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Oct. 30, 2013

Katy Meyers: Bones Don't Lie

Katy Meyers is a graduate student studying mortuary archaeology at MSU. Her academic interests are in mortuary and bioarchaeology, with a specific interest in connecting the physical remains to the mortuary context. She is also interested in digital humanities and the integration of technology into academia, as well as public archaeology and outreach. Katy is the author of the blog, Bones Don’t Lie.

About a month ago, archaeologists found a sealed rock cut tomb in Tarquinia. At the front door before they even opened the tomb, they found jars and vases indicating that this was likely an important person. When they removed the slab, they found a small vaulted chamber with the remains of two individuals on stone platform beds.

They believed the first skeleton to be the remains of an Etruscan prince who was holding a spear and had a fibulae at his chest which indicated he had been dressed in a mantle. He was accompanied by the cremated remains of his wife who was jeweled and placed on the second platform, and food remains within a large bronze basin at his feet. A number of grave goods, which included large Greek Corinthian vases and precious ornaments, lay on the floor.

Etruscan female skeleton

The Etruscan 'Prince.' via Fox News

Now the remains have been studied, and archaeologists realize that they made an oops. The bones have shown that the skeletonized individual thought to be male is actually female, and the cremated remains of the ‘wife’ were actually of a male. Their re-interpretation of the site with this evidence now argues that the lance, which was previously determined to be a sign of royalty of the prince, is now thought to be a symbol of union between the two deceased.

So let’s break this down. When the skeleton was male the lance was a sign of royal status, and now that the ‘prince’ is a female the lance is a sign of marriage unity between the two individuals. Isn’t this secondary interpretation just as biased as the first one? Why can’t a female have a lance as a symbol of her power?

Judith Weingarten was among the first to question this new interpretation in her blog. She rightly asks “Why is it so difficult to understand that the ruling class of Etruscan society was made up of both men AND women?” Weingarten discusses the historical evidence for women in Etruscan society, noting that they were equally involved in government and noble society. Stories of the women reveal that they were outspoken and played an important role in determining the status of their husbands. She notes that there is no reason why men can’t be buried with jewelry and females can’t be buried with a spear.

What is happening here is that archaeologists are projecting modern bias into the past, and making assumptions about gender roles in this society. Archaeological evidence shows that women could maintain their maiden names after marriage, that both mothers and fathers were important to one’s identity, women equally participated in events with men, and were very powerful. Greek scholars were often horrified by these behaviors, since they had a strongly male dominated society, where women were not allowed to participate in public events and government.

This isn’t a singular event—issues in gender bias and mistaken identity are quite common. The study of gender revealed a major source of bias in archaeology, specifically the unconscious projection of modern perception and bias onto the past.

This was first noted in the landmark article by Conkey and Spector (1984), which argued that archaeology has reinforced western European gender stereotypes, including contemporary meanings of masculine and feminine, the capabilities of each, power relationships and the traditional gender roles. Subsequently, numerous archaeologists began to recognize bias in their respective areas, and began taking a gendered approach.

A great example of this re-interpretation with new gendered evidence is within the study of Viking. Stalsberg (2001) interprets grave goods in order to gain insight on what women’s roles were during the Viking Age, approximately the eighth to eleventh centuries AD. The important artifact under consideration is a piece of weighing equipment that consists of small folding balance scales and the associated weights. Stalsberg (2001:73) notes that these ‘men’s tools’ are often found in women’s graves. From the analysis of three cemeteries, she finds that from 17-32 percent of the weighing equipment is associated with female graves.

“Based on this, the women had a right to be buried with the weighing equipment… [and] they constitute the tools of women’s economic unit, household or family” (Stalsberg 2001:74). This would mean that females were involved in the trade, and likely that it was a family run business. Another great example is McLeod’s (2011) analysis of burials in which he argued that swords cannot be equated to males, since they do appear in female burials. (You can read my write-up of his writing here: Viking Women- A reinterpretation of the bone)

We need to be careful when interpreting gender and sex. Mistakes do happen, but having two gendered assumptions in a row is a little much. As Stalsberg (2001) argued: if a connection can be made between men and their grave goods as indications of status, then this must too be applied to women.

Works Cited

McLeod, Shane 2011. Warriors and women: the sex ratio of Norse Migrants to eastern England up to 900 CE. In Early Medieval Europe 19(3).

Stalsberg, Anne. 2001 Visible Women Made Invisible: Interpreting Varangian Women in Old Russia. In Gender and the Archaeology of Death. Bettine Arnold and Nancy L. Wicker, eds. Pp. 65-80. New York: Altamira Press.

Weingarten. 2013. How a prince became a princess

Fox News. 2013. Oops, an Etruscan prince is a princess 


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