The necessary stuff: project meetings

Today’s attempt to capture our project meetings with a panoramic photograph makes my office appear much larger than it is! The team gathers once a month for what we call the ‘timesheet party’ – in this meeting, timesheets that record the hours we have worked are signed, administrative matters are discussed and reports to the ERC are drafted. We discuss the progress of each researcher and the team as a whole and finish with a reading group discussion. One of the team usually suggests a current published research article that we all read and discuss. This way, we hope to stay on top of scientific developments in our field, learn from each other and formulate a common approach to researching motherhood in prehistory.

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The womb and the toad: a curious connection

In the 1930s, an intriguing object was found in a pit filled with the rubble of a late Bronze Age house at Maissau, Lower Austria. At first, it did not seem to differ much from the daub fragments of a wall discarded in the pit. Upon closer inspection, however, the object turned out to be a figurine with two sides: the upper, ventral side, being shaped like a toad, the other, dorsal side, shaped like a woman. The dimensions – 75 mm long, 35 mm wide, 95 g – are close to toads as they occur in nature (bufo bufo); particularly the head with the eyes and the buttocks of the toad had been formed naturalistically.

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Ventral and dorsal view of the woman-toad figurine from Maissau, Lower Austria © Photos: Wolfgang Andraschek, Höbarth Museum Horn

The dorsal side representing a woman, however, is less easy to read. The face is rudimentary shaped, with incisions indicating the eyes and the mouth. The secondary and primary sexual characteristics, however, are well shaped: much attention has been given to rendering the breasts and the vulva, including labia majora, labia minora and clitoris, in detail. Today, the woman-toad figurine can be visited in the Höbarth Museum Horn.

We do not know what this curious object was used for, what it meant, or what prompted the artist to create such a figurine. Its symbolism can no longer be read, as it was found in a context dating to 1200-1100 BC, well before written records existed in Central Europe.

An association between the toad and the womb and/or the embryo/foetus, however, can be traced through European folklore history. Perhaps the shape of the womb had something to do with it, or the knowledge that babies, in their development, share certain similarities with tadpoles. Perhaps the mating of toads had been observed and connections to sexuality and fertility were drawn.

Toads mating_Wikicommons

Common toads mating (Photo: Bernie via Wikimedia Commons)

Medical knowledge in prehistory was certainly limited, and until anatomical knowledge became more widespread after the Enlightenment, many people believed that the womb wandered freely through the woman’s body, causing all sorts of troubles, including pregnancies and illnesses. At times, it was believed that the womb was able to leave the body, and re-enter the woman, causing pregnancy.


Toad-shaped amulets at the Museum of Tyrolean Regional Heritage in Innsbruck (Photo: K. Rebay-Salisbury)

Amulets and charms in the shape of toads were used to help with pregnancies, births and female illnesses. They were even found as votive offerings in southern German and Austrian churches well into the 19th century. Perhaps the woman-toad figurine from Maissau was just a toy, a joke, a curious accident. But perhaps it had a deeper meaning, perhaps it is the material manifestation of how people thought about their bodies, about reproduction and about developing life.



Gulder, A. 1960. Die urnenfelderzeitliche “Frauenkröte” von Maissau in Niederösterreich und ihr geistesgeschichtlicher Hintergrund. Mitteilungen der Prähistorischen Kommission 10. Wien: Österreichische Akadamie der Wissenschaften.

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2018 Society for the Study of Childhood in the Past Conference in Vienna

Source: 2018 Society for the Study of Childhood in the Past Conference in Vienna

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Marlon Bas joins the research team

MarlonIn September of 2017, Marlon Bas joined the ‘motherhood in prehistory’ research team at the OREA Institute of the Austrian Academy of Sciences as a PhD student. Despite currently reading a truly fascinating long-winded account of the history of Rye farming in Central-Europe, he found time to give the motherhoodinprehistory blog an “exclusive interview”, in order to introduce himself:

Q: So, how did you get here?

M: Such a simple question yet so difficult to answer! I guess I developed an interest in history early on in my life, History and geography were always my favourite subject and I grew up in South-West France, a region dotted with old stone villages and castles. In high school, I developed an interest in the sciences, in particular, biology. After I graduated high school I moved to Bordeaux to study and I graduated in 2015 with a BSc in cellular and molecular biology and physiology, where I specialised in both neuroscience and physical anthropology. In 2017, earlier this year, I finished an MSc in Bio-geosciences with a specialization in paleobiology. My thesis was on the microwear texture analysis (a method for studying diet in the past) of milk teeth. During the final months of my MSc, I was interviewed by Katharina who decided I could make a valuable contribution to her project… a few months later here I am!

Q: Ok, so what would your research interests be exactly?

M: Well, over the course of my studies my interests have varied from ecosystems management, to the physiology of muscle contraction, to the relationship between lithic techno-complexes and eco-geographic variation. In my undergraduate degree, they began to centre around the question of the relationship between environment culture and human biology. During my MSc, I decided to focus more specifically on diet as a proxy for studying that relationship and more recently childhood, childhood diet and weaning practices.

Q: But then what is the subject of your current research and how do you see your research fit into the project as a whole?

M: My current research aims to gather information about childhood, childhood diet and childhood pathology in the populations studied by the project, using dental meterial and non-destructive methods, which I will also seek to improve. This will provide not only great information about childhood in those populations but also life as a whole, and ultimately will provide a richer context within which to discuss motherhood within those same populations.

Q: How would you present your work to a stranger, in one sentence.

 I work with dead children… but please don’t panic, it is legal.

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Hunting for molecules in feeding vessels

Small vessels with spouts, from which liquid can be poured, are sometimes found in Bronze and Iron Age graves and settlements. They come in many sizes, shapes and decorations; although they generally fit the period-specific style, each piece is unique. Many of them are stray finds, but some were found in context with children’s graves, which led to the idea that they may have been used as feeding vessels for babies and small children. The fact that they are also found in adult’s graves, however, suggests other uses, such as libation – the act of pouring a liquid as a sacrifice to a deity.

Blog feeding vessels

Feeding vessels, from Vienna, Oberleis, Vösendorf and Statzendorf, c. 1200-600 BC (photos: KRS)

How can we test what the feeding vessels actually contained? Experimental work has confirmed that it is possible to feed small children with liquid from feeding vessels. The diameter of the hole through which the liquid is poured is quite variable, but in some cases, only a few millimetres wide – there is no chance that porridge or gruel fits through. It has to be liquid. If it was milk, there is a small chance that organic molecules from the animal lipids may be preserved in the ceramic matrix. We went hunting for these molecules.

First, however, we needed to secure some samples, which was more difficult than expected. The vessels are small and delicate, and especially complete ones can usually not be destroyed. Other vessels have been stored in museums for decades, and there is no information available if and how they were treated with chemicals. With help from Anton and Daniela Kern from the Natural History Museum in Vienna and a few other colleagues, however, we cut small pieces from eight feeding vessels dated to the late Bronze Age and early Iron Age Austria (c. 1200 to 600 BC). Carefully wrapped and packaged they accompanied us to Bristol.

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Anton and Daniela Kern discussing with the restaurator Gergana Almstädter from the Natural History Museum in Vienna how best to take samples of feeding vessels (photo: KRS)

Researchers from the Chemistry Department of the University of Bristol have come up with a sophisticated method to analyse ancient molecules extracted from foodstuffs absorbed into archaeological pottery (Evershed, 2008a and b, Dunne 2017). After a sample of a potsherd is cleaned and finely ground up, a chemical extraction takes place. Chromatographic techniques, mass spectronomy and isotope mass spectronomy are applied to characterise the compounds. Using these techniques, it is possible to differentiate dairy fats from fats that come from the animal carcass, e.g. when cooking a soup from bones and meat. Organic residue analysis can identify the difference between the processing of ruminant (cattle sheep and goat) carcass products and non-ruminant (pig). Dairy products from ruminants, i.e. milk, can also be separated isotopically although, to date, we have no information on human breast milk.

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Julie Dunne explaining isotope mass spectronomy at Bristol (photo: KRS)

We are looking forward to the results. Perhaps some hidden molecules will be able to tell us more about the function of feeding vessels.


Dunne, J. 2017. Organic Residue Analysis and Archaeology. Guidance for Good Practice. Bristol: Historic England.

 Eibner, C. 1973. Die urnenfelderzeitlichen Sauggefäße. Ein Beitrag zur morphologischen und ergologischen Umschreibung. Praehistorische Zeitschrift (48): 144-199.

Evershed, R. P. 2008a. Experimental approaches to the interpretation of absorbed organic residues in archaeological ceramics. World Archaeology 40(1): 26-47.

Evershed, R. P. 2008b. Organic residue analysis in archaeology: the archaeological biomarker revolution Archaeometry 50(6): 895-924.

Rebay, K. C. 2006. Das hallstattzeitliche Gräberfeld von Statzendorf, Niederösterreich. Universitätsforschungen zur Prähistorischen Archäologie 135. Bonn: Habelt.

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A new addition to our research team

The ‘motherhood in prehistory’ research team at the OREA Institute of the Austrian Academy of Sciences welcomes a new team member: PhD student Lukas Waltenberger. Lukas in an energetic young anthropologist who will develop his PhD project on physical changes in the human pelvis through childbirth within the next three years.


Lukas Waltenberger

Already in his youth, Lukas wanted to become a scientist and spent his summers working in a  biochemical lab. Before embarking on studying biology at the University of Vienna, he spent some months at Leeds University (UK) as a visiting research assistant, where he improved protocols for nuclei extraction out of plant cells. In 2010, he started to study Biology at the University of Vienna, and during that time his research interests changed from Biochemistry to Anthropology. In his bachelor’s thesis, he analysed early medieval skeletons and gained first experiences in geomorphometrics.

Lukas moved to the UK to study Forensic Osteology at Bournemouth University for his MA and gained experience in mass grave excavation, plane crash incidents and skeletal analysis. In his master dissertation, supervised by Prof. Holger Schutkwoski, he analysed heat alteration of cut marks and developed an experimental strategy using pig bones. He applied cutting-edge 3D-methods, such as micro-CT and laser scanning microscopy, to his research questions. He presented his research results at he European Researcher’s Night and in a Science Slam – a competition to present research in front of a non-scientific crowd. His contribution “Sherlock Bones – Forensic BBQ” was broadcast on Austrian television.

In spring and summer 2016 he won an internship at the Commission of Missing Persons in Cyprus and extended his experience in forensic analyses and war victim identification. He helped to identify war victims from the Cyprus Civil War in the 1970s. Skeletal remains predominantly found in mass graves were analysed for their biological profiles, cause of death, facial reconstructions and DNA fingerprint. Recently he received the ATHEN-grant of the Austrian Academy of Sciences to work in the Phaleron-project, led by Prof. Jane Buikstra, in Athens.

Since March 2017, he studies Prehistory and Historical Archaeology in addition to Anthropology at the University of Vienna. The combination of archaeology and anthropology makes him a great addition to our team. We are looking forward to working with him in many joint science adventures!

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Photoshop and Klimt, or retouching older women and breasts out of history

Klimt’s iconic painting ‘Three ages of woman’ beautifully empresses both the beauty and horror of motherhood, which is why it serves a project vignette. It was painted in 1905 and bought by the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna in Rome in 1911. The Ministero per i Beni e le Attività Culturali kindly permitted us to use it.


It is a widely known and frequently reproduced image. However, not all parts of it appeal: many reproductions crop the image to show only the mother holding the child. My lovely colleague Doris gave me a porcelain mug for my birthday with this image on it. The central motif features at the front, back and inside. The representation of old age, however, has been entirely deleted. Instead, the orange dot-and-circle pattern has been expanded to cover the space.

The latest alteration of the image I came across covers the naked breast of the woman with a second child. Klimt’s woman suddenly turned into a mother of twins.

Klimt with twinsThe arts shall be free, I suppose, but I am sure poor Gustav would spin in his grave if he knew. The original message of the painting is entirely lost, and the ‘new and improved’ versions are symptomatic for a broader tendency to retouch older women out of media, politics and research.

I have sadly not found the origin of the ‘mother of twins’ image, but I suspect it is a prudish attempt to cover the woman’s naked breast. After reading this rant, have some fun: you can turn your own image ‘klimtesque’ on the Deepart website.

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