Determining Labor Division in the Dead

Division of labor is a major part of understanding gender and class roles in historic populations. Without text, archaeologists depend on material and human remains for the answers. The physical stress (or lack thereof) from daily activities can leave markers on the bones. Enthesopathic lesions are marks on the bone where ligaments and tendons are attached. When repeated activity stresses the ligaments, it causes the bone to become more prominent. Just like building muscles through repetition and stress, bone also becomes bigger in the same activities in order to compensate for the muscles. The location of these enlarged enthesopathies can be used to determine which muscles were being stressed, from which activities can be deduced. Activity can also be determined by patterns of osteoarthritis, flattening of the long bones, and the presence of fractures.

If there are clear boundaries between muscle use, the pattern of muscles used and other indicators of activity, archaeologists can interpret these as being differences in activity patterns. If they are divided by sex they can be interpreted as being a gender division of labor, and if divided by inclusion with prestigious artifacts or location it may be related to class divisions. Understanding the division of labor can be important in understanding the domestic lifestyle and socioeconomic conditions of a population. Reconstructing behavioral patterns to determine labor divisions is difficult, but careful attention to the remains as well as the larger archaeological context can be potentially revealing.

Havelkova et al 2011 examined two early Medieval populations from Mikulcice, Czech Republic, one from a castle cemetery and two from neighboring rural cemeteries. They argue that based on the difference in burial location, there is the potential for differences in activity patterns as indicated by stress markers on the bones. From the castle cemetery they were able to examine 117 individuals, and the two rural cemeteries contained 80 individuals. All individuals were adults, with an even spread between young, middle and old, and there was a fairly even division between males and females. The researchers examined nine sites of fibrocartilaginous entheses. Each of these sites was chosen because they were the least likely to be caused by non-activity based stress or pathology. Each enthesopathy was given a rating from 0 to 2 based on the extent of the bone growth and taphonomy. Using these statistics they were able to determine divisions of labor.

In their analysis, they looked at the difference in enthesopathies for sex, age and class (determined by the burial location at either the castle or rural cemeteries). In older individuals there is a tendency towards larger enthesopathies, due to both degeneration and increased time for the accretion of stress. When comparison was made of males and females pooled together, there was no strong correlation, but divided older females from the castle and older males from the rural locations had the highest percent of enthesopatheal stress markers. Looking at location and sex, it was found that in the rural population there was a different in sexual dimorphism, with males larger, and in the castle there was no statistically significant difference. By comparing the patterns of entheses in the two populations, they found that it was more likely the stress markers in the rural population were from subsistence activities, whereas the castle population had markers indicative of domestic chores in the females and for males only horseback riding. Females in both populations appear to be engaging in similar activities, with the biggest difference appearing in the males.

Studies like this are important for gaining a better understanding of the daily stress that individuals felt, as well as understanding the broader socioeconomic and sexual divisons of labor that were occurring in a region. As the researchers point out, it can be problematic to used markers of stress on the skeleton to identify activities, as they are simply indicators of muscle action rather than specific actions. Also, some individuals are more prone to bony change than others, and diseases can alter to the propensity of an individual’s bone to proliferate. Studies like this need to be very careful in relying solely on the skeletal remains for evidence of division of labor. Looking at the archaeological record as a whole can aid in these interpretations, as well as using ethnographic or historic information.

Works Cited

Larsen 1999. Bioarchaeology: interpreting behavior from the human skeleton. Cambridge University Press.
P. HAVELKOVA, S. VILLOTTE, P. VELEMINSKY, L. POLACEK AND M. DOBISIKOVA (2011). Enthesopathies and Activity Patterns in the Early Medieval Great Moravian Population: Evidence of Division of Labor International Journal of Osteoarchaeology, 21, 487-504


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