What Life Was Like For Women 5,000 Years Ago

by JR Thorpe

This month, scientists officially reconstructed the entire outfit of Otzi the Iceman, the world's most famous corpse — famous for the excellent reason that he was found almost perfectly preserved in ice in the Alps, despite being about 5,300 years old. (And, to add intrigue, it looks like he was murdered. Humans: bringing the drama since the Bronze Age.) But as we discover more and more about "the Iceman," including his eye color, tattoos, and new revelations that he was wearing leggings made of goat skin and a bear fur hat, I've begun to wonder: what do we know about Otzi's female counterparts? Otzi's preservation for future historians was luck; in the absence of a woman lying beside him, what evidence do we have of life for the women who likely got upset when he went and got murdered?

Otzi's untimely death happened in a very particular moment in time: about 3,300 BC, known as the Copper or Chalcolithic Age, before people around the world figured out how to use bronze as weapons. Most of the evidence we have for women of this period is scattered, random, and a bit confusing; in the later Bronze Age, we've got a few more bits of evidence, like the amazing Queen of The Inch, the 4,000-year-old Scottish queen or chieftain who was found buried with one of the best necklaces in history.

But we can piece together some interesting theories about what life was like for women in the Chalcolithic Age around the world. Although unfortunately none of them have shown up with excellent fur hats.

They Gave Birth Squatting

This was actually a fairly common way in which to give birth for centuries; it's shown in ancient Egyptian reliefs, and a lot of medieval women tended to give birth while sitting on "birthing stools," while people held them up and caught the baby from below. We know this because of a statue from Copper Age Cyprus, which depicts a very pregnant woman (possibly a fertility goddess, but we don't know) squatting on a birthing stool of her own, gripping onto a pendant around her neck, which may have been to help with the pain or to serve some kind of religious or spiritual purpose. Weirdly, all the figurines of this kind from the period seem to have been deliberately broken before being buried in the ground. Mysterious and, realistically, something we'll never understand.

They May Have Had Their Skulls Bound From Birth

There's a famous Copper Age figurine called the Gilat Woman that is very definitely a lady: it has pronounced pubic hair and an open vulva, though it's also got tiny breasts. But the American School of Oriental Research suggests that something else about it might be important: its head is, frankly, a bit of a weird shape. And that points to something that's been discovered in a few Copper Age graves across Iran, Syria, and Cyprus: people with deformed skulls, which could only have been achieved by being bound by bandages or some other material from birth. It's likely that this had something to do with rank or status, where an elongated or weirdly-shaped head meant you were somehow marked as superior. It's worth noting that, in the region where Otzi himself is from, there's no evidence of this; he probably wasn't living in a family of strange-skulled ladies.

They Could Have Been Part Of Milk Cults

The Louvre has one of the most interesting Copper Age depictions of ladies: a woman who's probably a fertility idol, shown expressing milk from her breasts into a big bowl in her lap. So what's going on here? We know that cult and ritual were a big part of life in a lot of Copper Age communities; Otzi himself probably burnt offerings for gods around the Italian mountains.

But a few scholars have said that this lady, from Cyprus, might indicate something a bit different: a specific fertility cult about rebirth and fecundity, centered around women and their breast milk in particular. Possibly, the woman was using her breast milk as part of a ritual to help everybody else in the group conceive; maybe she was using it as a sacrifice to some god or other. But the "milk cult," while mysterious, might have been seriously important to women of the time. Mmm, sticky.

They Were Given Complicated, Loud Funerals

Look, if you're going to be interested in archaeology, you have to get comfortable with graves. Yes, Otzi shuffled off the mortal coil in a convenient deep-freeze, but a lot of what we know about people of the Copper Age, particularly women, comes from their graves and the bones within. And an amazing burial complex found in Bulgaria, which appears to have been reserved purely for women and children, gives us an insight into their deaths and their funerals.

Some of it's a bit poignant and complex: women were buried with lumps of red ochre and covered in embers, and some of the children had small beads of shell on them. (A similar grave in Israel, likely of some high-ranking woman, revealed that she was wearing an amazing 1,668-bead belt.) But the archaeologists also found that, for some of the women, huge ceramic vases were placed on their graves, likely as part of the funeral ritual, and then smashed immediately afterward. I kind of want that sort of chaos at my own funeral, to be honest.

They Likely All Had Amazing Tattoos

This isn't surprising, because Otzi himself had some pretty astonishing body art (61 tattoos in all); but it's extremely likely that Copper Age women were also rocking tattoos. A figurine in Dartmouth's Hood Museum of Art has a pretty classic series of tattoos for women of the time: dots crossed across the chest, and around the hips. The Gilat Woman has some markings too, but we're not sure if they're body paint or actual tattoos. It seems to differ from region to region, but women in the region of Portugal seem to have had facial tattoos, and there's evidence that women elsewhere may have had ritual scarification.

Either way, until a fully-preserved woman complete skin is discovered, we'll be making educated guesses; but chances are they wouldn't look massively out of place at a Brooklyn house party.

Images: @smithdw/Unsplash; Walters Art Museum, Noumenon/Wikimedia Commons