Apparently, women can’t catch a break even after they’re dead. New research of 6th century Anglo-Saxon gravesites suggests that women were given disrespectful burials more often than men, despite the fact that women tended to outlive men. While older men usually appeared to be treated well in death, receiving “elaborate” burials, the study found that women, older women in particular, tended to be buried in notably less respectful ways.
This archaeological study titled “Sex and the Elderly” was published in this month’s issue of Journal of Anthropological Archaeology. Researchers and archeologists Christine M. Cave and Marc F. Oxenham studied almost 200 burials from 6th century England. The researchers examined the burial methods of both men and women, focusing on three cemeteries across England (Essex’s Greater Chesterford in Essex, Kent’s Mill Hill, and Hampshire’s Worthy Park).
They classified burial methods into two categories: normative and non-normative. Non-normative burials, as stated by Forbes, entailed “burial in a reverse orientation, careless burial, the scattering of rubble over the burial, and prone [face-down] burial.” Essentially, non-normative burials implied significantly less respect for the dead than normative burials. While some men did receive non-normative burials, a much larger proportion of women were buried non-normatively. In fact, in every age category they examined, a greater number of women received non-normative burials than men.
In addition to having less non-normative burials, older men were more likely to be found buried with ornate or valuable goods, implying a “high status” burial. Cave and Oxenham noted that while some women did receive “high status” burials, it was significantly less common.
The study also states that only women were found buried face down, which is thought to be “a form of non-normative burial treatment often seen as having negative connotations.” If previous research is any indication, “negative connotations” is putting it lightly.
According to study cited in a 2009 article from National Geographic, which examined gravesites dating back as far as 26,000 years ago, face down burials appear to be deliberate attempts to shame the dead. Prone burials were commonly found among criminals as well as “rule-breaking nuns and convicted witches.” Lead researcher Caroline Arcini believed there was a commonality among these face down burials: “Society sanctioned this apparently negative treatment of the dead.”
As for this most recent study, researchers are unclear about the meaning behind these specific non-normative burial, whether they hold greater implications about the dead’s social status or if the dead just really pissed off whoever was burying them. However, researchers do believe their findings reveal key insights as to how gender impacted this 6th century society even after death.
As is true today, women lived longer than men in the 6th century society these researchers studied. Researchers found a significantly higher proportion of women aged 55 and older than men when examining remains at the burial sites. One might suppose that living longer would entail more opportunity for a person’s status to increase, that living to an older age would also come with more respect. Though this appears to be the case among the older men researchers found, it was not the case among women.
“One possible reason is that men have higher mortality rates, but women greater morbidity,” the researchers wrote. Said in less scientific terms: men die young and hot, women die old and gross. Women may have lived longer, but their overall health and (perhaps more important to society) their perceived appearance at this older age may have been “worse.” If the frequency of these less respectful, “non-normative” burials is any indication, the way 6th England viewed women and the importance placed on their appearance is perhaps not so far removed from today.