28.02.2022 | Prehistory

What Bronze Age skeletons reveal about gender roles

In the Bronze Age, women were buried differently from men. As OeAW archaeologist Katharina Rebay-Salisbury found out using a new method, children were also buried according to their biological sex. Nevertheless, there are always skeletons that were not buried according to gender. In an interview, Rebay-Salisbury explains the conclusions that can be drawn from this.

A new method can be used to identify sex-specific peptides in tooth enamel. This allows archaeologists to determine the biological sex of buried children. © ÖAW/Daniel Hinterramskogler

The sex of prehistoric children's skeletons can be determined by means of tooth enamel samples. Katharina Rebay-Salisbury from the Austrian Archaeological Institute of the Austrian Academy of Sciences (OeAW) and her team determined the biological sex of 70 children from an Early Bronze Age burial ground in Lower Austria and made a surprising discovery: even children were strictly separated into girls and boys; only one girl was buried like a boy. The researchers report this in the Journal of Archaeological Sciences.

"In principle, in the Bronze Age there was only the option of being buried as a man or a woman. In between there was hardly any leeway due to the strong binary gender ideology. Nevertheless, there are always individuals for whom it was possible to take on other roles in society and not have to follow these rules," Rebay-Salisbury says in an interview.

Bronze Age DNA

In a lecture in 2020, you proposed that the sex of prehistoric children's skeletons could be determined using tooth enamel samples. What is the current status?

Katharina Rebay-Salisbury: Until now, it was always difficult to determine the sex of buried children because the skeletal morphology only develops in a gender-specific way after puberty. There are DNA analyzes available, but they are very expensive and depend on the preservation of the bones. Our method is based on the analysis of sex-specific peptides, which occur in different forms in the enamel of men and women due to the different isoforms of the protein amelogenin.

Where has this approach been tried in practice?

Rebay-Salisbury: We determined the biological sex of 70 children from an Early Bronze Age burial ground. The procedure for burial was gender-specific: women were buried in a flexed position on the right side of the body with their heads to the south, men on the left side of their bodies with their heads to the north. We wanted to know whether this was also strictly separated with children. This has been confirmed, except for one girl who was buried like a boy.

Leeway in gender roles

Are exceptions like this common?

Rebay-Salisbury: Exceptions like this are fascinating, and they also exist in adults. Generally, around 2–4% of people were not buried according to their biological sex. Interestingly, this is predominantly the case for women.

So, you can determine genetic sex but still don't know if that person fulfilled that gender role?

Rebay-Salisbury: We only record the chromosomal sex, but that does not mean it matches the lived sex. Also, morphological gender does not necessarily develop exactly as it is written in biology textbooks. There are men who look more feminine and women who look more masculine. There is a wide range between typically female and typically male.

How do you explain these discrepancies?

Rebay-Salisbury: Despite the strict gender ideology in the Bronze Age, there were always people who were able to take on other roles in society and did not have to follow the rules. There is a need for research as to whether it was due to succession arrangements, or whether it was simply about strong, unusual personalities.

Insights into the lives of children in the Bronze Age

What is scientifically gained by determining the sex of children?

Rebay-Salisbury: With the new method of sex determination, we can now study child mortality, disease and nutrition in a gender-specific manner. We can create gender-specific growth curves and thereby better estimate the age at death. We can examine whether girls and boys were treated differently. We have found many signs of injury and abuse in prehistoric children. Now we can investigate whether this is more the case with girls or more with boys. This also reveals the role played by gender in everyday life.

The grave of the Viking warrior from the Swedish burial ground of Birka was long assumed to be a male warrior, but it turned out it was a woman. Can it happen that scientists transfer their own gender norms to the past?

Rebay-Salisbury: Based on the morphological characteristics, the skeleton had long been determined to be a woman; a DNA analysis simply confirmed this. The excavations are well documented, and every single bone has been labeled. I think there is little doubt that it was a female warrior. Nevertheless, the results of the analyzes were hotly debated in the academic world. According to the motto: everything that shouldn't be, can't be. What goes against their worldview is still difficult for many scientists to accept. It is particularly strange in this case, because female warriors appear in Viking mythology. Deviations from social norms and rules are always seen as a sensation, but actually they are a human constant. It is precisely the exceptions that show how colorful life is and what freedom of decision individuals had. Surprisingly, however, there were more women who could assume male roles than men who lived female roles. Here, too, I see a great need for research.



Katharina Rebay-Salisbury is head of the research group "Prehistoric Identities" at the Austrian Archaeological Institute of the Austrian Academy of Sciences (OeAW). She received her doctorate in prehistory and early history from the University of Vienna and did research at the Universities of Cambridge and Leicester in Great Britain. In 2016 she received a Starting Grant from the ERC (European Research Council) and in 2017 she habilitated at the University of Vienna. She is a member of the Young Academy of the OeAW.

Current publication:

"Gendered burial practices of early Bronze Age children align with peptide-based sex identification: A case study from Franzhausen I, Austria", Katharina Rebay-Salisbury, Patricia Bortel, Lukas Janker, Marlon Bas, Doris Pany-Kucera, Roderick B. Salisbury, Christopher Gerner, Fabian Kanz, Journal of Archaeological Sciences, 2022

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jas.2022.105549