Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Beakers at Bedtime; Segregated in Sleep?

Folkens et al, 2017 asked a question that got my wheels turning.  Why did supine burials appear in the Netherlands (and Europe) and why was this burial position largely irrevocable?  That inspired a host of other questions, the most interesting is why were men and women of the Beaker and CWC were buried in gendered positions.  I'll share a possibility that came to mind.

It seems that in many places supine burials follow changes in bedding, from fetal nest beds on cave floors and huts to footed beds in the later Metal Ages.  Seems to reason that grieving people buried those who will not wake in a comfortable and familiar position.  Also, people generally lie in a familiar resting posture in the closing hours of life.   Sian Mui of Durham University wrote this in an introduction to a conference on posturing the deceased in burial:
"Postures may ... be used to stimulate an illusion of sleep, to ensure rest for the undead, or even to defy death." 

If we accept this premise - that many cultures bury the dead in sleeping pose, then we might be able to ask Folkens' question in reverse - what do the archaeological burials reveal about the sleeping habits of the ancients, particularly the Beakers?

We might correctly assume that Bell Beakers (often buried with pillows and bedding it seems) recreated a fetal sleeping arrangement and comfy enclosure to protect the resting dead (and like us, idealized in death).  (A look at Medieval and Renaissance effigies could be compared to the Beaker ideals of virtuous warriorhood and respectable ladyhood in a bedding position familiar to their era)

"A Sleeping Knight Idealized and Dressed for Battle in Death" (saffron100_uk)
Idealization in death is common across many cultures.  The pose in a modern casket is restful but also idealized.  Modern burials are supine and it follows a familiar fact that Westerners in hospice care generally die in the supine position.  I found this interesting hospice care study by Verboeket-Crul, Thein and Teuniessen (2016) that questions if this common position is comfortable to the person being handled or if caretakers and circumstances were forcing this position on dying humans.  Verboeket-Crul et al look at different comfort preferences of the dying and in studying death in the Netherlands and make this comment:
"In the last days and hours before dying, patients are usually to be found in the supine position.  After death as well, people are often place in the supine position.  This attitude is in line with the Western historical and cultural notion that the supine position of a dying person expresses dignity...  In some non-Western countries, it was traditional to die in foetal posture.  Those people were also buried in this position..."
In any case, they conclude that comfort preferences vary person to person.

From a previous Harry Folkens presentation.

Sleeping is so natural that we may assume there is only one way to do it.  But even a quick survey of readers from this blog would quickly reveal that our cultures sleep differently:  rising and waking at different times of the day, siestas, opportunistic slumber, daytime alert, sleeping alone as individuals, collectively as a nuclear family, or like hamsters, infant with mother, infant in crib, kids together or individually, with or without clothes, gender segregation, night watches or other nighttime duties.

But now this question.  Why are Bell Beaker men and boys differentiated in the burial configuration from women, girls and sometimes small boys in the heading of the grave?

I wonder if gendered burials reflect a sleeping arrangement where genders were segregated at either end of the Beaker cabin.  If we assume that each Beaker home represents the habitation of a Yankee nuclear family, then we may assume too much.  It's possible two or three families lived in homes along with old uncles, invalids, foreign spouses, night-time travelers, drunk people, very drunk people, orphans, displaced husbands and a host of other people and situations.

Aside from practical realities like screaming babies, vomiting kids and tired men, taboos requiring separation may have been present as well.  If Beakers were like American pioneers living with 14 kids in a 16 x 16 cabin, most intimacy occurred outside the home anyway.  It's a different way of looking at what we consider an intimate setting.

Reconstructed Bell Beaker Boat Shaped House, Százhalombatta Archaeological Park, Hungary (Bozor Magdi)

Rather than Beaker gendered burials being reflective of some kind of sexual duality, could it be that it is just an extension of the modesty and pragmatism expressed at bedtime?

(The past several weeks have been crazy-town.  That's slowed Beakerblog down considerably.  But things are clearing a bit.  Hope to have more in the coming weeks.)

"Burials, Houses, Women and Men in the European Neolithic" (Hodder, 1990)

"Aloofness and Intimacy of Husbands and Wives: a Cross Cultural Study" Whiting and Whiting, 2009

"At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past"  (W.W. Norton, 2005)

"Sleep We Have Lost: Pre-Industrial Slumber in the British Isles" A. Roger Ekirch


  1. Thank you, very interesting. I look forward to reading the linked articles. How were Upper Paleolithic/ Mesolithic people buried? Speaking of gendered burial positions- I received my husband’s mtDNA haplogroup yesterday. He is mtDNA H10e. This haplogroup was found in the Corded Ware Culture in the Eulau Germany massacre! Apparently, this approximately 35 year old female suffered 2 severe head blows that led to her death.

    1. That's cool. I think much of the five continents was more often crouched (flexed, fetal) laying on the side.

      In pre-dynastic Egypt, the Indus valley, China and Europe there's a shift to extended supine burial at some point. A good example is the pre-dynastic Egyptian 'ginger' which is flexed. Gradually they evolve to be universally extended supine like Tut. It might have started first in the wealthier more urbanized social classes first, I assume because they had beds or aspired to have beds.

    2. JV,
      H10e was previously (3735 ± 45 BC) in Portugal.

      (The Bom Santo Cave (Lisbon, Portugal):
      Catchment, Diet, and Patterns of
      Mobility of a Middle Neolithic
      Population) Carvalho et al.

    3. Thank you very much! Maybe H10 expanded from the Iberian Peninsula after the LGM like H1 & H3?

    4. if something, we are learning these days is that it was all a bit more complicated.
      And what this says is that we have H10e in Iberia in exact place where Bell beakers had their onset... and a 1000 years later where BB met CWC. But its a sacrilege to say that, these days. :)

  2. Modern Western burial practice far predates hospice care. And in any case, many people would have been found dead in fields, or been picked up after being kicked by a horse. Perhaps the supine position comes from the use of a casket rather than just dropping the corpse into a hole in the ground. Then again, it could just be an arbitrary tradition, and tell us nothing about society at all. Worth thinking about. I did role my eyes at the Whiting and Whiting paper - when you start with a Margaret Mead citation, and move on the Freud, you've lost me. Both people who made stuff up. Good story-tellers, but nothing more.

    1. If you look at Brymbo Man he was buried in a flexed position despite the fact that most of the skeleton was not included. I think his remains were found scattered.

      In any case he was buried in a way he may have slept in life, on the floor of his hut. That's the point of the hospice study, not the position stiffs are found in.