Sleep is overrated, Part II

In Part I of ‘Sleep is overrated’ I emphasised that sleeping, despite being a biologically based and mundane activity, can also be understood as cultural practice. Sleep can thus be also investigated archaeologically and today, I would like to take a closer look at sleeping positions and company.

Headrest with two images of the God Bes, ca. 1539-1190 BC, Brooklyn Museum

Headrest with two images of the God Bes, ca. 1539-1190 BC, Brooklyn Museum

We know from historical case studies that sleeping positions seem to be a cultural choice. Headrests, for example, are well known from many Egyptian collections. They were made of wood, bone or stone and used from c. 1800 BC. The majority of them was found in graves, which prompted a debate as to whether they were actually used for sleeping or only used to prop up the dead body. Ethnographic analogies from Western Africa, however, show that their use extended over Ancient Egypt and in fact constituted a way of sleeping that can be traced over the longue durée. Apparently headrests are great in warm climates to keep your head well aired and cool. I have never tried resting on one, but if anyone has a replica I would love to try it out. Give me a shout.

Shakespeares birthplace

Shakespeares birthplace

Sleeping in a reclining, half seated position was typical for the early modern period in Europe. Many beds were short, not because people were shorter, but because they did not stretch out completely as they slept. Shakespeare’s birthplace in Stratford upon Avon springs to mind as an example. It is also a good example for thinking about where the babies were put – pretty much in every place and drawer that was available! One can imaging that nights were not quiet. Sleeping in company was probably commonplace, because space was restricted and warmth and safety could be more easily generated together. Sleeping alone was probably the exception rather than the rule in historical and prehistoric periods.

Unterhautzenthal (Lauermann 1995).

Unterhautzenthal (Lauermann 1995).

Accessing sleeping positions and practices in prehistory becomes more challenging. We do, however, often explain the position people are buried in with mimicking sleeping positions. So why not the other way round? Perhaps we can draw conclusions on sleeping practices from the positions people were buried in. Mesolithic bodies are sometimes buried in sitting positions (e.g. Elsbethen, Austria). Early Bronze Age bodies were buried on their sides, in some societies neatly organised by gender. At Franzhausen, Austria, for example, women were buried lying on their right side, men on their left side, both with their heads in the south-west. Perhaps during this period, people really did prefer to sleep on their sides. Perhaps couples lay facing each other, hence the gender difference. Two children buried together at Unterhautzenthal, Austria, a 2 and 6-7-year-old give a charming and sad picture of past emotive connections.

During the Middle Bronze Age and into the Iron Age in central Europe, the supine position, with bodies lying on their backs, became most common. Perhaps the preferred sleeping position also changed. Cross-culturally unusual are bodies buried placed on their bellies. This body position often indicates deviant burials, quickly disposed bodies, victims of violence or jurisdiction. I have no explanation as to why this position is ‘bad’, but I did realise that during pregnancy and breastfeeding, sleeping on the belly pretty much becomes impossible. Perhaps there is a connection there.


Aspöck, E. 2008. “What actually is a deviant burial?,” in E.M. Murphy (ed.) Deviant Burial in the Archaeological Record. Oxford: Oxbow: 17-34.

Lauermann, E. 1995. Ein frühbronzezeitliches Gräberfeld aus Unterhautzenthal, NÖ. Stockerau: Amt der Niederösterreichischen Landesregierung.

Neugebauer, C., and J.-W. Neugebauer. 1997. Franzhausen: Das frühbronzezeitliche Gräberfeld I. Horn: Ferdinand Berger & Söhne.

Rettenbacher, C. 1998. Steinzeitliche Silexartefakte aus dem Abri von Elsbethen. Eine paläo-mesolithische Jagd-Station im Salzachtal. Dissertation, Universität Wien.


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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