Universiteit Leiden

nl en

Of home-loving men and intinerant marriageable women

Some 5000 years ago the people of the corded ware culture exchanged ideas about death on a continental scale. There were strong gender differences in these ideas: men were buried in an international style, and women in a local style. This discovery was made by archaeologist Quentin Bourgeois.

Between the Volga and the Rhine

This is one of the conclusions of his VENI project Networked Landscapes, published this week in the online journal PLOS ONE. But archaeologist Bourgeois and his research group made more discoveries about the turbulent period between 3000 and 2500 years before Christ.  The region of the corded ware culture stretched over an immense area, from the Volga to the  Rhine. This culture marked the end of the new Stone Age - the use of copper was already starting in the eastern region. An important material characteristic in which this culture differentiated itself from previous cultures, such as the builders of dolmens, is that people were laid in individual graves. This explains why the corded ware culture is also known in Dutch as the 'single grave' culture. 

The spread of the corded ware culture in Europe (map based on Von Schnurbein & Hänsel (2009). Atlas der Vorgeschichte, p. 79)

Ideas about death

Bourgeois' research also revealed immaterial findings. That may sound odd, because ideas do not fossilise. 'Nonetheless, we can say a lot about it,' says Bourgeois. ‘We look at the activities that people carried out during the burial ritual and try to reconstruct their world view on that basis.  We can also work out to what extent they shared their ideas about death with one another.' 

Burial in sleeping pose

As Bourgeois and his team compared thousands of graves from the whoole regin with one another, they were able to see whether or not they were similar to one another. 'We examined graves in the Netherlands, Denmark, the Czech Republic and even Moscow that are almost identical.' They learned that men were laid on their right side with their head to the west and their face to the south, and women the complete opposite. The men had their hands in front of their face and often held a particular kind of stone axe.  An earthenware beaker was placed behind their head and a flint dagger at their hip.  

It’s a man’s world?

‘In the past, archaeologists only saw that there was an axe in the grave, but we are looking now at how the axe was placed, which allows us to distinguish local traditions.' Bourgeois explains. 'We have been able to identify a grave in Denmark, for example, that is arranged in a fashion that was typical in the Netherlands.' The comparison also shows a clear gender difference, whereby women were more often buried in line with a local tradition and men more international. And that also says something about how the societies were organised. 'These findings are in line with new insights from genetics, where we see indications of a society for men, dominated by men.'

The research by Quentin Bourgeois on burial rituals in the corded ware culture is published this month in PLOS ONE.