As a Spanish archaeologist who used to work on prehistoric sites and then became an artefact specialist in New Zealand, my experience has shown me that although they are worlds apart, Spanish prehistory and the Victorian era are closer than you think. And I’ll explain why…
As you know, archaeology provides us with information about societies in the past. That means a long timeline and heaps of artefacts that let us know how people used to live. But, how much have these objects changed from thousands of years ago to the 19th century? Less than you might imagine…
Food, care practices and children’s education are aspects of life that are present in all times and all places around the world. It comes down to the simple fact that people are people. Daily activities are the most important ones for the survival and development of all societies. These tasks articulate the relationships and social links between people. However, although they are important, essential tasks, they have long been dismissed or gone unnoticed. How is it possible? Easy! Because history has been written in masculine, based on the idea of the technological and industrial progress carried out by man, and those domestic works associated with women and dwelling have been undervalued. This lack of attention in archaeological discourse doesn’t make sense because most of the artefacts recorded in all cultures and historical periods are associated with the household.
To be honest, I chose this topic because gendered archaeology is one of my passions. I have been analysing how women were represented in prehistoric rock art from the eastern area of Spain as researcher at the University of Alicante and I also used to work on the archaeological site of Cabezo Redondo (Villena, Spain), which dates to the Bronze Age. Currently, I have the chance to keep looking for women and children through the artefacts from 19th century sites in Christchurch. So, today, I want to merge my experiences here in the Antipodes with those from Spain. With that in mind, I’ll mainly look at the most common finds that archaeologists deal with: ceramic vessels, along with a couple of other unusual and cool artefacts.
So, first, a few basic ideas to start with!
The basic tasks of daily life may not have always been undertaken by women in prehistory, for sure! In fact, in the early periods of human history, the whole group (women, men and children) would have been involved. It was later that these activities became part of women’s heritage in traditional and historical societies. Especially, by the middle of the 19th century when homes and workplaces were no longer combined in the same place, a strict division of roles of family members became visible: the main responsibility for men was the economic support of the household, while the women undertook the role of homemaker and child carer and retreated from the public sphere. Women were encouraged to be the wives, mothers and domestic servants. Poor behaviour and inattention to housework was often linked to gossiping or even insanity. Can you believe it? Do you think domesticity causes illness? This husband didn’t agree because his wife was the most domestic woman ever.
Now that you’ve had a little bit of an introduction, we are ready! It is time to start democratising the past through archaeology, listening the silent voices from the past, and highlighting and researching the role of the people less represented. Let’s make women, children and their practices visible!
I’ll show you some objects related to food, caregiving and children’s socialization. Comparing both artefacts found in Spain at prehistoric sites and 19th century ones from Christchurch, we’ll reach an evident and clever conclusion: materials and manufacturing methods are different, but the use of the objects remains consistent.
Eating is probably the most essential activity for everybody. As well as being a biological necessity, food practices display social rituals and indicate different means, status and behaviours, based on factors like the variety of table settings. The first tableware and cutlery recovered from prehistoric sites in Spain dates to the 5th to the 4th millennium BC. Is that not amazing? At these sites, we find communal serving dishes from which household members were served, individual bowls for eating and handled vessels to contain and serve liquids. Simple for us, but an authentic revolution for the Neolithic groups. Their new economy, based on farming, involved significant changes in food preparation and consumption. These processes required knowledge about sources as well as tools and technical skills for cutting, grinding, boiling, smoking or roasting. A kind of soup and cream made from grains mixed with water was the main dish on the menu, and it was cooked and eaten with a spoon. It would look like a porridge. I’m pretty sure that it wasn’t as yummy as our current food! How lucky we are!
In the same way that eating is important in order to create and negotiate relations between people, childcare and education also have social significance. Through play and imitation, young children were taught roles that would be important in their daily life as adults. Based on the archaeological record, it looks like dolls were of the most popular toys from ancient times! By the 19th century, porcelain dolls were given to girls to encourage maternal instincts as well as toy tea sets to learn the rules of domestic etiquette and social interaction in the Victorian era. But again, this is not a modern invention! Miniature ceramics were also found in prehistoric sites, and they were not only used as toys but also as a way to learn about ceramic manufacture. These asymmetric and unburnished vessels showed the processes of skill acquisition needed to make pottery. To be honest, I don’t think that I would be able to make them any better using my hands…maybe because my mum didn’t teach me about that?
So why have I used prehistoric and 19th century artefacts to look at maintenance activities? I’ve tried to make you think about the evidence of daily life because artefacts hide a history behind them. They talk about social processes and relationships between people, which is the core of all societies. Women carried out an active role as well as men, of course, and the archaeological record confirms this. However, traditional historians and archaeologists, influenced by our contemporary minds, have interpreted the past by focusing on men and their achievements. But in reality, the development of all cultures and societies is the result of the tasks undertaken by men and women, as well as the relationships and connections between them. So, it is time to make women and their practices visible!
So how do we do it? The archaeological record provides the tools that we need – women and children are visible through objects from household contexts as I explained here. Also, human bones from burials and rock art are both especially useful in the case of prehistoric sites. In the case of the 19th century Christchurch sites, archaeologists are lucky as well. Lots of rubbish was dumped into pits or accidentally fell under the floors of houses, waiting to be uncovered and compared with the historical records for that period or site. Therefore, we only need to be asking the right questions to find the answers – and to find the women and children that we are looking for. Let’s go, get into it!
By Maria Lillo Bernabeu
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