Motherhood and marginality

Last week, I attended the workshop The End of the Spectrum: Towards an Archaeology of Marginality at UCL London, organized by my lovely colleague Elisa Perego.

The marginality network is especially interested in social exclusion in present and past societies. Traditional archaeological approaches have often focussed on wealthy elites, and in turn, the economically disadvantaged. Marginalisation, however, may have many different roots and causes, including gender, age, disability, ethnicity, and others.

It was a good opportunity to think about how motherhood intersects with social marginalisation in the past and present. Perhaps the most recent example I came across is this:

Nursing pod

Nursing Pod, Newark Airport

I have recently travelled from New York to Vienna and discovered Nursing Pods on Newark Airport. These are small cabins placed at the flight gate, equipped with a bench and mirror (not 100% sure what the mirror is for, exactly). As someone who has breastfed her babies on several airports, my first thought was – great! Finally a peaceful, quiet, comfortable place for breastfeeding. I remember that my babies were often too distracted to eat on the buzzing airport, but were then easily soothed by breastfeeding on the plane. But then I though – wait a minute. Why should mothers be excluded from participating in society, and attend their baby’s needs hidden from everyone’s view? Social marginalisation because of motherhood happens in our own society on a daily basis.

Motherhood, and conversely, infertility and childlessness may have led to social exclusion in the past, too, on a temporary or permanent basis. Taboos and regulations of female participation in society during the post-partum and lactation period may govern a substantial part of women’s lives. Many traditional societies, for example, have a period of confinement for mother and baby several weeks to months after birth, in which the mother is exempt from certain kinds of work and supposed to rest, focussing on the new member of society.

In Austria, where I live, there is a six week period before and again after birth in which mothers are not allowed to work (luckily, the pay is usually continued). In the UK, where I used to work, women are not allowed to work only for two weeks after childbirth (with no guaranteed pay, although many employers provide maternity allowances). There is an interesting ambiguity and tension between the thought of protecting mothers and allowing well-deserved rest, and preventing them from doing what they themselves decide to do. In the case of financial implications, decisions are even tougher. And not all births are equal – some women feel fine soon after, some suffer for a long time from the repercussions of childbirth.

Motherhood bears considerable risks to the health of women and may lead to death and disability. Only in very rare cases we are able to pick this up archaeologically, as traces on skeletons or through archaeological findings. Prolapse of the uterus, caused by strain through pregnancies and birth, is likely to have been a common condition, but as it affects only the soft parts of anatomy, it is hard to find in the archaeological record.

A common treatment of prolapse, however, is the use of pessaries, and this technique, in which a ring is used to hold the womb in place, seems to go back at least to 600 BC. At Stuttgart, Germany, a 30-40 year-old woman was found with a ceramic ring in the pelvic area. She was buried off the regular cemetery, in a settlement pit, perhaps because of her disabling condition. Diane Scherzler documented about a dozed similar cases from Germany. It is likely that more such cases exist – archaeologists need to know what to look for to document them properly.


Scherzler, D. 1998. Der tönerne Ring vom Viesenhäuser Hof – Ein Hinweis auf medizinische Versorgung in der Vorrömischen Eisenzeit? Fundberichte aus Baden Württemberg 22(1): 237-294.


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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