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Grave goods aren’t enough to substantiate a skeleton’s sex

What does a princess look like? Could you recognize one without a flowing gown, jeweled crown or Disney trademark stamp? What about a princess from 400 BCE, now reduced to a skeleton in her family tomb? While skeletons can tell us a lot, in some cases even an animal’s sex, those differences aren’t always apparent from the look of someone’s bones alone. When studying humans, identification is often assisted by the artifacts left with a body, like written names or portraits, but those can be misleading. A recent excavation of an Etruscan tomb not only reaffirmed that the clothes don’t make the man, but neither do spears or jewelry.

The tomb in question was undisturbed by outside hands, although natural decay ensured that there were still a number of mysteries to unravel. While some other Etruscan tombs have been found with fresco paintings on the walls, this one not visibly adorned, save the few objects left to aid the deceased on their journeys in the afterlife, like a flask and some a jewelry box. The remains of the two adults were not in great shape, with one apparently suffering damage from a fire, and so those objects were archaeologists first reference point for identifying the bodies— one next to a spear tip was said to be a prince, while the other defaulted to being his wife.

Many ways to scrutinize skeletons

Fortunately, these shorthand assumptions based off of the location of grave goods was not the end of the study, because they were wrong. Well preserved skeletons can sometimes indicate the sex of a person by looking at the proportions of key bones, most notably the pelvis. Thanks to individual variations, this isn’t foolproof. Researchers have been developing other tools to get around times when morphology may not be reliable, including looking at the ratios of iron to copper in the bones and analyzing aDNA if it’s attainable. At this point, no method is a guarantee, but in the case of this Etruscan couple, deeper analysis found that the spear was near a princess, not a prince.

A weapon isn’t that weird

While this arrangement apparently wasn’t expected, it’s not entirely surprising. The Etruscans were noted by their contemporaries in Greece and Rome for their fluid, sexually egalitarian society. Unlike many other cultures along the ancient Mediterranean Sea, Etruscan women participated in government, athletics and more on equal footing with men. The Greek historian Theopompus was agog that women not only had social standing, but could also socialize, drink and fornicate at their leisure, leading to communally raised children with loosely defined lineages. This lack of patriarchy doesn’t necessarily mean that the spear-wielding princess was a warrior, but likely indicated her general standing in society as a person of influence.

Hopefully we’ll be able to find a trace of paint to determine if the spear was pink or blue and really settle the matter.

Source: Oops! Etruscan Warrior Prince Really a Princess by Tia Ghose, Live Science

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