Archaeological traces

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  • Childbirth, a high-risk activity

Childbirth, a high-risk activity

Women are at high risk of dying duringchildbirth. This has been documented archaeologically in settlements fromdifferent periods, with tombs of women who died before, during or soon afterchildbirth. 

Sometimesarchaeology reveals dramatic cases, such as an Argaric-period burial at El Cerrode las Viñas (Coy, Lorca). This woman was in the thirty-seventh to thirty-ninthweek of pregnancy with the foetus in transverse lie with a prolapsed arm. Thisprevented natural childbirth and both the mother and the baby died (Ayala etal, 1999; Ayala, Malgosa and Jiménez, 2000). 

InIberian societies, the cremation ritual meant that the bone remains depositedin urns were badly damaged by fire, making it difficult to tell whether deathoccurred before, during or after childbirth. However, some ritual aspects giveus clues; for example, the double burial documented in Tomb 19 at La Serreta containedtwo cinerary urns, one of a young woman and another of a perinatal infant(Gómez-Bellard and De Miguel, 1996). 

One of the most interesting examples is the burial ofperinatal infants below the floors of the houses in the Late Republican settlementof Camp de les Lloses (Tona, Barcelona), in which DNA analyses show that ten ofthe buried infants were female and only one was a male and was also from alater period. The interpretation given here is that this selection of the femalesex for burial below the houses indicates the positive value placed on the birthof a girl and of her death as a great loss to the community (Durán, Mestres and Molas, 2016). 

Picture: Burial of an Argaric woman who died during childbirth (Cerro de las Viñas, Lorca, Murcia). Photograph: M. M. Ayala.
Malgosa, A.; Alesan, A.; Safont, S.; Ballbe, M.; Ayala, M.M. (2004): A Dystocic “Childbirth in the Spanish Bronze Age”. International Journal of Osteoarchaeology, 14: 98–103.
De Miguel, Mª P. (2010): “Una visión de la infancia desde la osteoarqueología: de la Prehistoria reciente a la Edad Media”. Complutum, Vol. 21 (2): 135-154.
Inhumación de una mujer argárica fallecida durante el parto. Foto cortesía de M. M. Ayala.jpg

Inhumación de una mujer argárica fallecida durante el parto. Foto cortesía de M. M. Ayala.jpg


The Pastwomen Network co-organizes the International Seminar "Interdisciplinary Approaches to Gender Archaeology" at the University of Tübingen.

July 4-10, 2022

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