Katharina is a prehistoric archaeologist working at the Austrian Academy of Sciences. Her main research interests include the archaeology of the human body, gender, identity and personhood as expressed through funerary practices and art. She specialises in the Bronze and Iron Ages of Europe. As a mother of two young boys, she gathered some practical experience in addition to her theoretical interest in motherhood.
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In 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
The 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.
Cheese-making is a prehistoric craft. Cheese is usually made from animal milk, from cows, goats or sheep. Archaeological evidence suggests that milk production is likely to be as old as the domestication of sheep. Secure evidence in the form of milk fat residues in strainers and pots dates as early as 5500 BC in Poland (Salque et al. 2013). Preserved cheese from the Taklamakan Desert in Xinjiang , China, dates to 1615 BC. Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, as well as people of the European Iron Age produced cheese. Swiss cheese flavours may go back to the first Millennium BC.
Making cheese preserves a valuable foodstuff for a longer time period. So is it at all possible that prehistoric people made cheese from human breast-milk?
To make hard cheese, milk is usually acidified and adding rennet causes coagulation, separating solid curds for and liquid whey. The solids are separated and pressed into final form. Rennet is found in the stomachs of young animals that still digest milk as their primary food source. Rennet used for modern cheese making is a by-product of slaughtering veal and lamb. In prehistory, its function was likely discovered by chance when milk was stored in animal stomachs.
The traditional way of making rennet is slicing dried and cleaned stomachs of young animals and putting them in water or whey, together with some vinegar or wine, for a few days. The filtered solution can be used to coagulate milk. A little goes a long way with this process – 1 g of this solution can coagulate 2 to 4 l of milk.
What I did not know before developing an unhealthy level of theoretical interest in cheese-making is that the enzymes found in the animal stomachs are specific to the species. To make cheese, you have to add rennet from the stomach lining of the animal you are making the cheese from: to make cheese from cow’s milk, use rennet from calves, to make sheep cheese, from lambs. To make cheese from human breast-milk, you would need the stomach lining of…. you get it. Nobody would do this (but some have thought about it).
Thank goodness, there are alternatives to rennet today. The key component of rennet is the enzyme chymosin, which may be obtained from genetically modified bacteria, fungi or yeasts by fermentation. Yay for genetic engineering! To the best of my knowledge, nobody has engineered a suitable agent for human breast-milk yet.
Cream cheeses and other soft cheese alternatives are made by coagulating milk with acid. So if you are really desperate, try this method. Alternatively, mix human milk with cow’s milk, like in this recipe from New York chef Daniel Angerer.
Salque, M., P. I. Bogucki, J. Pyzel, I. Sobkowiak-Tabaka, R. Grygiel, M. Szmyt, and R. P. Evershed. 2013. Earliest evidence for cheese making in the sixth millennium bc in northern Europe. Nature 493(7433): 522-525.
Here is an interesting story I came across recently – it may or may not have a grain of truth in it. I have not been able to substantiate the legend with further historical sources, but it is too good not to share.
Allegedly, when emperor Leopold I was born as a premature baby in 1640 in Vienna, it was almost certain he would die. There were no incubators at the time. The solution was to slaughter pigs, disembowel them and place the tiny baby Leopold in the animal carcass. To keep him warm, a fresh pig had to be slaughtered every 15 minutes. This procedure was continued for weeks, and most of the many pigs slaughtered during this time came from north of the Danube.
Leopold survived and, out of gratitude, he granted the farmers the right to bring their produce into Vienna without paying a toll on the bridge (Realis 1848: 140). The village, previously named Eipeldau, was renamed Leopoldau and is today a part of Vienna’s Floridsdorf district.
The story raises a number of questions – why was Leopold not kept warm simply by placing him on the mother’s (or the wet nurse’s) chest? Was putting babies in animal carcasses a practice actually ever done in the history of childrearing? What do you think – fact or fiction? If you have heard of similar practices, please let me know.
I have heard stories of horse carcasses used to keep people from freezing to death, for instance in Napoleon’s or Hitler’s Russian campaigns. The theme was taken up in various films such as Star Wars. Perhaps most recently, Leonardo DiCaprio slept in an animal carcass in ‘The Revenant’ (2015).
Modern incubators for the neonatal care of premature babies started to be developed around the middle of the 19th century in various places in Europe; Alexandre Lion’s incubator, patented in 1889, achieved an infant survival rate of 72%. Not too bad for the time.
Schwein gehabt! Wie Leopoldau zu seinem Namen kam … Die Floridsdorfer Zeitung http://www.dfz21.at/dfz/schwein-gehabt-wie-leopoldau-zu-seinem-namen-kam/
Realis. 1848. Curiositäten- und Memorabilien Lexicon von Wien. Wien: Anton Köhler.