What Life Was Like For A Teen 4,000 Years Ago

by JR Thorpe

What do you think about when you hear the phrase "the Bronze Age"? Beautiful jewelry and sophisticated discussions of women's rights likely don't spring immediately to mind. More likely, you imagine a lot of green bits of rusted weaponry from museum visits and not much else. But for young women around Europe in this particular period of human history, around 4,000 years ago, life wasn't as constrained as you might think. There's evidence that they had space for social mobility, a lot of aesthetic opportunities (the hairstyles are pretty amazing), job opportunities, literacy, and other signals of societal power. If you were a Bronze Age teen girl, you weren't necessarily just seen as a baby-making machine and pawn in male hierarchies, though that was definitely a part of your picture.

We even know what some Bronze Age girls would have looked like in the flesh. "Ava," a young woman who lived in Scotland around 3,700 years ago and died at the age of 18 or so, has had her face reconstructed from her skull by archaeologists. She looks, unsurprisingly, like many other young women, though there's one interesting difference: Her skull is a slightly odd shape, flattened across the top and back, which might suggest it's been bound in some way. This isn't common, and, as with a lot of Bronze Age evidence, we have no idea why it might have happened.

A lot of the life of Bronze Age teenage girls would likely be familiar to us, but there are parts that even the most dedicated historians can't really explain. Here's what we know.

1. They Sported Some Very Elaborate Hairstyles

A lot of what we know about women (and men) from the Bronze Age is from what we discover from their graves. Helpfully, some of the graves we've uncovered are spectacularly well-preserved, including the so-called "woman from Skrydstrup," another teen of about 18 who was buried in Denmark around 3,300 years ago. And one of the most amazing things we've found is that Danish teen girls of the Bronze Age would have done amazing YouTube hair tutorials.

The Skrydstrup teen has a hairstyle so elaborate that the National Museum of Denmark has actually published steps on how to recreate it yourself. It's a complicated process involving cords, several plaits around the head, a horsehair hair net, and various combs and caps. The end result looks slightly as if you're wearing a loaf of bread on your head. We're not sure if this was an ordinary hairstyle or something more formal, or even something specifically for the dead, but it points to the fact that these were not women shy about getting height out of their hair.

2. They Probably Traveled Often

The best example of girlhood in the Bronze Age is the Egtved Girl, a young teen (she was about 16 or 18 when she died) whose remains have been preserved for about 3,500 years. Although she was found in Denmark in 1921, it turns out that she was actually born in Germany, and that her life included at least two journeys between there and the Danish homeland, a journey of over 500 miles. If you thought Bronze Age ladies just stayed at home managing the family, the Egtved Girl proves you spectacularly wrong. While a lot of information about Bronze Age life in general indicates that people didn't have very cosmopolitan existences (evidence about their diet, for instance, shows that they were eating local foods rather than importing a large portion of their diet), this teen girl in particular may have been more widely traveled than many modern Europeans.

The Egtved Girl, it turns out, was born in the Black Forest, and scientists have figured out her origins and traveling patterns through chemical deposits in her hair, teeth, and nails. We're not entirely sure what she was doing shuttling back and forth between the two countries; one expert told Smithsonian Magazine that she might have been "a Southern German girl who was given in marriage to a man in Jutland so as to forge an alliance between two powerful families." (This indicates that Bronze Age girls probably married in their teens.) But National Geographic is a bit more puzzled: Perhaps the back-and-forth journeys indicate that the Egtved Girl, and other girls of her age in Bronze Age Scandinavia, had a bit more freedom to roam than we previously thought.

3. In Some Areas, Their Rights Were Up For Discussion

A Bronze Age site excavated at Kültepe-Kaniş-Karum in Turkey has revealed that, in that society at least, Bronze Age women were a part of political thinking. The archaeologists looking at the site in 2015 found a huge cache of cuneiform tablets, one of the earliest forms of writing in human history, and reported to the press that the subjects involved were pretty broad: personal correspondence about annoying mothers-in-law, marriage arrangements about newborns, and, startlingly, discussions of women's rights.

Unfortunately, the archaeologists have since remained tight-lipped about their discoveries, presumably as they prepare to publish translations; so be prepared to hear about Turkish arguments on women's rights from 4,000 years ago in the future.

4. They Could Go On To A Career As A Metalworker

The Bronze Age may have been defined by its metal use, but women definitely weren't going to be let out of the fun. It turns out that, according to the Museum of Ancient History in Austria, at least one grave reveals the existence of a female metalworker in the Bronze Age's heyday. In 2012, they told the press that they'd examined the remains of a woman's grave and that the fact that she'd been buried with fine metalworking tools indicated that she was probably a practitioner herself. The tools, which were made of stone and likely were used as hammers and anvils, were the first of their kind to be discovered in a woman's grave; she herself, at between 45 and 60, was probably quite a venerable presence.

5. They Rocked Some Seriously Beautiful Jewelery

Strangely, not a lot of Bronze Age jewelry is actually bronze. That was usually reserved for weapons and tools, or for small pieces. Jewelry, meanwhile, was made of amber, shell, jet, and particularly gold, and what stunning stuff it was. If you were a high-status woman in the Bronze Age, you'd go around bedecked in gorgeous collars, earrings, and wrist and neck torques.

The Victoria & Albert Museum in London has a spectacular collar made of hammered gold found in a bog in Ireland, and it's so over-the-top that they estimate it must only have been for ceremonial use. The British Museum, meanwhile, has what's known as the "Mold cape," a capelet made of hammered gold that you probably couldn't move while wearing. And a woman's grave from the Bronze Age unearthed in Germany contained a skeleton with a perfectly preserved headband made of string after string of tiny bronze spirals.

7. They Could Become Priestess Acrobats

If metalworking didn't necessarily appeal, that didn't mean the career options of a Bronze Age girl were automatically restricted. The Minoans, the famous civilization flourishing in the Bronze Age on the Greek island of Crete, were particularly invested in the role of women in religion: They produced many different images of highly important "snake goddesses," which are either goddesses handling snakes, priestesses worshiping them, or both. (We're not particularly sure.)

But the idea of a religious life for Bronze Age girls wasn't just restricted to Greece. Evidence for Bronze Age priestesses exists around Europe, particularly in Scandinavia, and scholars suggest they may have had something to do with fertility rites. There's one Bronze Age statuette of a female priest who is "doing ritual acrobatics," according to archaeologist Kristian Kristiansen. Hey, whatever works.

Images: National Museum of Denmark; Danish National Museum, Florian-Zet, Sulaymaniyah Museum, J. Liptak, David Monniaux, Archaeological Museum of Heraklion/Wikimedia Commons