Joanna Brück. ‘Women, Death and Social Change in the British Bronze Age’

This week the article was ‘Women, Death and Social Change in the British Bronze Age’ by Dr. Joanna Brück, published in 2009 in the Norwegian Archaeological Review. Comments on the article by Mark Hall (2010), and a response to the comments by Brück, were also considered by the group.

The article was proposed by, and the following written by, Kate Leonard.

The Author

Dr. Joanna Brück is a Senior Lecturer at the UCD School of Archaeology, where she has been employed since 1999. She is active in Bronze Age and Material Culture studies as well as exercising an interest in theoretical archaeology. Among other activities Dr. Brück is a member of the Executive Council of the Prehistoric Society and a co-founder of the Bronze Age Forum. For more information please visit the UCD School of Archaeology web page:

Summary of Article


“Both cremation and inhumation were employed in the British Early Bronze Age, and the significance of the distinction between these practices has long been a matter of debate. Many authors have argued that the choice of mortuary treatment reflects differences in status. Inhumation burials often occupied central positions in Early Bronze Age barrows, while cremations were placed in satellite locations. In turn, the apparent gender differences between these mortuary rites – men tended to be inhumed while women were frequently cremated – is seen as indicating that women were of lower status than men. This paper will challenge this model, arguing that cremation was a strategy designed to facilitate the retention and circulation of ancestral relics by fragmenting the human body. As such, the differential treatment of men and women wits not the result of status distinctions, but reflects their different positions and roles within Early Bronze Age kinship Structures. In particular, the circulation of the cremated remains of the female dead played an important role in facilitating social, material and biological reproduction through the maintenance of inter-group relationships. The practice of cremation resulted in the construction of Particular concepts of the self – concepts that under-pinned the transformations in the technological practices and social landscapes that took place at the beginning of the Middle Bronze Age. As such, women’s roles in these changes must be considered afresh.” (p.1)


Brück sets out the development of the study of Bronze Age mortuary treatment, focusing on the accepted assumption that males were inhumed in central positions in barrows while females were cremated and placed in ‘satellite’ or ‘secondary’ positions around the male inhumation. This is linked to a predominant conception of the Early Bronze Age where males are conceived as active agents  while females are “characterised as passive” (p.2). This is suggested to be linked to a modern Western understanding of gender division as it is by the patterning suggested by the archaeological record.

Inhumation and Cremation in Early Bronze Age Britain

Following a scientific approach to the data, Brück analyses a random sample of 544 individual British Early Bronze Age burials from 62 sites published after 1960, all of which included a specialist osteoarchaeological report to ensure that the sexing of the bones was reasonably secure. Even so, there were only 141 individuals which could be accurately sexed. The available data is considered in terms of number of inhumations vs. cremations regardless of sex, by examining the proportion of cremated males vs. cremated females (and the same with inhumations), and by considering these data chronologically. From her analysis, Brück concluded that although the data points to more males being inhumed and females cremated, this is indicative of a general trend rather than a strict gender division, due to the perceived overall shift to cremation over the course of the Bronze Age.

Cremation and Social Status

Brück examines the possibility that cremation does not immediately imply low status. She suggests that the labour intensive and dramatic nature of cremation could as easily denote high status on individuals. Furthermore, she states that “ it has often been argued that mortuary rites cannot be considered a simple reflection of the social order” (p.8). In other words, various elements contribute to the manner in which an individual is treated at death, especially those individuals who perform the cremation or inhumation. No strong conclusions are made, instead Brück points to the need for further study in this direction particularly in terms of a review of incorrect sexing of Bronze Age burials that may have been made pre-1960.

Cremation and Fragmentation

The Bronze Age phenomenon of ‘token’ cremation deposits is discussed. These are those cremations which do not contain the ‘complete’ individual, in some cases this is perhaps due to taphonomic processes but in others this was likely a cultural choice. The data analysed for this article also suggested token deposition, and although it is noted that sexual dimorphism is a contributing factor the large difference in weight between the male and female cremations is described as “dramatic” (p.10). Brück suggests that this is due to fragmentation of the body: the dispersal and curation of bone fragments by other members of the deceased community. The section is concluded by stressing the further work necessary in this area of study.

The Body and the Self

The Bronze Age trend away from group mortuary treatment towards individual inhumation or cremation deposits is examined. Brück points out that there is a tendency for scholars of this subject to impose modern Western post-Enlightenment conceptions of what exactly an individual, or status, is onto the archaeological evidence. Alternatively, the concept of a ‘dividual’ self is proposed. This is a perception of the self as an amalgamation of various social elements which are developed and augmented over the course of a lifetime. Brück states “that the fragmentation and circulation of human bone indicates the development of a ‘dividual’ concept of the self rests not only on the treatment of the human body itself, but also on aspects of the production, circulation and deposition of artefacts both in and outside the mortuary context.” (p.13)

Gender and Personhood

If the data is correct in the fact that females were more frequently cremated than males, and that when cremated their remains were more extensively dispersed, what does this imply? Brück suggests that this may indicate that females were considered to be more ‘dividual’ than males in the Bronze Age, possibly reflecting patterns of marriage and an associated non-fixed or fluid concept of identity. This is linked to the social position of females who can act as ‘mediators’ between their community of birth and the community they move to upon marriage. She qualifies these points my stressing that the idea of a fluid female identity does not necessarily suggest that male identities were any more individualistic or cemented: “The fact that women’s bodies were fragmented and dispersed more frequently and to a greater degree than those of men simply indicates that the position of men and women in the kinship structures of the Early Bronze Age was, in general, different.” (p.15)

Production, Reproduction and Exchange

This section comments on the author’s previous work which has investigated other instances of fragmentation in the Bronze Age, as well as the hypothesis that these fragmentations are connected to broader conceptions of life, death and rebirth not only of humans but also of artefacts such as pots or bronzes. This idea is in turn associated with the development of networks of interaction during this period, especially in terms of the movement of people and goods (again related to marriage exchange and alliance). It is in this section that the main crux of the argument is clearly stated. Mainly that human bone was fragmented and dispersed during the British Early Bronze Age in a reflection of the “cyclical flow of life” (p.16) and an acknowledgement and reinforcement of the connections between groups which the cremated individual represented.

Women and Social Change

Brück places the trend towards increased frequency of cremation in its broader Bronze Age social context, in terms of the development of metalworking technology, landscape organisation and subsistence systems. Again these elements of the social structure are linked to a cyclical conception of life and death, for people and goods. These developments are seen as springing from the new Bronze Age perception of personhood (as opposed to the technological advances facilitating the development of individual identities) with female members of the community “at the forefront of these developments” (p.18).


‘Comments on Joanna Brück: (Norwegian Archaeological Review 42(1) 2009)’ by Mark Hall

Hall’s main criticism is that while Brück’s article “looks at issue’s of personhood and sex, she avoids discussing whether these patterns are due to chance or if they have any statistical significance” (p.77).

To assess the validity of the patterns noted in the article, Hall uses the WinBUGS software to apply Bayesian statistical analysis. He also compares the Bronze Age sex ratios noted by Brück to modern human populations. The conclusions are that that the ratio of males to females noted from the Bronze Age data presented by Brück is reflective of modern human birth ratios and that “The burial mode is conditionally independent of the sex of the deceased.” (p.82)


Reply to ‘Comment by Mark Hall: Statistics or Socio-Politics: What Gives archaeology Its Value?’ by Joanna Brück

In this response Brück stresses that the main aim of her article was not to statistically analyse and present data but to comment on the assumptions made by archaeologists regarding gender status and identity in prehistory. The purpose of the article is not to ‘prove’ that one interpretation is better or more accurate than another. She clearly states:

“Very often, regardless of what patterning is identified in the data, this is interpreted as indicating the political, social and economic pre-eminence of men. What I wanted to explore, then, was whether it was possible to interpret the same data in a different way. In other words, my principal intention was to reveal and to challenge preconceptions regarding gender roles in the Bronze Age.”

She then refers directly to the comments made by Hall and addresses his interpretation of the statistics in the context of the noted trend towards increased overall frequency of cremation over inhumation from the Early to Middle Bronze Age. Brück also again raises the issue of the small size of the available data set which must cast doubt on the significance of any noted patterning (perhaps implying both Hall’s and her own). However, it is stressed that it is the investigation of the patterning which is important, both for the archaeological investigation and for a better understanding of the present.

Opinions of our group:

I proposed this paper as my own research focuses on ritual activity in the Irish Late Bronze Age, and I am interested in the reinterpretation of traditional assumptions made about possible socio-political motivations behind many ‘non-functional’ prehistoric activities. It also seemed fitting to finish this reading group ‘season’ with an article written by a senior academic working in an Irish university who applies a structured, even processual, approach to the argument but is still highly engaged in theoretical discourse.

Present at the Reading Group this week were myself (Kate Leonard), Eve Campbell, Karina Hensel, and Ros Ó Maoldúin. Although everyone enjoyed the article (in particular comments were made that its strong structure and clear language made the argument easy to grasp), the initial comments focused on the small size of the data set and whether this limited the strength of the argument. Another initial criticism was that while group members were positive about Brück’s response to Hall, they would have preferred to have had these points made in the body of the main article.

The suggestion that the central inhumations were of higher status than the secondary or ‘satellite’ cremation burials incited a strong response. Some group members asserted that if something is central then it does indicate social importance, and it was countered that Brück did not necessarily contradict that suggestion. Also, the possibility that the central position in the barrows indicated status in life as well as in death was discussed. The exact nature of what was meant by the term ‘status’ was considered to be unclear, and it was stressed that status shouldn’t be presented as part of a larger social/cultural ‘checklist’ alongside gender, age and geographic location.

The next main issue that arose was Hall’s off-hand comment concerning female infanticide (p.81). This provoked a strong response from the group, who all agreed that this is a highly loaded term/concept which was completely out of place in this context. Furthermore, any number of other examples could have been used to illustrate possible explanations for “a skewed sex ratio in the burial record” (p.81). It was also suggested that while Hall seemed to have understood the available data to represent a portion of the whole, in fact there is no evidence to support this contention (we in fact do not know how the majority of Bronze Age individuals were treated upon death, perhaps it follows that both the inhumations and cremations at barrow locations indicate a high status).

Evidence for fragmentation and exchange, in relation to movement of women during the Bronze Age was seen to assign a measure of agency to female members of the communities in question. Brück situates women in the position of mediators or ‘brokers’ between their communities of birth and those of their marriage, which was considered to be a plausible interpretation by the group. It was also noted that it is rare for an author to be so explicit in giving females a clear social role in the past, usually there is an implicit understanding that women had agency but this is still in contrast to the distinct roles as ‘warrior’, ‘smith’ or ‘chief’ often assigned to Bronze Age males.

In contrast, some group members were not sold on Brück’s conception of personhood. It was though that although she is touching on a theme currently fashionable in archaeology there was not enough substance to the argument. However, it was maintained that she did attempt to historicise the Bronze Age in order to illustrate the length of time over which changes in the concept of personhood and identity were taking place. This incited a discussion over how archaeologists can avoid being teleological but still investigate general trends. No clear conclusions were found.

It was pointed out that the author did not necessarily get to the root of the difference between inhumation and cremation. In response it was countered that the purpose of the article was really to discuss and highlight the gender bias. This led to a discussion on whether or not the sample adequately supported the model. It was suggested that often a processual approach necessitates a data set on which to construct the argument.

Overall, the article was well received by the group. It was even suggested that Brück was overly modest and cautious in how far she pushed her interpretation. In particular, the highlighting of important/interesting avenues of further research was seen as valuable and thought provoking, especially in conjunction with the use of a model which could quite easily be applied to future research. However, some arguments were left open ended and we were all cautious about Brück’s comments in her Reply about using archaeology to reflect on modern society, although she does qualify this by stating:

“…employing the archaeological record as a means of challenging social roles, values and expectations in the present is as valid a purpose for our discipline as attempting to accurately reconstruct a ‘genuine’ past.” (p.85)


Bruck, J. (2009) ‘Women, Death and Social Change in the British Bronze Age’, Norwegian Archaeological Review, 42(1), 1-23.

Hall, M. and Brück, J. (2010) ‘Women, Death and Social Change in the British Bronze Age, Comments by Mark Hall on Joanna Brück: (Norwegian Archaeological Review 42(1) 2009)’, Norwegian Archaeological Review, 43(1), 77 – 85.

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3 Responses to Joanna Brück. ‘Women, Death and Social Change in the British Bronze Age’

  1. Kate Leonard says:

    If anyone is interested in reading the article it can be found on Joanna Brück’s publication page on the UCD archaeology website:

  2. Carl says:

    a very interesting post.

  3. canada goose says:

    Aw, this was a actually terrific post. In theory Id like to write like this also – taking time and genuine effort to make a superior article; but what can I say… I procrastinate a good deal and by no means seem to get something done.

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