Neither historical records nor image sources illustrate what life was like for much of human prehistory. From the early Iron Age in Central Europe (c.800-400 BC), however, human representations capture some snapshots of the lives of the elite. As I am approaching the end of writing my book ‘The Human Body in Early Iron Age Europe’ I would like to share three fascinating images of Iron Age women giving birth.
Representations of birthing mothers are extremely rare, but recently, new finds have come to light. The motif of childbirth stamped on Etruscan pottery was recently found at an excavation in Poggio Colla, Italy (Perkins 2012). The women in this tiny picture, only about a centimetre high, is squatting as she gives birth to a baby. The baby is shown already partly delivered between her legs. Her hands are raised as she holds on to a frame or perhaps a tree.
Quite similar is a picture on a recently discovered situla from Pieve d’Alpago, Italy (Gangemi 2013). The image is part of a larger sequence of images that depicts courtship and sex in very graphic detail (the situla has therefore been called the ‘Venetian Kamasutra’). The birthing woman is depicted in a standing position, with arms stretched out and holding on to a beam or frame above her head. Her face and body are shown in profile, rendering her pregnant belly clearly visible. Her feet are wide apart as her baby emerges from the pubic area. The head and arms have already been born. Two women assist the birth: one is standing in front of the birthing woman, with her hand on the belly, whilst she is carrying a vessel. The vessel perhaps contained water for baby’s first bath or is intended to dispose of the afterbirth. A second woman standing behind the birthing mother places the hand on her back. Her role may be to reassure and relief pain. In this scene, birth is depicted as a female only affair, taking place indoors, and with the help of experienced women.
A stone sculpture from Nesactium, Craotia (Fischer 1984: pl. 8, fig. 1), shows a woman shortly after birth: her left hand is placed at her vulva whilst she cradles a baby across her chest.
The Iron Age birthing position with the woman holding on to a beam is perhaps most remarkable. It may well be the frame of a loom, which is used for this purpose. High status women are often depicted doing textile work such as spinning and weaving. Textile work was an enormously important home industry in the Iron Age, but apart from its practical purpose, textile work also symbolises spinning, weaving and cutting the tread of life.
Depictions of birth have to be placed in context with an increased concern about hereditary power and wealth in the Iron Age. Women of the elite were probably, like in historical periods, expected to produce as many children as possible to ensure that at least some survive into adulthood. Short intervals between births can be achieved by good maternal nutrition, outsourcing breastfeeding to wet-nurses and plenty of rest. The social status of the mother must have been important for the birth of the new generation, or she would not have been depicted. In contrast to the father, the mother is always certain.
Fischer, J. 1984. Die vorrömischen Skulpturen von Nesactium. Hamburger Beiträge zur Archäologie 11: 9-98.
Gangemi, G. 2013. “La situla della tomba I di Pieve d’Alpago,” in M. Gamba (ed.) Venetkens: viaggio nella terra dei Veneti antichi. Padova, Palazzo della Ragione, 6 aprile – 17 novembre 2013. Venezia: Marsilio: 283-287.
Perkins, P. 2012. The Bucchero Childbirth Stamp on a Late Orientalizing Period Shard from Poggio Colla. Etruscan Studies 15(2): 146-201.