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Abduction of Women in History

Archaeologists use modern scientific methods to study ancient crimes

Feb 15, 2019

In 2003, construction workers in the Hungarian village of Szólád, in the hilly southwest of the country, stumbled across a burial ground. Not long after a man’s remains were unearthed, researchers began excavating the rest of the area.

The Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus: In a painting created around 1618, Peter Paul Rubens interpreted an ancient myth that was passed down in various versions.

The Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus: In a painting created around 1618, Peter Paul Rubens interpreted an ancient myth that was passed down in various versions.
Image Credit: bpk/Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen

It soon became clear that the area was the final resting place for Lombards from the 6th century AD. Men, women, and children all lay in similar coffins made of boards and hollowed-out logs. But one grave was different: The person interred there was a woman, one who was buried with relatively poor grave goods and was likely malnourished during her life. Was she perhaps a kidnapping victim?

Christin Keller and Katja Winger wondered if that might be the case. The two archaeologists, both postdocs, work as research associates at the Department of History and Cultural Studies at Freie Universität Berlin. The phenomenon of abduction of women is known from many written sources. Reports from Egypt often depict women as part of the spoils of war. The Rape of the Sabine Women is an episode from early Roman mythology. Ancient historians Titus Livius and Plutarch write of the Galatian princess Chiomara, the wife of a Celtic chieftain in Asia Minor, who was taken prisoner by the Romans and raped during her captivity. Once freed, she had her tormentor beheaded.

But how can an excavated skeleton be identified as a “foreign woman,” as they are commonly known among archaeologists? When studying prehistoric cases, the researchers have to make do without any written sources. Cases of abduction of women are also very difficult to prove in the archaeological record. Still, there are a number of clues that can point to a kidnapping: Might the woman be placed at a distance from the other graves, or in a different position? Do her jewelry, clothing, or other grave goods indicate foreign cultural influences? Do the bones show traces of violence that could have to do with abduction?

Methods drawn from the physical sciences, such as isotope analysis of the bones, are helpful to the researchers. Analyzing tooth enamel can show the general area where a person lived in childhood and adolescence, when the teeth were forming. The same method can be used to study the bones afterward, since they are renewed about every seven years. If different isotopes are found in the bones than in the teeth, and the ones in the bones are also characteristic of a different part of the world, it is possible to show that the woman must have relocated in adulthood. She might have moved voluntarily, of course, but strong suspicion arises if, in addition to the isotope evidence, further incongruities are found in the grave or with regard to the skeleton.

In the case in Hungary, researchers performed an isotope analysis on the woman’s exhumed remains. It turned out that she, like others of the people buried there, was not from the area. Her genetic lineage was from southern Europe, but her remains lay buried among those of people from the northern group. There are many indications that the woman moved from one place to another, but it is not possible to show conclusively whether she did so voluntarily. “This example shows that in most cases, prehistoric archaeology can only make a circumstantial case for abduction of women, which is why bringing this topic to light and looking at other times and places where this practice is considered to be well attested was so important to us,” Winger explains.

Often Kidnapped for Marriage

There were many different reasons to abduct women. In many cases, women were kidnapped for marriage because people were supposed to marry outside their own social group. During wars and raids, too, women were a frequent target for abduction. Plundering soldiers viewed them as prizes and kidnapped them as slaves. “Other motivations include sexual desires, envy, and forced establishment of family ties between enemies,” Keller adds.

But sometimes, it is not a finding of female remains that indicates this kind of abduction, but rather the absence of female skeletons. That was the case with one massacre that was found, as Keller explains, “If a Stone Age settlement was burned down, for example, and a mass grave there contains only male skeletons, and no skeletons of women or children, there is good reason to suspect that the others were kidnapped.” At another site, a woman’s skeleton was unearthed with a leg shackle attached, attesting to her status as a slave.

Although there are many written sources that speak of abductions of women, the phenomenon is still often overlooked within the field of archaeology. To help rectify that, Winger and Keller recently held a conference on the topic at Freie Universität Berlin to prompt interdisciplinary discussion of this practice. For archaeologists of both sexes to be able to interpret their excavation findings correctly, the possibility that women might have reached the site involuntarily must be considered in the first place. In the past, when most archaeologists were male, female graves were occasionally misinterpreted. The remains of a richly bejeweled, probably powerful woman were once summarily interpreted as the bones of a very androgynous man, Keller says, shaking her head.

The subject is also highly topical today. Violence and sexual assault against women traces a sad arc from prehistory to the present day. The romanticized view of abduction of women should also not be allowed to gloss over the brutal reality of human trafficking, which is still practiced in the 21st century. Through interdisciplinary approaches that combine history and physical science, researchers Winger and Keller hope to clear up a piece of prehistoric history, thereby also lifting the gauzy veil through which these episodes are sometimes viewed.

This text originally appeared in German on December 15, 2019, in the Tagesspiegel newspaper supplement published by Freie Universität.

Further Information

  • Dr. Christin Keller, Institute of Prehistoric Archaeology, Freie Universität Berlin, Tel.: +49 30 838 905 542, Email: Christin.Keller@fu-berlin.de
  • Dr. Katja Winger, Institute of Prehistoric Archaeology, Freie Universität Berlin, Tel.: +49 30 838 454 254, Email: Katja.Winger@fu-berlin.de