03 November 2013

How a Prince Became a Princess (Part II)

Part I: Click here

What's Up With Etruscan Gender?

As all the world now knows, the loving couple buried together in the recently discovered elite Etruscan tomb in Tarquinia (620-610 BEC) has had a quick sex change. 

First reports announced that the skeleton resting on the wide stone platform on the left, who was interred with a spear, was a warrior, more precisely a warrior prince.  That's because a spear = male.  Whereas the partially incinerated bones on the narrower platform opposite, with a jewellery box nearby, was declared to be the remains of his wife.  Jewellery = female.  It could hardly be clearer: the archaeologists decided the sex by gendering their grave gifts. 

Osteological analysis of the bones, however, quickly turned their speculations upside down.  The skeleton with the spear turned out to be a female, aged 35-40 when she died, whereas the cremated bones were the remains of a male.*  

Instead of toying with the idea that, in ancient Etruscan society, there was no a priori reason why men couldn't be buried with jewellery and females with a spear, the director of excavations, Alessandro Mandolesi, Professor of Etruscology and Italic Antiquity at the University of Torino, had this to say:

"It's not usual to find the body of a woman with a lance.  After having had the results of the anthropological analysis of the skeleton, and having found the [ashes of] the male, we have a clearer picture of the situation.  The lance, in all probability, was deposited as a symbol of the union between the two deceased." (my translation)

So the newly-identified lady still isn't credited with her own lance.  The spear that hitherto made the man was transmuted into a symbol of marital bliss -- despite the fact that it was placed between her bones and the tomb wall, about as far from her supposed husband as was possible given the size of the tomb. The thought didn't even arise that it might be a symbol of her power and authority rather than the weapon of a warrior. 

As bioarchaeologist Katy Meyers noted on her blog, Bones Don't Lie, "...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?" 

Yes indeed, and what we're hearing sotto voce is their desire to keep the spear gendered as male ("it really belongs to him") -- thereby imposing our persistent western ideas of gender and bias on the past.  As anthropologist Prof. Rosemary Joyce (Ancient Bodies, Ancient Lives) put it:
If the spear head was associated with the body originally, considered property of that person, then it is inconsistent to change its ownership.

That’s conservation of gender: Spear points are male. So the lady cannot own one.

Phallic spear disappears in a puff of smoke. 

Funerary gifts found on the platform just beyond the feet of the female skeleton logically belong -- exactly like the spear -- with her body. You really shouldn't pick and choose.  So, what have we there?  On the right of the photograph above, you can see the skeleton's feet and then, to the left, two bowls -- one still holding traces of food offerings, the other a large bronze basin probably  once filled with water -- and my red arrow pointing to a small bronze-plated cylindrical box with a lid, known as a pyxis

There are two exciting things about this pyxis (left).

First, it is much older than the burial, perhaps as much as 200 years older, and it was made from 'recycled' bronze parts, possibly taken from a 8th-7th century BCE warrior's shield. 

Second, X-rays (below) show that the box contains five bronze and silver needles as well as a reel-shaped object, perhaps a spindle whorl, and, astonishingly, even a bit of thread.
The evidence spoke for itself: "It's a purely feminine form," said Prof. Mandolesi, "rather like a modern vanity case." Undoubtedly, "[t]hen, the noblewoman devoted herself to making precious embroideries." (my translation)

Alfonsina Russo, Superintendent of Archaeology for Southern Etruria agrees, "This object and its contents identifies the woman as an embroiderer. It is well known the Etruscans were skilled in textile activities. Indeed, several tombs in Tarquinia feature frescoes depicting finely embroidered draperies."

What a relief!  In no time flat, the tomb was rebaptised "The Embroiderer's Tomb".  Whereupon that pestilential spear vanished from Italian media reports like an ill-omened harpy.

This is conservation of gender with knobs on. 

I don't doubt that this noblewoman -- like almost all women everywhere before the modern age -- could sew, weave, and/or embroider.  That's not the question.  Rather, why did she take this pyxis with her to the grave?  To boast of her embroidery skills?  Possibly.  Yet the pyxis was as much as 200 years old when it was placed in the tomb.  Could it be a treasured family heirloom, handed down for generations and not necessarily something she herself ever used?  Perhaps.  Still other scenarios are possible.

Rejigging Gender

I was thinking about the bronze of which the pyxis was made.  If it originally came from an old shield (as the embossing on the lid [left] suggests), why was it preserved in this way?  Etruscan bronze-smiths of the time were the best in the world. Why, then, did they 'recycle' bits of plate instead of melting the scraps to make a shiny new pyxis for the ancestor of this princess?  Did they, did she, know who had once owned that shield and that that was the important thing?  This is only speculation, of course, but if this explanation is even plausible, does that gender-bend the pyxis? 

"It's not usual to find the body of a woman with a lance'  says Prof. Mandolesi, and that is certainly true.  Is this tomb unique?  Or are we looking into a mirror of our own making?  Until recently, sex determination was mostly based on gendering grave goods rather than any scientific bone analysis.  If every corpse buried with weapons was sexed as male, willy-nilly there can be no females in the sample.  Spear = male?  The jury on Etruscan princesses is still out.  But taking the spear out of her hands and embroidering a story with needles in the pyxis will not necessarily bring a true verdict.

* The male is now thought to be aged 20-30 years; perhaps her son? Further laboratory work is meanwhile underway, indeed on both sets of bones. It is also being reported that his is a later burial.  Unless interred with obviously later goods (which have not been pictured), I'm not sure how they could have determined this so quickly.  Stay tuned.

I am grateful to Elvira Bevilacqua whose comment on Part I of this post (20 Oct. 2013) first alerted me to the Embroidery development, and to another, anonymous commenter (22 Oct. 2013) who also urged me to write about it.  My thanks, too, to Rosemary Joyce for her call-out on the underlying gender system, 'Law of the Conservation of Gender', on Ancient Bodies/Ancient Lives (22 October 2013); and to Katy Meyers for her stimulating post, 'The Prince is Actually a Female (and other gender misconceptions)' on her blog, Bones Don't Lie (22 October 2013); and to Ellie Rose Elliott for reminding me of what may have been lost in wrongly identified 'warrior burials' over the last 200 years.

Sources:  Viterbo News 24: E' la tomba della Ricamatrice. Sepolti insieme alla donna anche aghi in bronzo e argento e un rocchetto; and (Alessandra Pinna) Il direttore degli scavi: ''La pisside, un pezzo senza confronti''; CIVONLINE (Cronaca Tarquinia): Trovati aghi in bronzo e argento nella tomba inviolata; Discovery News (Rossella Lorenzi): Entombed Etruscan Was Expert Embroiderer;  and Etruscan Tomb's Contents -- Up Close Photos.


Etruscan Tomb's Contents -- Up Close Photos.  Photo credits:  Top - Rossella Lorenzi; X-ray of pyxis - Colapietro-Tarquini, Istituto di Cristallografia-CNR and Rome's Sapienza University; all others - Archaeological Superintendency for Southern Etruria.


  1. Anonymous4/11/13 02:57

    Men seem to want women to stay within their cultural biases. Wether ancient women or current day. I'm not sure how much is conscious. I'm a retired military woman. I dealt with it my whole career. I spent a lot of my career at sea. I'm not going to wear pink and act helpless to be socially acceptable.
    Why can't the woman in the tomb be good with a spear and with a needle?

    1. Anonymous1/9/16 18:59

      And there's just as much "evidence" to suggest she was a lesbian, so that should make you very happy.

    2. Anonymous, if you want to write comments like that, how about a bit of evidence on your side?

  2. Anonymous7/11/13 19:52

    Related posts and discussion here:
    http://senchus.wordpress.com/2013/09/24/pictish-warrior-women-again/ David Hillman

  3. I did not deserve to be mentioned, thanks for everything, especially for writing again about!

  4. Arrgh. How frustrating!

    And above and beyond the issue of whether it's a family heirloom, is that of course, it's not like a lot of men have historically known how to sew (you know, like sailors or soldiers, or anyone away from their wives for a while and needing to make clothing repairs... oh wait!). Oh no, as soon as a woman is found to be in possession of sewing needles, it's because she's a decorative noblewoman who embroiders, rather than a practical woman who keeps a sewing kit for emergency repairs.


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