The Social Status of Women in Latvia in the 7th-13th Centuries, in the Light of Palaeodemographic Data

The Social Status of Women in Latvia in the 7th-13th Centuries, in the Light of Palaeodemographic Data

By Gunita Zariņa

Estonian Journal of Archaeology, Vol14:1 (2010)

Abstract: This paper is intended as a contribution to the understanding of women’s social role and living conditions in the Iron Age society in Latvia. The study is based on palaeodemographic data, obtained in the analysis of osteological material from archaeological excavations of three pre-Christian cemeteries. Masculinisation index for inhumation burials was 1.2-2, and for cremation burials - about 2. The data on women shows two periods of maximum mortality – 33-40% for ages 15-24, and 28-37% for ages 30-39. Adult life expectancy on average was 21.8 years for males, only 15.3 years for females.

The anthropological material from the 10th-13th century cemetery of Salaspils Laukskola permits a comparison of the demographic figures for inhumations and cremations. Adult life expectancy for cremated women, was 16.3 years, slightly exceeding the figure for inhumed women - 15.3 years. The main source of this difference is the proportion of females who died aged 15-24 (33% for inhumed, only 7.6% for cremated). As a result, life expectancy for cremated females is 3.4 years less than for males, while among the inhumations it is 5.6 years less. These differences in demographic statistics suggest that the cremated women may have enjoyed relatively higher social status. The historical demography data for the inhabitants of Latvia in the 18th and 19th centuries indicates that the increased mortality of females aged 20-40 decreases in the 19th century, and that at this time female life expectancy begins to exceed that of males. The mortality maximum among the population shifts from ages 40-50 to 60-80.

In Latvia, somewhat differently to western Europe, the Iron Age refers to the period 500 BC – 1200 AD. This was a new phase of historical development. Iron axes, ploughshares, mattocks, sickles and scythes made possible the rapid development of agriculture and animal husbandry; the smelting and smithing of iron promoted the development of crafts and exchange, as well as weaponry and the art of war. This rapid economic development was accompanied by important changes in social relations, expressed in terms of social and material stratification, the emergence of leaders and the development of military retinues.

Womenís social status and role in Middle and Late Iron Age society in Latvia has been analysed by researchers working in various fields. Back in 1921, historian Arturs Svābe, whose findings were based mainly on the study of folklore, strove to reconstruct the social structure of Early Medieval Latvia. ävābe recognises that womenís rights and duties in the kin group and family were dependent on inheritance rights, in accordance with which land could be inherited only by sons. Daughters inherited part of the fatherís moveable property, most commonly a dowry in the form of money.

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