What did prehistoric people know about conception?

Even today, stories of women who gave birth without knowing they were pregnant make the news occasionally. Although I do not normally follow such sensationalist news, they do not cease to fascinate me. Yes, it is possible, despite the tell-tale signs, to completely block out a pregnancy. This happens primarily to women who believed they could not conceive, to victims of abuse, or to women who did not even consider raising a child at this point in their lives.

The cause-effect relationship between sex, pregnancy and birth is so natural to most of us today that we sometimes forget this knowledge is not universal. Nine months is a long time between cause and effect, and especially the first four months, a pregnancy is far from obvious to outsiders, if not to the mother. There are traditional societies, especially hunter-gatherers that do not breed livestock, which do not connect sex and pregnancy/birth at all. It is knowledge that has to be taught and learned as children grow up and start their own sexual experiences.

Perhaps from the time people began to domesticate animals, it became clear that letting animals mate may result in offspring. If this knowledge was extrapolated to humans, and indeed, how common it was, is not clear. It may have been restricted to certain age and gender groups. Interestingly, young girls – the ones to whom it matters most – are kept in the dark most often. Until recently in the Western World, newly-wed women did not know much about what would happen to them in the wedding night, and many could not explain ‘where babies came from’.

The conception of new life remains miraculous to this day. In my view, a detailed scientific and medical knowledge about conception – how chromosomes combine, how DNA of two people merge, how embryos develop – makes the miracle of life even more awesome. But just imagine not knowing any of this. Being a first-time mother in a prehistoric society must have been weird and scary. With any luck, you may have seen others pregnant and giving birth successfully, whilst your belly expands. Perhaps in your small-scale society, this has not happened for several years and you do not know what is growing inside you.


Conceptus, by Anna Artaker

Anna Artaker’s work ‘Conceptus’ beautifully illustrates these thoughts. It juxtaposes the Venus from Willendorf, a 29.500 year-old stone figurine found in Willendorf in the Wachau (Austria), with a wax figure of a four months old foetus. They are both about the same size and show other similarities, too, such as the way the hands are held against the upper body. The objects themselves remain hidden – only their shadows are put side by side.

The analogy to the Rorschach test is deliberate. Viewers have to come close to the case to discover what is in them. In this way, the work focusses on people’s quest for understanding their own origin.  For Anna Artaker, ‘conceptus’ shows the miracle of life – once in the form of an object frequently interpreted as a fertility goddess, once in the form of the modern medical understanding of how life develops in the uterus.


Conceptus, by Anna Artaker

Anna Artaker chose the name ‘Conceptus’ for the work, as in its Latin form, the word refers to both the act of conception and its consequence, the embryo/foetus. It further encompasses the meaning of thought and idea (from which the term concept is derived).

The artwork was put on display in a high-security case at the site of Willendorf in Lower Austria, at the place the Venus was found in 1908. The Venus from Willendorf is normally on display in the Natural History Museum in Vienna. For the 100-year anniversary of its discovery, it was displayed at the location it was found. The Venus has since returned to Vienna and is on display. So next time you visit Vienna, make sure to pay her a visit. Since the on-site exhibition, the case remained in place and a different artist fills it with a unique installation each year.


Conceptus, by Anna Artaker

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Cold Case Schleinbach: why it makes sense to preserve skeletons in situ

We have recently been re-examining an interesting early Bronze Age site called Schleinbach in Lower Austria. In the manner typical of the Únětice Culture, people were buried in a small cemetery next to a settlement, and some bodies were found in former storage pits or other abandoned settlement features. The site was located on the premises of a brick factory. Finds were first recognised in 1911, and Karl Kriegler excavated the first graves and pits in 1916. Excavations continued in a more or less systematic manner into the 1940s.

Pit 60 was documented in 1931 and is particularly noteworthy: it comprises the bodies of an adult male and three children. The youngest child was placed on the right side, head towards the south-east; one of the older children was placed on the back, head in east, with feet tilted to the left side, and one child was placed on the left side with the head in the north-east. The last of the individuals, the adult male, was found in supine position on top of them all. His body was north-west oriented, with his head looking east; his upper arms lay next to the body, but the elbows were bent and the hands were found next to the shoulders; the right hand was found with the palm up, the left hand was turned sideways. His legs were not found parallel, but slightly open (the feet had been cut off before the recovery).


Schleinbach, Pit LX: adult man and three children (Weninger 1954: 3)

The peculiar body position of the male individual (soon dubbed ‘the priest’) and the combination with the children’s bodies led the excavator to preserve the findings in context. It was an enormous undertaking to fix the skeletal remains in the surrounding soil and transport the whole block to the Lower Austrian Museum (at that time located in Herrengasse 9, Vienna), where the burial was stabilised with plaster and put on display. The complex remained on display in several locations, before it found a temporary home in the Lower Austrian museum storage facilities in an old tobacco factory in Hainburg.

The first anthropological analysis, conducted in the 1950s, estimated the age of the children as 4-5, 10 and 12, and suggested a male sex for all individuals (Weninger 1954); this analysis was based on morphological observations. For the most part, Josef Weninger was not able to take the bones out of the block for measurements.

When we recently arrived at Hainburg for the re-examination of the skeletons and to take some DNA samples, we found the block in a sorry state. It had been broken in several segments and many bones were loose. Nevertheless, the preservation of skeletons in situ enabled some interesting observations – insights into decomposition events that would not have been apparent had the skeletons been excavated and stored in a box.


Doris Pany-Kucera and Michaela Spannagl-Steiner examining fragments of the block

In fact, ‘archaeothanatology’ or ‘l’anthropologie de terrain’ (Duday 2006, 2009) advocates systematic recording and observation of joint articulations, to infer the environment in which the body decomposed. This way, we can learn whether the body had been decomposing in an empty space, a void or a coffin; for example, whether it was wrapped and confined, or whether the grave had been filled by soil immediately. Joints disarticulate in a specific order during decomposition and gravity also plays its part. Archaeothanatology also aids in deciding if bodies had been disturbed, manipulate or reorganized after the initial deposition.

When we saw the skeleton, the ribs were in disarray – this, however, was a result of transporting and handling the block when the bones were no longer fixed properly. Originally, the rib cage had been well preserved. Josef Weninger remarked on this unusual finding, that the excavator Karl Kriegler wanted to interpret as an indication of artificial body preservation such as mummification. Josef Weninger drew exactly the right conclusions, namely that after the decomposition of soft tissue, the rib cage must have been filled by ‘fortunate soil filling’ (1954: 4).


Spine of adult over spine of Child A

The adult man was placed directly over the children’s bodies. There was no soil separating the skeleton, which makes a single depositional event (a multiple rather than collective grave) quite certain. The spine of Child A came to lie just under the spine of the adult and provided a barrier – this caused a specific break in the alignment of the lumbar vertebrae.



Cervical vertebrae of the adult male

When Doris and Michaela examined the skull of our adult male buried in supine position, we were able to lift the skull and look at the joints of the cervical vertebrae. The skull was found lying on the right side, but the cervical vertebrae were still straight – they had not rotated to turn the head while it was still articulated. Instead, the skull had fallen towards the right side after the joints had decomposed. We could therefore ascertain that originally, the head was looking straight ahead when it was buried. In fact, the position of the skulls of the Children A and B does also not align well with the anatomical articulation. It appears that post-depositional processes were responsible for the movement and turning of the skulls. Water could have penetrated the grave at some point after the connection between the head and spine had broken down, which may have caused the ‘light children’s skulls’ to float (Weninger 1954: 26).

The re-assessment of the Schleinbach individuals suggests that the man was between 27 and 35 years old when he died, the children were aged 3-4, 8-9 and 12-14 (Pany-Kucera, Spannagl-Steiner and Rebay-Salisbury in prep). If the DNA analysis returns usable results, we will know the sex of the children, and if and how they were related. The individuals share some morphological traits that makes a genetic relationship likely; in close, kinship-based communities of the early Bronze Age, such general similarities are not surprising. Only the youngest child had evidence of head injury, an impression fracture, which might have been the cause of death. The context, however, suggest that all individuals died at the same time, perhaps from the same cause – brutal murder. An alternative explanation (put forward by Weninger 1954 on the basis of Kriegler’s suggestion) is that it was an adult man’s burial, with the three children constituting a human sacrifice on the occasion of his funeral. This, to me, is not a likely explanation, for three reasons: first, the pit is located slightly off the grave group and most likely a former settlement structure, second, the children were clearly placed first and the adult on top – with grave goods, the body is usually placed first and grave goods are placed around the body, and third, human sacrifice is not part of the usual cultural practice of the early Bronze Age.

The bodies were haphazardly dumped in an old storage pit, which may have been closed by a cover. The bodies initially composed in a void, but after the decomposition of soft tissue, the void was filled by fine sediment and left undisturbed until 1931. The open legs of the adult suggest that the lower body had not been bound or restrained by a shroud; it was either naked or covered by lose clothing.

The fact that the skeletons were preserved in situ (on top of being photographed – quite unusual for the time!) has helped to extract much more information on this unusual burial context that if they bones had been put in a box and stored, as so many others were. At present, the storage of the block-parts in far from ideal, but we will work out a sensible storage solution with the Natural History Museum in Vienna, where the skeletons will be united with the rest of the collection from Schleinbach. An excavation of the skeletons under controlled conditions and after 3D-scanning is only the second best alternative to preserving the skeletons in its original surroundings. We do not know yet what questions future generations of archaeologists will ask on the basis of this material – but we are immensely grateful to the foresight of the imaginative excavator Karl Kriegler who started work on the site over 100 years ago.

Duday, H. 2006. “L’archéothanatologie ou L’archéologie de la mort (Archaeothanatology or the Archaeology of Death),” in R.L. Gowland and C.J. Knüsel (eds) Social Archaeology of Funerary Remains. Oxford: Oxbow: 30-56.

Duday, H. 2009. The Archaeology of the Dead: Lectures in Archaeothanatology. Oxford: Oxbow.

Pany-Kucera, D., Spannagl-Steiner, M. and K. Rebay-Salisbury in prep. Early Bronze Age individuals from Schleinbach: a re-examination and complementary assessement of the skeletal material.

Weninger, J. 1954. Frühbronzezeitliche Skelette aus Schleinbach in Niederösterreich. Teil 1: Eine seltsame Mehrbestattung aus Schleinbach (NÖ). Archaeologia Austriaca 16: 1-27.

Weninger, M. 1954. Frühbronzezeitliche Skelette aus Schleinbach in Niederösterreich. Teil 2: Die Einzelbestattungen aus Schleinbach (NÖ). Archaeologia Austriaca 16: 28-66.

Rettenbacher, M. 2004. Die Siedlung und die Gräberfelder von Schleinbach: Eine Studie zur Aunjetitz-Kultur im südlichen Weinviertel. Archäologische Forschungen in Niederösterreich 2. St. Pölten: Niederösterreichisches Institut für Landeskunde.

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How did prehistoric people handle baby poo?

Every parent knows: there is pee and poo. Plenty. In the first few months pretty much everywhere. Nowadays, we contain them – for the most part – in disposable nappies (diapers). Disposable nappies are an invention of the second half of the 20th century. In Britain, Valerie Hunter Gordon, who recently died aged 94, invented a two-part nappy system after her third child in 1947. It was composed of an outer layer sewn of old nylon parachutes, and an inner layer of tissue wadding and cotton wool, which could be disposed of.  In the US, Pampers began to be developed in the 1950ies. Form the start, Pampers were designed as an all-in-one system and became incredibly popular throughout the western world.

Disposable nappies (diapers) are a blessing to many parents, although they produce a lot of waste. Today, there are wide range of re-usable cloth nappies (diapers) on the market, which promise to be better for baby’s skin as well as environmental benefits. If they are indeed better for the environment, is still under debate: it depends largely on how cloth nappies are produced, laundered and dried. My experience with re-usables was brief. It turned out they were not for me. I did not factor in that cloth nappies are a lot bulkier, and regular baby clothes do not account for the added volume!

Wickelkinder Kreta Vorpalastzeit

Swaddled babies from Bronze Age Cyprus, Greece

Before disposables, cloth nappies were used in the western world. Early potty training was desired to avoid the tedious process of laundering. But going back in time, there is not much information available on how people got on with baby pee and poo. A significant amount of prehistoric iconographic and classical textual information concerns wrapping and swaddling babies. This practice is suitable in cold and dry climates and provides warmth and protection for the baby, whilst it also restricts movement and is associated with beliefs about helping the baby finish growing correctly outside the womb, moulding the body. Archaeological evidence of swaddling dates back to 4000 BC in Central Asia, and votive offerings from Agia Triada on Crete attest to the practice for the Bronze Age (2600-2000 BC). Swaddling remained popular throughout the Roman period into the Middle Ages and beyond.

Soranus (Gynaecology 2.14) recommends the use of “clean, soft woollen cloth which will not shrink, bruise, irritate or compress unevenly” to wrap the baby immediately after birth and the first bath; the baby was gradually unwrapped after forty to sixty days (Graham 2013: 223-224). There is not much mentioning on how baby’s pee and poo were handled. One can assume that babies were unwrapped and changed on a fairly regular basis, perhaps twice a day (although it appears that many babies were swaddled for long periods without washing and changing). Darker descriptions of swaddling do talk about how infants stewed in their own excrement for days at a time (Shorter 1977: 170-171), leading to crying, skin irritations, ulcerations and disease. The baby who died during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 70 AD was likely swaddled this way – the remains were found in a carbonized wooden cradle found in the House of the Gem, Herculaneum, Italy.


Wooden cradle from Herculaneum, first century AD  © Sopraintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei

As soon as the infants could sit, they were encouraged to pee and poo outside, or into a potty. There is archaeological evidence for high-chair/potty chair combinations from Archaic and Ancient Greece (sella cacatoria, Lynch and Papadopoulos 2006). The most famous example is held in the museum in the Agora, Athens, dating to the 6th century BC. An image on the inside of a red-figure kylix dated to c. 460 BC shows how the chair was used. It also shows how the mother (?) lovingly interacts with the child, looking directly at him, smiling. Sommer and Sommer (2015) recently argued that this interactive, caring way of raising children that brought developmental advantages may have even led to Athens’ cultural superiority throughout the region.


Baby on high-chair/potty, c. 460 BC  © Musées royaux d’art et d’histoire, Brussels

Any archaeological evidence for practically handling baby’s pee and poo in European prehistory is scarce. We know that newborn babies were brought into the salt mines of Hallstatt, as evidenced by a fur cap that only fits newborns (Pany et al. 2010). From the same site, leaves of petasites hybridus, a plant used in Traditional European Medicine for its antiseptic properties, were recovered. It is likely that the leaves were used as toilet paper – perhaps also as wipes for cleaning infants.

There are, however, other options. China is famous for its open-crotch trousers that are worn by toddlers, designed to allow the infants to urinate and defecate without undressing them. Babies are held by the parents a bowl, toilette or appropriate outside place; toddlers can simply squat and the parents clean after them (or not). This eliminates the use of nappies/diapers, and has recently caught on to a limited degree in the western world. Notably, boy and girl infants and toddlers were dressed in lose garments and skirts for much of European history, perhaps for the same reason – that it is easier to go whenever needed.

Elimination communication is a term for an ancient practice that has recently been re-introduced into the western world by copying from non-industrialised societies. This technique seems particularly useful in hotter climates, where there is not much clothing to remove. It capitalises on the principle that babies tend to empty their bladder when held in a squat position. If the caregivers – usually the mothers – hold the baby close at all times, they can use timing, intuition, as well as baby’s signals and cues to understand when the baby has to go. The baby is then encouraged to urinate and defecate in an appropriate place, sometimes accompanied with a specific sound the baby learns and reacts to.

Nappies (diapers) are not the only answers to the universal problem of baby pee and poo. Throughout (pre-) history, people came up with more and less ingenious solutions to the problem, solutions that likely had effects on infant health, survival and development. Almost certainly, prehistoric people were less squeamish than we are today, and whether the connection between cleanliness and health was understood is unclear. Regardless of which technique is and was used, the most important factor is certainly to keep baby happy – whatever this implies.

Graham, E.-J. 2013. The making of infants in Hellenistic and early Roman Italy: a votive perspective. World Archaeology 45(2): 215-231.

Lynch, K. M., and J. K. Papadopoulos. 2006. Sella Cacatoria: A Study of the Potty in Archaic and Classical Athens. Hesperia 75(1): 1-32.

Pany-Kucera, D., H. Reschreiter, and A. Kern. 2010. Auf den Kopf gestellt? Überlegungen zu Kinderarbeit und Transport im prähistorischen Salzbergwerk Hallstatt. Mitteilungen der Anthropologischen Gesellschaft in Wien 140: 39-68.

Shorter, E. 1977. The Making of the Modern Family. New York: Basic Books.

Sommer, M., and D. Sommer. 2015. Care, Socialization and Play in Ancient Attica. A Developmental Childhood Archaeological Approach. Aarhus: Aarhus University Press.

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Finding interactions between the old and young in past societies – SSCIP sponsored session at EAA in Vilnius

It’s conference time!


Committee members Eileen Murphy and Grete Lillehammer are currently at the European Association of Archaeologists 22nd Annual Conference in Vilnius, Lithuania, chairing a  SSCIP sponsored session “Giving New Meaning to Cultural Heritage – The Old and the Young in Past Societies”.

Eileen tells me, “Since older members of society, particularly grandparents, can play such an important role in the lives of children we wanted to see if we could find evidence of such interactions in the archaeological record.”

See here for a full session description.

Below we share photos of the participants and topics from the session.
Eileen and Grete
Mother-child relations in Early Bronze Age Lower Austria. Dr. Rebay-Salisbury, Katharina (Austrian Academy of Sciences, Austria)
Family constructions and adult-child relationships in the ancient Greek Oikos. Sommer, Maria (Skanderborg, Denmark)
Circle of Life? Aspects of youth and old age in Viking Age and Medieval Scandinavia. PhD Mejsholm, Lotta (Uppsala, Sweden)

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Baby care simulator backfires

This week, the BBC headline Concerns raised over teenage pregnancy ‘magic dolls’ caught my attention. In a course of a programme to prevent teenage pregnancy, Western Australian girls were given baby dolls to look after that simulate the needs of a new baby. The baby simulator programme, which was meant to put girls off having a baby, however, backfired. Rather than making it less likely for girls to have a baby or an abortion by the age of 20, the programme made both more likely.

The only thing I found strange about this finding is that some people apparently thought it would work in the first place! (My husband immediately suggested the idea could have only come from male researchers…). If the experience of looking after a baby would be that off-putting, our species would have gone extinct a long time ago. There is no immediate, measurable benefit of raising a child, and yet it is in our instinct – rewarding enough to keep us all going.

Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution” (Dobzhansky 1973) springs to mind….

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European Reasearch Council project start

Today is the official start date of my ERC Starting Grant project “The value of mothers to society: responses to motherhood and child rearing practices in prehistoric Europe”.

ERCThe European Research Council offers competitive grants for top researchers from all over the world. There are programs for all stages of career, Starting Grants (2-7 years after completion of the PhD), Consolidator Grants (7-12 years after PhD) and Advanced Grants for the most senior scientists. Competition is open for all disciplines. The host institution must be located in one of the 28 EU Member States or associated countries. As of 2016, the list of associated countries includes Iceland, Norway, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, Turkey, Israel, Moldova, Switzerland (partial association), Faroe Islands, Ukraine, Tunisia and Georgia.

The Austrian Research Fund supported my FWF-pilot project that started in January 2015 and focussed on developing methodology. From this platform, I was in the position to apply for an ERC Starting Grant to significantly expand my research chronologically and thematically.

Although the completion of my PhD dates back to 2005, I could still apply for the Starting Grant scheme because my two children extend the eligibility window by 1.5 years each. This seems a fair solution for working mothers, at least it has worked for me!

The ERC grant scheme is competitive, but is one of the most generous one out there. It gives the principal investigator the chance to build a research group and focus extensively on the research topic for several years. Ideally, it builds the solid foundation of a scientific career, as well as advancing knowledge in all disciplines.

This, too, is my personal answer to the question “What has the EU ever done for us?”.

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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.

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