Prehistoric Identities

Aspects of prehistoric identities – building blocks of how people saw themselves and others – include age, sex and gender, descent, social relationships, ethnicity, status and religion. Many of these aspects are inextricably linked to the human body, through which the world is experienced and which is the biological basis of existence.

Material culture is directly involved in the creation and maintenance of identities; it also serves to categorise people. Recording and interpreting artefacts, their spatial distribution and chronological development is one of the core competences of archaeology.

Increasingly, the analysis of human bones and teeth focuses on individual life histories of prehistoric persons, with the help of the latest scientific methods. Detailed anthropological analyses allow the reconstruction of biographies, including stress events and traumas, and form the basis for reconstructing health and nutrition. Examinations of human genetic material reveal relationship patterns, linages and genetic origin. Isotope analyses provide valuable information about nutrition, mobility and migration.

Bioarchaeological data form the basis of the third science revolution in archaeology, which, in combination with established archaeological methods, are currently revolutionising research into prehistoric identities. The temporal and cultural depth as well as the archaeological context, however, now need to be reemphasised.


The aim of the research group is to deepen our understanding of bioarchaeological methods and their diverse and complex scientific results, as well as to embark on a new, discursive path in identity research that discusses cultural and contextual information on an equal footing with bioarchaeological data. The developed expertise will be employed by contributing to public and political debates on gender relations, origin and migration.

More than ever, a detailed examination of all aspects of identity, as they develop over time, intersect and influence each other, allows us to understand the human experience in prehistory, while at the same time allowing us to explore the archaeological record in a new light.

The research group Prehistoric Identities is based on Katharina Rebay-Salisbury’s ERC Starting Grant project ‘The Value of Mothers to Society’, which examines how female identity changes through motherhood. Within this framework, as well as in other third-party-funded projects, themes such as sex and gender, kinship, marriage patterns and genetic relationships are explored. Mobility and migration as well as the experience of being a foreigner represent a further research focus.


The research group provides a discussion forum for OREA researchers generally interested in using both biological and cultural indicators to capture individual and group identities. Prehistoric identities concern OREA researchers in all chronological and geographic areas. One focus of the research group is the joint development of new projects. In addition, the research group aims to intensify existing cooperations with national institutions such as the Museum of Natural History Vienna, forensic medicine departments in Vienna and Innsbruck, the University of Vienna and the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences, for example through joint events such as workshops and lectures.

International cooperation partners include Julie Dunne (University of Bristol), Ben Roberts, Claudio Cavazutti (Durham University), Tamsin O'Connell (University of Cambridge), Jo Appleby, Colin Haselgrove (University of Leicester), Viktória Kiss (HAS Institute of Archeology, Budapest) and Sofija Stefanović (University of Belgrade).