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14 August 2011
Bronze Age cemeteries reveal when elderly gained power

New research on people living in the Bronze Age suggests the elderly began to gain power over six centuries of cultural change. These findings rely on skeletal aging of bones and a comparison of objects placed in the graves of individuals of different ages using data from two cemeteries in the Traisen valley of Austria. These cemeteries were the final resting places for Bronze Age farmers that populated the region about 4,000 years ago.
     Jo Appleby, a research fellow in archaeology and anthropology at the University of Cambridge, reported that, as time passed in the small farming hamlets of lower Austria, older men began to be buried with copper axes - a privilege not granted to younger men. "This finding might indicate that in this ancient society the elders were in charge. The work does show that within the past there was change in one small area in quite a limited time period," Appleby said. "We can't assume that the elderly will have good status or bad status in any given cultural context."
     Studying the social status of the elderly is difficult because scientists have a hard time pinning down the actual age of older adult bones. Only 3.5 percent of the 714 individuals buried in the older cemetery were over 60 and only 8.8 percent of the 258 buried in the younger cemetery had reached that age. "There were likely very few people walking around the Bronze Age settlements who would have been old by today's standards," Appleby said, "though many would have had degenerative conditions such as arthritis that marked them as elderly for their own time."
     When Appleby compared the items in the graves of older people with the items in the graves of younger people, she turned up some intriguing patterns. In the earlier period, older women tended not to be buried with certain objects that appeared more frequently in younger people's graves. For example, unlike their younger counterparts, older women didn't get buried wearing necklaces made of dog teeth. Later, in the newer cemetery, this age differentiation vanished. Women wore different items than female children, but the age at which a woman died made no difference in her grave goods.
     For men, age was at first irrelevant to jewelry and burial objects at both cemeteries. But over time, men who outlived their contemporaries seemed to gain a certain status. Unlike younger men, these older men were buried with bronze axes instead of stone ones. "Metals would have still been rare and valuable at that time," Appleby said. "There was this physical association where men who looked old and had certain types of injuries had access to these axes," she said. "We might see that as indicating that these people actually were the leaders."
     In contrast, Appleby said, the skeleton of a man born with a hip defect was buried without any objects, in a small grave, facing the direction usually reserved for the burial of women. That seeming lack of effort might suggest that the disabled had lower social status than the old, she said.

Edited from LiveScience (4 August 2011)

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