Intersectionality and Iron Age mortuary practices
The application of the concept of intersectionality to the analysis of Iron Age European mortuary contexts reveals a complex interconnected system of identity marking that included gender, age, kinship, life course stage at death, status, role and individual agency (Arnold 2016). Past approaches to social identity in early Iron Age mortuary contexts have tended to assume the existence of a binary system of social categorization based primarily on gender as defined in the first instance on the basis of sex. However, it has become increasingly clear that identity marking in Iron Age burials was neither temporally nor spatially uniform throughout Europe and was affected by an intersectionally expressed set of variables that appears to have been simultaneously formally defined and context dependent (Hofmann 2009, Fig. 2; Trémeaud 2015, Fig. 3). For example, adults are demographically over-represented in burial mounds and the neckrings, gold objects or imports found in the rare children’s graves indicate that ascribed status determined which subadults would be afforded mound burial (Arnold 2012a). In some regions and time periods, moreover, gender in general appears to have been expressed on a context-dependent spectrum rather than as a reductive set of male/female options (Ghisleni et al. 2016; Trémeaud 2015, Fig. 2). Personal ornament – quantity, quality, style, position on the body – appears to have been influenced by social norms as well as life history and individual preference, complicating our search for patterns that might reveal broader underlying social structures. Kinship relationships, position in the family and natal origin may also be reflected in the grave good assemblages. When analyzed at the micro-regional scale the ornamented body seems to have been more of an autobiographical construct than past studies have recognized, even in apparently paramount burials like that of Vix or Hochdorf. Body-bound ring ornament appears to have been inalienable in female burials to a greater degree than in burials of men irrespective of social status in early Iron Age west-central Europe as in other regions and time periods (Iaia 2007; Lehnert et al. 2014 ; Müller-Scheeßel 2013, 77-78; Müller 1994; Sofaer 2000), for example. Likewise, some costume elements, such as belts, exhibit an extreme degree of stylistic and technical variability, presumably influenced by the personal preferences of the maker, the wearer or both (Arnold 2016). However, as our sample size increases and includes burials that represent more of a cross-section of early Iron Age society, our ability to distinguish between the intersecting variables of age, gender, life course stage at death, social role and status increases as well (Fries 2005, 91-94).
Based on several extensive statistical studies carried out in the last decade (Burmeister 2000; Burmeister and Müller-Scheeßel 2005; Koch 2017; Müller 1994, among others), mound burial in most areas of west-central Iron Age Europe was reserved for a select subset of the population; an even smaller number of individuals were buried in chamber graves and the most exclusive category of burial was interment in the central chamber of a mound. The number, style, position, material, origin and quality of the grave goods found in burials not interred in a chamber grave further differentiate burials within a mound from one another. Based on the relatively limited data sets for which reliable sexing can be compared to grave good assemblages, patterns in adult burials that may be linked to gender have been identified in most of the West Hallstatt area (Arnold 2006, 2012b; Burmeister 2000; Burmeister & Müller-Scheeßel 2005; Fries 2005; Koch 2017). However, categories exclusive to one gender or the other are difficult to identify unless temporal and spatial variability are controlled for and are complicated by the fact that males in particular have relatively few exclusive gender markers that cut across status and role categories apart from weapons (Burmeister 2000; Müller-Scheeßel 2013). It has been suggested that this is at least partly due to the fact that women may experience more transitions in life than men, especially if they have children and each child (or the loss of a child) is reflected in the composition of their costume (Arnold 2012a; Koch 2014; Brather 2014). Examples of primarily female ornament include the symmetrical distribution of bracelets, the presence of ankle rings, large numbers of beads and head ornament in addition to earrings. Status and role in these burials may be expressed more through the number and position of rings or pins or the material of which they are made than by their presence alone (Arnold & Hagmann 2014). However, there is considerable variability in spite of the apparent commonalities in female adornment, presumably complicated by age, life course and personal preference, among other variables (Fig. 1). In short, contemporary ideas about individual agency, sexual identity and transgressive gender marking have not proved especially useful in understanding late Hallstatt social organization. As I hope to demonstrate, the concept of intersectionality provides us with a more effective method of approaching the pervasive emphasis on a binary gender system that may both minimize and misinterpret more salient forms of differentiation. I would like to discuss this idea further with reference to several elite Iron Age burials, including Vix, the Dama de Baza, Hochdorf and Lavau. I will conclude with a discussion of the patterns that emerge when the scale of analysis shifts from the macro- to the micro-region, specifically several recently excavated mounds in the vicinity of the Heuneburg hillfort in southwest Germany. I hope to demonstrate that intersectionality is a simple idea with complex implications for the interpretation of prehistoric social organization on the basis of mortuary evidence.
Intersectionality and Iron Age power relations
Intersectionality as a concept was developed by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, a professor of law at UCLA and Columbia, and has become a key mode of framing how identities and sites of contestation around identity are both multiple and complex (Crenshaw 1991). Although its original application was to the intersection of race and gender in contemporary society, approaching social identity from an intersectional perspective has important implications for the analysis of archaeological mortuary data in particular. The intersectional approach developed in contemporary gender studies is linked to the idea of intercategorical complexity (as distinct from anticategorical complexity, which rejects the creation or use of social categories, or intracategorical complexity, which uses them strategically). Intercategorical complexity is defined as the provisional adoption of existing analytical categories to document relationships of inequality among social groups and changing configurations of inequality along multiple and conflicting dimensions (McCall 2005, 1773). Ultimately power relations underlie all discussions of identity formation, both past and present, particularly in the category of elite burials, so that is where we will need to focus our attention first.
How was power constituted in west-central Europe during the early Iron Age? Most interpretations have tended to focus on the first of what archaeologist Timothy Earle has referred to colloquially as the four Fs that form the basis of leadership systems in so-called traditional societies: force, fascination, faith and favors (1997). The first of these pathways to power, coercive force, is predicated on the assumption that elites in the early Iron Age both acquired and maintained their positions through the threat of violence; the second, fascination, that leadership to some extent required a charismatic personality and the ability to persuade others, also one of the qualities of faith-based leadership, which has been invoked in interpretations of sculptural representations of elites at sites such as the Glauberg, Hirschlanden and Vix (Hermann 2002; Verger 2003, 619). The last of the four Fs, favors, can be linked to the consistent appearance in undisturbed mound burials of drinking and feasting equipment, which has been interpreted as part of a system of reciprocal commensality involving various alcoholic beverages that may have been part of a larger system of strategic gift-giving (Arnold 1999 ; Dietler 1999; Verger 2003). Significantly, we find such equipment in a wide range of burials, from the richly outfitted central chamber graves such as Hochdorf, with nine horns and plates as well as three platters, to a single ceramic cup, as in the case of Tumulus 17 Grave 3 (Fig. 2, on left). Clearly combinations of vessels and the number of vessels in a burial communicated the individual’s ability to offer hospitality to others whereas the graves with a single vessel or a storage vessel and a dipping cup, the most common combination (Fig. 2, on right), may reflect a different set of social relationships (Arnold 2019, Figs 4 and 5). If these constituent elements of leadership all represented different potential sources of power, could they have formed an intersectional system in the early Iron Age in which the context determined the particular combination of elements underwriting a given leader’s authority? And if so, is it possible to determine which source(s) of power are being referenced in particular early Iron Age elite mortuary contexts ? Let us examine the evidence.
The case for force: dagger men
The first of the four Fs, coercive power, in which the threat of violence is presumed to be the main basis for compelling behavioral conformity, has yet to be systematically analyzed for the early Iron Age of continental Europe (Vandekilde 2006). Recent studies of the physical evidence for skeletal trauma in cultural contexts such as early medieval Ireland, where raiding, single combat and warfare feature prominently in the written sources, have produced surprisingly low indices of interpersonal violence (Finan 2010). Likewise, Robb (1997) suggests that weapons were the primary material symbol of masculinity in Iron Age Italy as a result of the latent violence they symbolize but without testing their association with actual violence against the evidence for trauma in the skeletal record such assertions are problematic. The daggers that are found in West Hallstatt elite burials, with Hochdorf as the most obvious example, seem singularly unsuited to representing coercive force in any except the most symbolic way. The traditional interpretation of these objects views them as insignia rather than functional weapons, marking rank and presumably, since so few males are buried with daggers, only secondarily maleness (Sievers 1982, 59). The differential archaeological visibility of women, especially adult high status women, in Iron Age burials in some areas of western Europe has been pointed out by numerous scholars, notably Burmeister, who refers to a superfluity of women and a paucity of men in his treatment of this topic in the context of the Iron Age burial record in Württemberg (2000, 74-85). The majority of early Iron Age burials cannot be gendered based on grave goods and inhabit the gray zone known as “Indeterminate”. This is one of the most compelling pieces of evidence in favor of the idea that gender either was not a primary organizing social principle (as has traditionally been assumed) or that it was marked mainly in perishable ways such as hair style, textiles, body modification etc. (Arnold 2004, 18).
Moreover, in some European Iron Age contexts more obviously functional weapons of war are not only found in female burials but in numbers that make actual use unlikely. The Dama de Baza burial from Granada in Spain, which dates to the 4th century BC, contained three machete-style swords as well as shields. Clearly no one can wield three swords at once, so does the so-called honorary male syndrome, in which female elites are assigned a male identity to circumvent taboos associated with females in positions of power (Arnold 1991), apply in this case? This grave has been interpreted by Spanish archaeologists as representing a divine warrior or priest-queen, invoking a combination of Tim Earle’s force and faith power matrix (Chapa & Izquierdo 2010; Prados 2010; Quesada Sanz 2011). It seems that the ritual practitioner idea has become the most convenient way for archaeologists to deal with any deviation from the expected binary gender system. This was the basis of Konrad Spindler’s interpretation of the Vix burial as a transvestite male priest in an effort to explain the absence of weapons and presence of female ornament in an exceptionally wealthy burial, thereby circumventing the attribution of power to a woman (Spindler 1983, 108). It remains an open question whether the recently discovered burial of Lavau in Burgundy represents the combination of biological maleness and female identity markers Spindler was invoking in creating a supernumerary gender category (Dubuis et al. 2015).
I would like to suggest that to focus on gender – or in this case the presumption of gender identity as it is defined in contemporary terms – misses the point. The problem hinges on whether weapons necessarily indicate a particular kind of maleness that is intended to invoke coercive force and if so, whether their absence indicates the absence of that particular source of power. What does this imply about the pathways to power in these societies, particularly the kind of charismatic leadership that is grounded in ritual authority?
The differential visibility of Iron Age elites
Another interpretive difficulty is inherent in the elite social category itself. Warren de Boer’s distinction between the death assemblage and the life assemblage of archaeological ceramics is potentially applicable here (de Boer 1983). The principle is derived from paleontology and in essence involves a predictable form of selection bias. Applied to ceramic assemblages, it means that the relative frequency with which certain categories of ceramic wares are found in the archaeological record (the death assemblage) is not proportionally comparable to their actual prevalence in the life assemblage. In other words, vessels that are both portable and frequently used, such as cups, dishes and plates, will break more often and will be over-represented in the death assemblage (i.e. the archaeological record), whereas large storage vessels will be under-represented becase they tend not to be replaced as frequently. The relative proportions of vessel types actually present in the houses or villages at any given point in time (the life assemblage) would therefore be quite different from the ratios reflected in the archaeological record. Applied to Iron Age social organization, de Boer’s observation should lead us to ask how representative elite burials are of social categorization in the population as a whole. They dominate the literature largely due to their greater archaeological visibility – that is, like portable and easily breakable ceramic wares, they are over-represented in the death assemblage and as a result we tend to assign them a greater degree of influence on how social categories other than status were marked, including gender.
A related question is whether elites were able to express “style” and utilized it to leverage their position in society to a greater degree than non-elites or were they more constrained with respect to agential expression? Who determined the proscriptive regulations for early Iron Age dress and to what extent were elites the ultimate arbiters of legitimate codes and styles (Daloz 2008, 2010, 143)? The fact that the main markers of paramount status appear to have been quantity and material rather than type or position of personal ornament in elite burials appears significant here and is another manifestation of the intersectionality concept in action. For example, ring and pin ornaments appear to be distributed in comparably structured ways on the bodies of individuals in the paramount elite group as well as in more poorly outfitted burials (Arnold & Hagmann 2014).
Put more simply, there is no category of body-bound personal ornament in the paramount elite burial population that is not also found in non-paramount burial contexts. To take the category shown here as an example, although hair-, veil or earrings may vary with respect to style of decoration, position on the head, number, and material, when the associated skeletal remains are well-preserved and sexable they appear exclusively in adult female burials in the Heuneburg region (Fig. 3). The two recently excavated high status female burials in the Bettelbühl mound group in the Danube Plain below the
Heuneburg hillfort illustrate the way body-bound intersectional age/gender/role marking cuts across what appear to be wealthy as well as less richly outfitted graves (Krausse and Ebinger-Rist 2012). The single gold strap earring, gold and amber beads and pendants and bronze belt assemblage found in close association with one of the two adult females in the central chamber of Bettelbühl Tumulus 4 all have parallels in Tumulus 18 of the Speckhau group west of the hillfort, for example; it is the quality, material and quantity of the objects that mark this grave as that of a paramount individual, not the ornament categories or position on the body. This is demonstrated by the fact that both female individuals in the central chamber of Bettelbühl Tumulus 4 had symmetrically positioned armring ornament even though they clearly represent two different status categories (Krausse & Ebinger-Rist 2017). The gilded fibulae from the child’s grave found in the same mound group are likewise similar in type to the bronze examples found in Speckhau Tumulus 18 Grave 13, which also probably contained a child, and although the two gold pendants from the same grave are unique pieces (Kurz and Wahl 2006) the use of such ornaments to highlight the head area is not (Fig. 4). Note also that Tumulus 18 Grave 3 contained a bronze neckring, which, when found in well-preserved inhumations in this region, are most often found with more richly outfitted adult females. The Vix grave represents a similar mixture of costume elements typical of well-outfitted but not exceptionally rich adult female mound burials in this time and place and those that are, in the case of the gold torc, literally unique (Milcent 2003, 316-317). The problem for the archaeologist is how to tease apart the intersected strands to identify and interpret the underlying commonalities.
The examples provided indicate that the intersectional variable age/status was a fundamental structuring principle of early Iron Age society as reflected in mound burials but if gender was a secondary or even tertiary variable, how does its current use in mortuary analysis affect the results of those analyses? And how does it impact the interpretation of gender-ambiguous burials (as viewed through the traditional binary gender lens) like Lavau? Early in my career I suggested that rather than invoking the existence of a third gender or gender-transforming category, as Konrad Spindler did in his interpretation of the Vix burial, we should consider the possibility that women could achieve power as women, that is in their own right (Arnold 1991, 1996). I came to that conclusion because nothing in the Vix grave suggested gender ambiguity as defined according to the binary system of gender assignment prevalent in Iron Age mortuary analysis at the time. Four-wheeled wagons are found in at least three much less impressively outfitted female graves of the period (Milcent 2003, 335-336, Fig. 225), there were no weapons, the personal ornament was symmetrically distributed, and the removal of the wheels from the wagon, also a feature of the female elite burial from Mitterkirchen in Austria (Pertlwieser 1987), seemed consistent with an interpretation of this grave as that of a powerful woman. The Hochdorf burial likewise seemed consistent with the dominant binary gender paradigm: a bow and quiverful of arrows that probably reflect a social role rather than use as a weapon (Arnold 2010) as well as a dagger (however ineffective in combat) together with a single gold bracelet were consistent with the evidence from less richly outfitted male mound burials (Biel 1985).
However, neither of these burials contained more than one body, while many of the elite graves from this period do. In cases such as Hohmichele Grave 6, for example, the absence of preserved skeletal remains precluded sex identification but the grave goods were clustered in two groups, one with weapons and an iron neckring, the other with symmetrically distributed ornament as well as large numbers of glass beads. A dilemma was posed by the metal drinking vessels and the wagon, which had a more ambiguous position in that they were not directly bound to the body (Riek & Hundt 1962). The assumption that in multiple burials containing both a man and a woman the woman should be classified as an additional grave good in this case was perpetuated by illustrations showing the woman’s body lying under the wagon box. The most recent version of this reconstruction places her body on rather than under the wagon, and the position of the male body and drinking equipment now implies that the female individual is the primary interment. In this case however the wheels were apparently still on the wagon, which represents a deviation from the gender narrative represented by Vix and Mitterkirchen. This is a good illustration of how the concept of primacy in multiple burials intersects with preconceived ideas about the subordinate role of women in this society, further complicating interpretation (Federer 2014; Röder 1999).
Agency and the lifecourse
It could also be argued that elite burials are the least well-suited subset for analysis if the goal is to identify gender structures in the general population. High-status individuals, and perhaps especially leaders, are more likely to be restricted with regard to personal expression, especially in public displays involving dress and ornament. Even if such restrictions did not apply, social success among elites is often characterized by strongly mimetic attitudes (Daloz 2010, 145), which means that conformity to established norms probably constrained individualized forms of expression in early Iron Age elite personal ornament. The impact of agency and the life course on burial assemblages is also generally poorly understood for the early Iron Age – how much does this complicate the picture of the social persona of an elite individual? Advances in the recovery and analysis of fragile metal objects like hair rings, hair pins and belt assemblages have revealed a high degree of variability in what for many years were assumed to be relatively uniform categories of personal ornament. Based on the recent discoveries in the vicinity of the Heuneburg we can now confidently assert that many of these objects were used as items of adornment in every day life, one of the requirements of an institutionalized system of identity marking. Signs of wear and repair are evident on a large number of belt plates, for example, and some types of belts appear to have been adjustable, presumably to accommodate fluctuating weight during life (Arnold 2016). The size, shape and decorative motifs of belt plates as well as the techniques used to attach them to the belts (some of which can now be shown to have been made of fabric as well as leather) indicate that this category of personal ornament reflected assertive (decoration and shape of belt plate, attachment mechanism, staple-decoration pattern) as well as emblematic (staple-decorated belts only in combination with head ornament) style. In Speckhau Tumuli 17 and 18 none of the six burials containing staple-decorated belt ensembles was identical to any of the others and in two cases no belt plate was present at all (Fig. 5). The size and position of the thousands of bronze staples that decorated these belts included what appear to be “windows” or gaps that may have exposed patterns in the fabric or leather beneath and in one case (Tumulus 18 Grave 7) the staples were attached to a twisted tassel-like arrangement suspended from the belt at the right hip (Fig. 6). These new discoveries leave us with an impression of individual expression reflected within an ornament category that appears to have been strongly associated with a particular adult female role – agency intersecting with conformity comparable to the variety of daggers and knives with ornamented sheaths that appear to have represented a corresponding adult male role in the same burial community. These patterns are only visible at the micro-regional level and would not be recognized in temporally or geographically broad-based statistical analyses focusing on age, gender or status.
Age and social role
In the Heuneburg micro-region more categories of personal ornament are found in both morphologically male and female graves than were used to mark one gender or the other exclusively; where gender is potentially expressed is not in the presence or absence of a category but rather in the position or number of objects on the body. Fibulae and bracelets are a particularly good example – men, women and children were buried with ring jewlery worn on the arms as well as clothing fasteners. Whatever these categories of personal adornment were communicating would only have been visible at close quarters and was probably significantly impacted by style shifts due to competitive emulation (Fig. 7). This is one of the reasons that apparent gender ambiguity in elite burials such as Lavau, with its combination of “female” symmetrically worn gold bracelets and “male” single bicep ring, should not necessarily be considered evidence for the existence of a super-numerary institutionalized gender category. Anthropologically male individuals buried with female ornament have long been known in non-paramount early Iron Age mortuary contexts even if they are few in number. For example, Hartwig Zürn noted as early as 1970 in his study of the Hallstatt burials of northern Württemberg that Mühlacker Tumulus 9 Graves 1, 2 and 4 contained morphologically male individuals with “female” ornament and concluded that in such cases the gender designation based on grave goods should override the modern biological determination (1970, 77). Daggers are often found in more modest early Iron Age mounds (although rarely in large numbers, with a single dagger bearer per mound the most common pattern) and as far as I am aware no subadult burials with daggers are known, at least in southwest Germany, during this period. A certain type of adult leadership role, irrespective of sex or gender, appears to have been marked by the absence of weapons. Viewed from an intersectional perspective, in other words, age and role should be viewed as the primary determining factors in the inclusion of a dagger in a burial, with gender (whether or not this was always determined on the basis of biological sex is likewise unclear) playing a secondary role in elite mortuary identity marking. Significantly, daggers or knives in sheaths are found in paramount central chamber burials like Hochdorf as well as in much less richly outfitted secondary burials such as the ones excavated in the Speckhau Tumuli 17 and 18. According to this logic, subadults were never buried with daggers not because none of them were male but because none of them were capable of fulfilling the age-based role associated with this object category. This appears to reflect a social system similar to that seen in other cultural contexts in which identity is determined primarily by the tasks or behavior of the individual rather than being defined primarily on the basis of biological sex or morphological appearance (Arnold 2002).
To return to Timothy Earle’s 4 Fs, the absence of weapons in both Vix and Lavau should be viewed as a reflection not of gender or sexual identity but rather as one of the available pathways to power, possibly comprised of faith (i.e. grounded in some type of ritual potency) combined with fascination and favors rather than force (Brun & Chaume 1997; Chaume 2004; Péré-Noguès 2011). In other words, the personal ornament viewed from a contemporary perspective as an expression of gender identity may in fact have reflected an expressly non-martial source of authority. Daggers may have served as symbols of a martial and protective leadership role for social units as limited as an extended family (represented by burials in a single modest tumulus) or as extensive as a tribe (represented by a euhemerized ancestor in a paramount burial like Hochdorf or the Glauberg) – the scale might have varied but the particular type of leadership role would have been recognized as comparable. This category of grave good may have been part of what Dirk Krausse has called the insignia of a “Dorfältester” rather than that of a “priest-king” (Krausse 1999) – although in the case of paramount burials like Hochdorf this may simply have reflected the larger scale of the social group for whom the deceased served in this capacity. The question is whether all central chamber burials contained at least one individual who continued to play the role of protector for the members of the social unit represented by that particular mound after death and could be petitioned by surviving group members to intercede on their behalf through libations or other offerings. In that case burials such as Lavau and Vix may represent a conception of leadership in early Iron Age society in the West Hallstatt area that was metaphorically marked based not on the sex or gender of the individual but on the particular and context-dependent form of authority associated with them. The intersection of socio-political role and status in this case then would appear to have been only secondarily affected by biological sex. In the absence of confirmation via DNA analysis and in spite of the ambiguous skeletal morphology of Lavau (Villenave 2018), the balance of the archaeological evidence suggests that this burial is that of a high status woman (Tab. 1) and not that of a gender-transformer or a warrior prince (Dubuis 2018). The most parsimonious interpretation of both Lavau and Vix is that they are biologically female individuals whose leadership positions were grounded in a combination of faith, fascination and favors rather than force. The weapons in the Hochdorf and Glauberg burials at least invoke that role, if only symbolically, suggesting that multiple pathways to power existed in late Hallstatt and early La Tène in these regions. To conclude, it has been said that a people choose the leaders they deserve. It can also be said, however, that a people choose the leaders they need, in which case Vix and Lavau may be indicators of the existence of a leadership role in this area of early Iron Age Europe based more on persuasive ability and possibly access to supernatural power than on the threat, whether perceived or actual, of force (Fig. 8). The intersectional lens applied here has revealed forms of identity marking in early Iron Age mortuary contexts that transcend gender and are more strongly affected by age, ability and achieved status than has been previously assumed. As the mortuary data set continues to expand we can expect to see more evidence for the complex web of social meaning-making that characterized this period of social transformation.
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