The distinctive burial and skeletal remains of a young Native American woman from prehistoric Pennsylvania intrigued an archaeologist studying in a museum: what she eventually found were four arrowheads in the woman’s chest and fetal bones in her pelvis.
In analyzing a collection of skeletons curated at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, bioarchaeologist Robyn Wakefield-Murphy discovered that the remains were from the Shippenport Site, excavated in southwestern Pennsylvania in the 1950s; the site was part of the Monongahela tradition that dated to roughly 1050 to 1635 AD. During this time, Native settlements were characterized by intensive maize agriculture and were ringed by palisades, or wooden stake walls used for defense. Adults were typically buried within the village in a flexed or almost fetal position, with few grave goods.
One woman, however, was found outside the village, buried under a tree. Her grave contained 30 bone beans in the pelvis region as well as 44 shell beads around her neck. Wakefield-Murphy was particularly surprised by the three projectile points in the woman’s chest cavity, as well as the additional point embedded in her left 12th rib. Finally, the remains of a 24-week-old fetus were found along with the woman’s body. It is likely, Wakefield-Murphy thinks, that the woman’s odd burial was due to her death while pregnant.
“Very few cases of maternal-fetal burials have been cited in the bioarchaeological literature,” Wakefield-Murphy explains in her research poster presented at the American Association of Physical Anthropologists conference. “In prehistory, childbirth related deaths were by no means rare events,” but their rarity in archaeology may be the result of biases in excavation or preservation, or, in some cases, “maternal-fetal deaths were historically given unique mortuary treatment,” resulting in these women not being found in traditional cemeteries.
Wakefield-Murphy is particularly interested in the woman’s death as the result of a violent injury unrelated to her pregnancy, because “this burial represents the only case of sharp force injury for the entire Monongahela sequence” at this site. In the case of the burial of this pregnant woman, the anomalous form of her grave “is likely related to the fact that a violent death of this nature would have been unexpected and outside the predictable range of cause of mortality for a young pregnant woman,” Wakefield-Murphy explains. “The specialized nature of the burial is thus a product of greater societal grief invested in the unexpected loss of not one but two members of the community.”
Other bioarchaeologists are also fascinated by this unique case. Siân Halcrow of the University of Otago tells me that “this woman was into her second trimester, and therefore likely observably physically pregnant at this stage.” More specifically, Halcrow agrees that the anomalous burial reported by Wakefield-Murphy “sheds valuable light onto this society’s response to grief and the loss of this expectant mother.” And Gwen Robbins Schug of Appalachian State University notes that the “placement of the grave suggests a renegotiation of the relationship between the living and this particular death.” Based on a theory that the center of the Monongahela village where other adults were buried represents the ties between the village and the cosmos, “the distance of this burial could suggest a feeling of disorder in this society. This perspective extends Wakefield-Murphy’s argument that the pregnant body is a liminal one” that relates to cultural ideas about fertility.
Wakefield-Murphy notes that this woman’s burial is unusual, but concludes that it raises several avenues for additional work in understanding the social role of pregnancy and pregnant women in the past. “Much like gender itself,” she writes, “pregnancy is a performative process of ‘change and becoming’ through which a new individual is brought into the physical and metaphysical world, a process through which physical bodies are visibly altered, and a process through which the identity of multiple individuals is shifted.” If this ancient society had special structures and taboos around events like birth and menstruation, Wakefield-Murphy says, then “death and burial may be other contexts in which cultural systems and individual agencies relating to fertility are expressed.”