman. 2017. King Richard III and his mitochondrial DNA haplogroup J1c2c3. The Journal of Genealogy and Family History 1, 1: 1-14.

Rebay-Salisbury, K. 2018. “Vielversprechende Ansätze und kleine Irrwege: die Interpretationsgeschichte frühbronzezeitlicher Bestattungen am Beispiel Schleinbach,” in F. Pieler and P. Trebsche (eds) Beiträge zum Tag der Niederösterreichischen Landesarchäologie 2018. 45-56. Asparn: Niederösterreichisches Landesmuseum.

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The pig must burn

written by Michaela Fritzl, Asparn an der Zaya, 10 July 2018

Flames at least two meters high, a smoke column thrice that height, and a so much radiating heat that it’s impossible to go close – a pyre truly is an impressive experience. However, that is not the reason why we decided to reconstruct an Urnfield culture cremation. An archaeological experiment provides the means to reconstruct reasonable scenarios under specified conditions, make observations, document the results and therefore (if everything goes as planned) offers possible explanations for existing data.

The experiment was conducted at the archaeological open-air museum MAMUZ Asparn/Zaya. A collaboration of archaeologists, physical anthropologists and archaeozoologists (Herbert Böhm,  Karina Grömer, Michael Konrad, Andrea Stadlmayer, Ingrid Schierer and me) dressed a naturally deceased and post mortem injured pig in multiple layers of cloth and bronze costume attire and put it, together with some pyre goods, on a pyre. Our goal was to get some answers to questions about how clothing influences a cremation, how and why some goods are or are not altered by the fire, and what information can be obtained from burnt bones.


Personally, I conducted the experiment because I wanted to destroy some bronzes – replicas of Bronze Age dress and jewellery items, of course no antique artefacts! In Urnfield culture cremation burials, we often encounter burnt findings. While burnt ceramics are reasonably easy to recognise because they show discolorations, cracks and deformations, burnt bronzes are not as easy to identify. Depending on the particular alloy, the melting point of bronze varies around 950°C, a temperature which is not expected to be reached everywhere in a pyre. Therefore, some burnt bronze objects show considerable alterations and some may show none at all.


In this experimental cremation I placed a lot of small and delicate (buttons and Noppenringe) as well as some more massive (arm rings and a knife) bronze objects on various locations on the pyre so that some might survive apparently unaltered, some deformed, some partially and some completely melted. The objective was to produce as many different results as possible, analyse them, and construct a comparative basis for the original bronze findings. Except for determining whether specific bronzes were burnt or not we might be able to reconstruct where particular objects were placed on a pyre and how they were used in a cremation ceremony, because we know the specific conditions, which lead to specific results.


An initial assessment of the documented remains of the pyre suggests that I was somewhat successful. Now the real work will start. The recovered bronzes need to be listed, and a model built of the pyre, pyre remains and the burning conditions to see which factors influenced the objects that survived. Then, a detailed macroscopic and microscopic analysis needs to be undertaken to see what respective conditions affected them, before I can start to use the results for archaeological interpretations.


However, what I can say at this point is that (as always) more questions appeared than where answered by this experiment – which is why I already started to form new plans for further experiments!

All photos © Michaela Fritzl

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