How it all began

I have been thinking about the shape of this project for a very long time – it is one of the projects that probably had a ‘gestation period’ of almost a decade. I have always been interested in explaining mortuary variability including and beyond the classic categories of gender, age and status, as clearly there are many more variables that lead to the archaeological burial record as we see it.

For my PhD, finished in 2005 and published in 2006, I analysed an early Iron Age cemetery from Statzendorf, Austria, in detail. One of the curious facts about this cemetery that cremation and exhumation are practised contemporaneously. Over the years, I have pursued many ideas about why that might be, from seasonal funerary rites to specific classifications of people, but an explanation remains elusive.

One of the ideas about why women’s graves differ despite the individuals being otherwise similar was whether the women have had children and if so, how many. Now that is not something one can immediately read from the skeletal remains. There are, however, a huge number of physical implications of pregnancy and childbirth, some of which may be traceable archaeologically.

Years ago, I found a very interesting book in a second hand bookshop, which has confirmed me in trying to pursue this topic. I have since lost is and just bought it again (a common thing for my favourite books!). Although a little outdated, it is a fantastic historical collection of horror stories about childbirth and women’s obstetric histories:

SchicksalShorter, E. 1984. Der weibliche Körper als Schicksal: zur Sozialgeschichte der Frau. München: Piper.

Shorter, E. 1982. A History of Women’s Bodies. New York: Basic Books.

Reading this book I learned for the first time what fistulas are, how midwives used questionable practices to save lives of women and children if childbirth did not go to plan and what a large number of women and babies actually died before modern medicine of all sorts of causes. Needless to say, I am a huge sceptic of the ‘natural childbirth movement’, as I actually see the results in the form of skeletal remains in the cemeteries I analyse. Having had two babies myself, I am hugely thankful to modern medical interventions.

On the other hand, I am fully aware that humans, as a species, are part of the natural world and many of our child rearing practices are both natural and cultural. I believe that what makes sense in the light of evolution is probably the right way to go in terms of bringing up babies. But more on this another time…


About Katharina

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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