The Woman

Basse-Yutz Flagon | Birdlip Mirror | Rheinheim Armlet | Vix Krater | Vix Torque

The female grave has the ability to provide interesting insight into the role of women in Celtic culture, however, it must be investigated and interpreted without modern prejudice.  This requires that grave goods be analyzed with regard to the biological sex of a skeleton where plausible, graves without bodies or some cremations, should be analyzed with regard to the former.  This creates an interesting cycle of findings and begs the question of  exceptions; does one grave with a female skeleton and a mirror require that another grave with a mirror be interpreted as that of a woman?  Beyond establishing the biological sex of a skeleton, grave goods may be able to help scholars to recreate the gender as it is created by Celtic society.  The grave goods included in the portion of this exhibition entitled The Woman were all found in grave's identified as female.  What can they tell us about the woman?  Some grave goods are gender specific meaning that to date these objects have only been found in women's graves, however the only gender specific grave good included in this exhibition is the bronze mirror from Birdlip.  The Birdlip mirror is representative of a type that is fairly common in the La Tène period. (Arnold: 81)  The style of these mirrors is similar to those found in the Mediterranean world.  What is unique about the Celtic examples is their decoration.  The engraved designs on the back of the Birdlip mirror as well as the Desborough example, incorporates abstract patterns and designs.  These same patterns are found on jewelry, weapons, shields, and small scale sculpture.  The decoration of these mirrors, as is true with so many other examples of Celtic art, do not often include gender oriented subject matter and thereby the decoration tell us nothing of their inclusion in the woman's grave.

What  kind of function so these mirrors have?  It is believed that mirrors were hung by the handle on the wall of the house, and that this accounts for the manner in which the decoration morphs when one sees it right side up or upside down.  The visual play of the decoration has been seen as commentary on the function of the mirror as refelcting/refracting reality.  Beyond this, a practical function of the mirror in the grave is a mystery to modern scholars.  Miranda Green states that these mirrors were status symbols and may have said more about a person's rank and less about their gender. (Green, 1997: 69)  In other words, the only grave good particular to a woman's grave tell us little about what it meant to be a female, but instead what it meant to be a wealthy female. This is further complicated by the fact that the reasons for interpreting the mirrors as marks of status, is the context and collateral material with which they are found, i.e. the silver gilt brooch which was also found with the Birdlip mirror.

Another category of grave goods included in this exhibition, jewelry, cannot be classified as gender specific, although the way they are included in the grave, their placement and number, can be interpreted along gender lines.  The two objects included under The Woman, the Rheinheim armlet and the Vix torque are representative of a type of grave good, jewelry, which is also included under The Man; the Rodenbabach armlet.  In her dissertation, Bettina Arnold, notes that in female graves, jewelry is found in greater number in the grave and often also in pairs.  "An important distinction on the basis of gender is reflected in the number of bracelets worn on each arm; the general rule seem to be that the asymmetrical distribution of bracelets is a male characteristic, whereas symmetrical distribution is a female characteristic." (Arnold: 81).  The armlet included in the exhibition is also part of an elite burial, often called the grave of a 'princess'.  (The term princess may be construed as misleading and "modern," it is used in this exhibition with the conscious intent of evoking an archaeological title used to describe elite male graves, this is discussed in greater detail under The Man.)  This object, unlike the mirror, incorporates iconographic elements that may relate specifically to its function as well as to the gender of the buried.  The finials of the armlet are in the shape of women, perched on her head, a small bird of prey.  From the side, one may see that the woman is winged.  This has been interpreted to be a reference to the individual's apotheosis, although it seems likely that this is a carry over from classical Mediterranean iconography. (Green, World, 1997 pg.)  The pose of the figure has been variously interpreted as a deceased female with her hands placed on her chest, holding an offering.  It is the opinion of the author, that the figure could also be seen as a predecessor of the sheela-na-gig figure so prevalent in later medieval art.  The pose of the female figure could then be interpreted as referencing her genitalia, an overt reference to her fecundity.

For the second example of jewelry found in the Celtic grave, the scholarly arguments return to the torque as a symbol of status.  This torque has been attributed to both Celtic and Mediterranean workshops, a testimony to its quality.  It has more recently been illustrated that the technique's used for its assembly, denote a Celtic origin.  The iconography is familiar in Celtic art, including a winged horse, a series of concentric circles.  In a manner similar to the armring, the ends of the torque morph into the hooves of an animal, possibly a deer, or a boar?  It would seem unlikely that without the context provided by the female skeleton, a torque of this caliber would have been attributed to a female. (Arnold, 81 also see Spindler 1983: 107-108). In fact, scholars have gone to great lengths to interpret the Vix burial, because of its opulence as that of a male, suggesting that it was the grave of a transvestite male priest (Spindler 1983: 108 as cited in Arnold, 96)

Finally, the Basse-Yutz Flagons and the Vix Krater should be considered in light of the their function as banqueting implements.  This is an exciting aspect of the female Celtic grave, for in the Mediterranean world, banqueting and "hosting" remained in the realm of the man, women were only included for entertainment. (Green, 58-60)  These object and their function in the grave are discussed in further detail under The Host.  Also for more information about Celtic women and drinking rituals see:

The Wagon or Chariot is not included in this part of this exhibition, although they are included in female burials.  They function in a manner similar to that of the krater and the torque in the Vix Burial.  They are signs of status and signify that the women included in these burials has the ability to occupy positions of power within their community.  For information about the Vix chariot and further information about the Vix burial please see: Wagons in the Halstatt Period: Its Technology and Use, by Masumi Ninomiya.


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