The value of a person

Another strand of thought in our project is the social status of mothers – how motherhood was valued in the past, how mother’s status relates to women who have not given birth to men and children. It has always intrigued me that there is a certain ideological value attached to every person. What this value relates to differs quite considerably between societies. Some of the variables to consider are gender, age, number of offspring and responsibilities of care.

This is even apparent from the daily news. When death strikes unexpectedly, in a car accident or a murder case, the loss of life is displayed more tragic for some people than for others. The death of a mother of four is displayed as more problematic than that of a teenager, surely because one can relate to the tragedy for the children’s upbringing. Lately, it seems to be the lost lives of children that are displayed as most terrible and horrific.

But what is it that is actually so valued about their lives? They have not yet grown up to be contributing members of society. Is it their unfulfilled potential? The many possibilities that were once open and are now gone forever? With every one of life’s choices and decisions, there is one path not taken, one possibility closed, one road less travelled. With a deceased child, one can image thousand variations of how their lives might have turned out.

This high value of children in our society must be a relatively recent trend, as children per family have become few and death in childhood has become a rare incident rather than an almost normal life event like it was until the very recent past. It is estimated that prehistoric child mortality was roughly 50% – this is every other child a woman gives birth to. It isn’t any wonder that the treatment if very young children, babies and toddlers, after death is somewhat peculiar in prehistoric communities. Their graves are frequently found in odd places or their bodies are treated in a different way that other individuals.

As an archaeologist, I am trying to infer something about an individual’s rank in society or their social status from the way they were buried and the number and quality of grave goods they were buried with. This method has its problems, but in some periods of European prehistory it works quite well. The value of reproduction, however, is trick to address. Looking at burials of babies and children is one possibility, another one is looking at the status of women who are likely to have had many children. What I am aiming to find out is if women’s reproductive success was mirrored in their social status and if and how motherhood was valued in the past.


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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