Breaking the Glass Ceiling Since 3000 BC

Archaeologists in Austria have found evidence that women were metalworkers during the Bronze Age:

The Museum of Ancient History says the grave originates from the Bronze Age, which began more than 5,000 years ago and ended 3,200 years ago.

In a statement on Wednesday, it said that although the pelvic bones were missing, examination of the skull and lower jaw bone shows the skeleton is of a woman.

The museum says tools used to make metal ornaments were also found in the grave northwest of Vienna, leading to the conclusion that it was that of a female fine metal worker.

It says such work had been commonly presumed to be in the male domain.

Perhaps discoveries like this will challenge conventional ideas about the division of labour in ancient societies. Metallurgy and metalworking have been male-dominated subjects for virtually all of time, so it’s interesting to see that women were still involved even at the earlier points in its history. This woman was identified as a metalsmith thanks to the grave goods that were buried with her: an anvil, hammers, flint chisels and some dress jewellery. In fact, it makes a lot of sense that Bronze Age women could be metalworkers. Materials like copper and tin* can be melted by a kiln without needing to pump a lot of excess air to feed the fire. Contrast this with ironworking, which requires a great deal of physical strength to pump air into the fire, and to shape the iron by hammering at arms’ length. When we think about smithing, the picture that comes to mind is a burly blacksmith in a forge, hammering away at a sword. Yet bronze was frequently used to manufacture household items like knives, needles, pins, mirrors, jugs, pots and cauldrons. Women were known to be exceptionally skilled potters. The question is: were they as good with metal as they were with clay, or did pot-making suddenly become mens’ work? Bronze is not particularly difficult to cast or grind and much of the early labour that is classed as womens’ work (cooking, pottery, childrearing, gathering unaccountably pink berries) involved a lot of working with fires and moderate physical activity. If a woman can grind corn, she can grind bronze.

Maybe women were also involved in the discovery of new metals and techniques. Gold was the first metal to be discovered and worked by humans, and early goldsmiths would collect gold nuggets from stream beds. If women did take on the role of gatherer in their societies, it could well have been a woman who found the first gold nugget, while collecting water from a stream or gathering fruit nearby. Meanwhile, archaeologists believe that copper smelting first took place inside pottery kilns (since campfires are not quite hot enough) – another domain of women. Tin and lead are more easily smelted, and this discovery was probably accidental, involving either a campfire or a cooking fire.

There is currently no way to know for sure whether this woman was an outlier even in her time, or whether Bronze Age societies routinely had female as well as male metalworkers. Some iconography does seem to imply that there was a division of labour according to sex but this is only a tiny snapshot of life at the time, and gender-specific artefacts are rare. Much archaeological excavation tends to focus on domestic locations within settlements, whereas typically ‘male’ activities like hunting and metallurgy would have taken place in other areas, so evidence of these practices is less likely to enter the archaeological record. The preconceptions of archaeologists must also be taken into account. It would be interesting to see how often a woman’s skeleton has been excavated, revealing that she was buried with weapons or tools, and the explanation provided was that the burial goods were purely decorative, and unrelated to the woman’s actual occupation. The issue of gender bias in archaeology is not a new problem, and only in the past few decades have archaeologists begun to recognise that this needs to be corrected, by becoming aware of their own inbuilt preconceptions and how these preconceptions might affect their interpretations of ancient life.

*Fun fact: the earliest bronzes were actually alloys of copper and arsenic. Tin came along much later. Unfortunately, the fumes created during the manufacture of arsenical bronze have some unpleasant side effects, one of which is permanent nerve damage. Some people have speculated that this is where the myths of Hephaestus – the lame Smith of the Gods – came from.

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