Written in the bones: woman gladiator or upwardly mobile peasant?

Posted on July 4, 2010

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Or maybe not.

The BBC headline blares Female ‘gladiator’ remains found in Herefordshire and the alarm in my head goes off. Are there weapons, are there any of the things specific to gladiators? well, no. So what’s the real story here?

The lead: the archaeologists “have found the grave of a massive, muscular woman”.

And that, obviously, means we have to search for an exotic rationale. Women are not supposed to be muscular.

But, but, but: bioarchaeological identification of sex is not that simple. Even the drive-by reporting by the BBC hints at this:

The archaeological Project Manager, Robin Jackson, said: “When we first looked at the leg and arm bones, the muscle attachments suggested it was quite a strapping big bloke, but the pelvis and head, and all the indicators of gender, say it’s a woman.”

Bioarchaeological sex assignment isn’t what people expect from forensic cop shows. You don’t just assign the bodies to one of two categories.

Of course, every archaeologist knows that. After all, those specific markers of sex like the distinctive pelvis cannot be identified in the skeletons of infants and children, because they develop later in the life course. So at a minimum, we think in terms of three categories: men, women, and children to young to be sexed.

But it doesn’t stop when you are dealing with adult skeletons. Every bioarchaeologist I have talked to about method uses some version of a scale ranging from clearly masculine to clearly feminine. Real adult bodies, like this one, can provide confusing signals if we expect them to fall into two simple classes, male and female.

Heritage Key gives project manager Robin Jackson’s full explanation of what they think about the remains. Jackson says this burial

“contains the remains of a woman who was very strongly built. She had obviously done hard physical work during her life, suggesting possibly a peasant labourer, but the anomaly is that she is buried in a slightly higher status coffin.”

Now, to me, this is a much more interesting story.

The unspoken expectation we have today is that the wealthy do not do physical labor. So the real contradiction here, the puzzle that requires a historical explanation, is why someone who did that much physical labor ended up buried in a way more consistent with wealth.

The muscularity that initially led the archaeologists to think this was a man resonates with the work of Sabrina Agarwal that I discussed in Ancient Bodies, Ancient Lives. Looking at a rural British medieval population from Wharram Percy, she found that the heavy labor rural women engaged in helped reduce the incidence of bone loss and bone fracture they experienced in aging; the different experiences of living in a peasant community literally produced different bodies than those of city dwellers.

So maybe what the Kenchester suburb woman is telling us is that in this setting, a life of hard labor and a death of wealth were not so completely opposed as our modern expectations lead us to imagine.

Biological developmental systems theory reminds us that each individual person’s unique circumstances of unfolding physical development can lead to unique traces, used to create what some archaeologists call “osteobiographies”.

I follow John Robb’s description of osteobiography as “the study through human skeletons of the biography as a cultural narrative”. The story we tell based on the examination of the bones is dependent on the unexamined assumptions we have about people’s lives: what’s normal, what is surprising.

An illustration of this: even while promoting the idea, the BBC has to insert quotes around ‘gladiator’: presumably, if a woman was doing all the things we understand as typical of a gladiator, then the best she could do would be a pretend-gladiator?

This is part of the cultural narratives of men’s and women’s lives that we have today. Even if the Kenchester suburb woman had actually been a gladiator– which, mind you, is not unprecedented, even in Roman Britain— her status would have surprised us more than the truly interesting question of how a life of hard labor ended with a death of at least modest wealth.