Prehistoric Downton Abbey: Bronze Age Germans Had Earliest Known Household Staff

The foreign brides imported en masse were also treated as elites, going by their grave goods, but they had lowly local staff buried with nothing

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Illustration of Bronze Age Europeans.
Illustration of Bronze Age Europeans.Credit: © bunterhund Illustration
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

Debunking yet another misconception about the development of civilization, archaeologists have found evidence that equality within the home did not exist in Bronze Age Germany.

Science knew perfectly well that prehistoric Europe had social stratification, with rich and poor, kings and queens and peasants. Clearly, some households in prehistoric central Europe were wealthier than others. But the outcome of a multidisciplinary analysis indicating that inequality had existed within the households themselves of the Lech Valley was a total surprise, lead researcher Prof. Philipp Stockhammer tells Haaretz.

Complex intra-family social structures of that sort – multiple social levels within a household – had clearly developed by the time of classical Greece and ancient Rome. Blood-related families would routinely share the household with their slaves. But these relationships existed in southern Germany at least 1,500 years earlier, Stockhammer says.

Almost 4,800 years ago, farming households in the Lech Valley consisted of the core family of biologically related people, an imported wife, and servants or slaves. This conclusion was reached by archaeological investigation of the small cemeteries in the Lech Valley farming communities, of people buried between 4,800 years ago to 3,300 years ago (roughly).

Grave goods, Kleinaitingen.
Grave goods, Kleinaitingen.Credit: K. Massy

The scientists also conducted a genetic comparison of 104 of the bodies with Eurasians, report Stockhammer from the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universitaet, Munich, with Johannes Krause and Alissa Mittnik from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History and colleagues in the journal Science.

The core male members of each family proved to be related and to derive mainly from mixing between Neolithic farmers in the region with migrants from the steppes, as had been expected from previous genetic work on the origin of Europeans. Also, the individual households could last for several generations, they found.

But the women found in the cemeteries were found to be something else entirely. Some came from the pre-Alpine lowlands and some from as much as 350 kilometers away, the data show.

“In nearly all the households, the females were not related to the males, having left their homes farther afield to marry,” the researchers write.

Pin, female burial, Königsbrunn.
Pin, female burial, Königsbrunn.Credit: K. Massy

Marry? It seems so. Grave goods buried with the women suggest they were also high-status members of the family, reports the team.

Buried in style

The men didn’t move much and were buried at home, it seems – though three of the males seem to have strayed far from home in their adolescence, based on isotope analysis of their teeth. They came back, though.

Women, on the other hand, seem to have left these farming hamlets and disappeared. Almost all the first-degree and second-degree genetic relationships were found between people buried at the same site, but not at different sites — and of the 10 parent-offspring pairs detected, not a single one was female. Note that of these 10 male offspring, nine were adult. The inference is that the girls left to marry strangers somewhere else.

Dagger, male burial, Kleinaitingen.
Dagger, male burial, Kleinaitingen.Credit: K. Massy

The grave goods of men and women differed. Men were buried chiefly with weapons: the authors cite daggers, axes, chisels and arrow-heads. The women were buried with adornments, including large head-dresses and “massive” leg rings, the team writes.

As usual in the case of people gone for thousands of years, what all this means is up for interpretation, but the consensus in archaeological circles is that rich burial goods indicate that the dead individual was important.

Both men and women had these grave goods, but the archaeologists note that interestingly, weapons were found much more often in graves of men with relatives than in graves of men without close relatives. And that indicates what? Inheritance, possibly. At one site, only three of 16 burials were “well-equipped,” they write – and the three were a mother and her two sons. The archaeologists suspect this indicates that in Bronze Age Germany, status was inherited. The theory that status was inherited is further supported by the discovery of children buried with grave goods.

Note again that the women arrived from afar, going by isotopic analysis of their teeth, but almost all were interred in style.

Dagger, male burial, Haunstetten.
Dagger, male burial, Haunstetten.Credit: (c) K. Massy

Now, alongside these high-status local men and foreign women, the researchers found people who, going by the absence of grave goods, were local and low in status. How their status could be defined – staff, servant, slave, serf - will have to remain a mystery. But they weren’t the poor relatives. They were not local.

“We never thought something as complex as this this could exist at the time,” Stockhammer says – meaning at the level of the individual household. The thinking had been that social structures were much simpler. It turns out, though, that “life was much more complex in the Early Bronze Age in central Europe than we thought.”

To be clear, nobody thought the peoples of the Early Bronze Age were democratic, flower-sniffing egalitarian peaceniks. From the continental perspective (as opposed to the local one), one finds an increase in the number of “princely graves” in the Early Bronze Age. Stories of kings and queens and their offspring go back to the dawn of writing; some fairy tales based on social stratification and strife seem to go back as much as 6,000 years, predating recorded history itself.

The assumption had been that Bronze Age Germany had large numbers of peasants and a small group of elites. The unexpected element, as said, is the social stratification not between households, but within them.

Copper disc, female burial (original & reconstruction.)
Copper disc, female burial (original & reconstruction.)Credit: K. Massy

The custom of traveling afar to marry is not a shock in the sense that continentally speaking, one finds an exogamous marriage network in prehistoric Europe. For whatever reason, cognizant or not of the dangers incest poses, the ancients evidently strove to avoid it.

Some of the brides in the Lech Valley originated in a group known as the Unitice culture, and must have originated least 350 kilometers away – possibly in what is today the Czech Republic, Poland or Slovakia, the researchers assess. It is true that the horse had been tamed by the time of these prehistoric movements: that happened far  to the east of this valley, around 5,500 years ago. But we don’t know how these women were transported, if they walked or something else.

In any case, this new study changes our perception of human social complexity in prehistoric times. So did the discovery of a war site over 13,000 years old in Sudan. The thinking had been that hunter-gatherers probably didn’t go to war because their groups were small, a few dozen at most, and if one group had a beef with another group, it could peacefully move on.  Apparently, they did not necessarily do so.