I talk about things I find interesting. I find a lot of things interesting…

Princess Pride

by Ken Arnold on Mon 21 October 2013

This is making the rounds today: The body in an Etruscan tomb that had a spear turns out to gave been a woman. Also, the other body with the jewelry turns out to have been a man.

A bit of background: The Etruscans were the major civilization on the Italian peninsula preceding the Romans. The Romans borrowed heavily from them, and in fact the Etruscans may have been the ones who founded the city of Rome. It’s all a little hard to tell for several reasons, primarily due to the fact that the Romans so overshadowed them that we have almost no written Etruscan records, beyond a bunch of grave inscriptions. The other records are paltry. The entire body of Etruscan words that aren’t simple tomb inscriptions is probably not much more than the size of this blog post.

That’s far too small for us to learn the Etruscan language, especially since it seems to be part of a tiny family of languages that aren’t related to anything else we’ve found. So we have a tiny amount of written text for a language with a handful of also-poorly-understood relatives. And even if we could read it, there is only a tiny amount we could possibly learn from it because, well, the amount of text is tiny.

What we mostly have is a decently large collection of graves. So when one of them throws up a surprise, we don’t know how to interpret it.

The Etruscans had a much more woman-friendly society than the Greeks or Romans. Women seemed to have been valued as family members, active in the community, and had a place at the head of the family. Of course the Greeks and Romans saw women in the public sphere and assumed they were loose, slutty, emasculating, horny, and, well, let’s excuse them as they head of to the privy for some rather physical forms of imagination. It’s what happens when people who control women and their sexuality through isolation see less suppressed women.

But even taking that relative openness to women, nobody had expected that it extended to warrior women who would be buried with spears.

So that’s interesting.

It’s also probably generated more posts with pictures of Xena than has been produced in years, so there’s that upside as well.

But again, because we know so little, we don’t know how to interpret this. Except for one thing:

We are prisoners of our expectations.

Because the archaeologists did assume that the spear-bearer was male and the jewelry-box-holder was female. As would, I suspect, almost any of us. Even if we think we are getting better at being open about gender, gender roles, etc., we certainly don’t expect ancient peoples to be. We think this is truly modern and sophisticated of us.

And in any case, the odds were certainly with the archaeologists on this one. The skeletons were in a bad state to make an easy visual assignment. Kudos to them, in fact, for double checking.

But I have to say, ever since I read about this, one thought keeps popping up in the back of my thinking, waving for my attention. So since this is my blog, and I get to give attention to whatever I want, here, thought, is your moment of attention:

What if it was a screwup?

What if, for example, the people placing the bodies in the tombs put the them on the opposite platforms than intended? If the bodies were wrapped, the people placing the grave goods might not know which was which. Or maybe someone purposefully swapped them out of spite, hoping it would fuck up their afterlife.

It would be amazingly interesting if the Etruscans were cool with transgendered people, or women in non-traditional roles, or (glory be!) both. But we often forget that people in the past were as clever and smart as we are. And, as we are, they were subject to error and spite, either of which might account for this discrepancy.

At the current rate of progress I don’t expect to live to see anything like enough information uncovered to resolve this. Maybe we will discover the tomb an Etruscan bibliophile who was actually buried with enough documents to open up the language; that would be cool. Or maybe we’ll re-examine existing tombs to discover this is common, and we’ll have to rethink how we look at the Etruscan culture; that would be very cool. But I’m thinking this is more likely to just simmer along unsolved for a very long time, and we will, instead, have to turn our attention to our actual problems. Which would be sad, because right now a lot of our problems totally suck, and a little escape in time would be nice.

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