with brothels in Europe), Buckland drew the only conclusions he deemed possible: this was either a female prostitute, or a witch. Whatever, they were clearly the decorated bones of a wild and deviant woman. He dated her to the Roman era and named her the “Red Lady of Paviland”. However, recent reanalysis of the skeleton has shown his suppositions to be wrong on all counts. Scientists have determined that the Lady was in fact a young man, who died around 33,000 years ago.
Similar gender assumptions were levelled against a Viking warrior discovered in Birka, Sweden, in the 1870s. The body was found buried with copious military items including a long bladed sword, a spear, and two sacrificed horses, while gaming pieces lay on the warrior’s lap — suggesting a love of martial planning. The ‘natural’ assumption was, again, that this powerful person was a man. But in 2017, DNA analysis of the warrior’s bones confirmed beyond doubt that the grave actually belonged to a woman. Viking lore had always hinted that not all warriors were men, with one 12th century Irish text, which refers back to events in the 900s, talking of a 'Red Girl', a female warrior who led a Viking fleet to Ireland. Likewise, many sagas – again written long after the event – tell of shield-maidens, who fought alongside male warriors. Historians had tended to dismiss such stories as mythological fiction, but the archaeology is suggesting otherwise. As both of these studies illustrate, cutting-edge scientific analysis is revealing past sexual distinctions that would otherwise be impossible to visualise from artifacts alone. Moreover, women are, quite often, absent from written history. Writing — only ever found in settled complex civilisations — was typically the work of a few specialist, elite men. With women pushed out of public life (bar the anomalous queens or the deviant witches/prostitutes), they were simply of little interest, and their lives generally unworthy of comment by literate men. With the assumption that women played no real role in life, the further back in time, before the dawn of written history, the more silent we have made the women — even if the reality was anything but. Prehistoric women On my shelves is a great big book on Palaeolithic art, published in 2006. The author, a professor of zoology and Ice Age expert, argues that the great Palaeolithic European rock-art was entirely the work of testosterone-charged young men. Over hundreds of pages, he develops his argument, pointing to the subject matter (bloody
“Viking lore had always hinted that not all warriors were men...”
The Past | April/May 2021