The latest Copper Age discovery of a queer burial in Prague adds to our understanding that multiple genders/sexualities go way back into the deep past. The individual in question was a member of what archeologists refer to as the Corded Ware, or Battle Axe culture, or more accurately archeological horizon, who lived in the third millennium BCE in a wide swath of what is now Europe. In this Copper Age culture men were buried facing west with weapons, including those battle axes, and women facing east with household articles; this male skeleton was buried with head to the east and surrounded by jugs.
Anthropologists have long shown that many indigenous cultures, especially those of the Americas but also of Oceania and Asia, have perceived humans as having more than two genders, some as many as seven. In North America the word berdache was once used, (as in Walter Williams’ groundbreaking work, The Spirit and the Flesh, but the term, which came from French explorers, and can be traced back to ancient Persia, and originally referred to eunuchs, has held a derogatory tone for many Native Americans. The preferred word used for the last twenty years or so is Two Spirits. Two Spirit people march in many LGBT pride parades and have been marshals for the San Francisco parade (Randy Burns, Paiute) and also in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis/St. Paul.. Mahu is a similar identity for gay and transgendered Hawaiians (and similar terms exist in other Polynesian languages). An intriguing bit of United States history is that in 1886, an American president, Grover Cleveland, met and conversed with a two-spirit person named We’wha, who was a Zuni (a Pueblo tribe) who lived from 1849-96. We’wha spent some time in Washington D.C. with Matilda Coxe Steven, the first American woman anthropologist, but was mistaken there for a biological woman and called a Zuni princess by the press. Will Roscoe, a historian of sexuality and gender, wrote a fascinating biography of We’Wha, The Zuni Man-Woman.
Archeologists and prehistorians have found much to suggest that similar roles obtained in European prehistory (or early historical societies). Timothy Taylor’s The Prehistory of Sex provides many intriguing and surprising examples, including that of the golden phallus of Varna—a glans penis sheath of gold sheet with perforations apparently to be sewn onto a sheath of animal membrane. It was found in the excavations of the Varna Necropolis in Bulgaria, dating to the Neolithic (from 4700 to 4200 BCE). Taylor theorizes it may have been worn in a rite, where it could have been quite dramatic, and while usually thought to have been ritual wear of a priest could have been operated by a female, as the skeleton of Grave 43 was labeled male, but this is actually uncertain.. The phallus is small and is designed so liquid could shoot from a hole in its tip. Taylor also makes a case for transgendered Anglo-Saxon priests, riding mares in dresses. As is known from Tacitus some of the Germanic tribes had gender variant priests like those of the Naharvali. The Enarees, third gender persons of the Scythian tribes (pastoralist Iranian speaking peoples of the Iron Age who entered the historical record at an early date because they traded with the Greeks) were diviners and prophets according to Herodotus. Ovid, whom Augustus exiled to the trading port of Tomis on the Black Sea shores of Scythia (the site today is in Romania) in the 1st century of the common era, wrote about a witch’s knowledge of distilling the extract of a mare in heat. The Scythians had long been known as mare milkers, and it seems probable that they also used mare’s urine, as Taylor argues. Pregnant mare’s urine contains complex conjugated estriols. Today these are used in Premarin*, a ‘feminizing’ hormone therapy prescribed for male-to-female transsexuals, as well as for women who have had hysterectomies. Taylor brings up the ‘Sarmatian priestess’ burial from the Sokolova barrow on the southern Bug River, which dates from the time of Ovid’s exile, as an example of a person who might have used mare’s urine as a gender technology. S/he was identified as female, but facial soft tissue reconstruction shows a masculine face. Many interesting burial goods include a cowry shell, a phallus, and a bronze mirror with handle depicting a bearded man sitting in lotus posture, wearing a long dress.
The media has had a field day with the Prague story, calling the find that of a ‘gay caveman’. Caveman is a cartoonish descriptor to start with, but they could get away with it if it were a Paleolithic find, when some humans did shelter regularly in caves, or at least in their entrances. But the find is from somewhere between 2800 and 2500 BCE, and from a small farming community. ‘Gay’ is a simplistic adjective here too with all its modern western psychological baggage, to say nothing of jumping to conclusions. However, archaeologist Bettina Arnold, regarding those she calls ‘gender transformers” states, “This is not an uncommon phenomenon in prehistoric cemetery populations…It’s always there, but in small percentages” (ABC News).
While much remains to be learned about this burial, with some scientists questioning its sexing (which is a huge problem with skeletons) this unusual burial, which if it does strictly reverse the Corded Ware culture’s usual gendered graves, could represent a trans person, rather than a gender variant/homosexual male. It reveals again how complex gender/sexuality realities actually were in prehistoric cultures, as well as in historical ones. That is something that this grave whispers, even if we can’t fully decode the language.
* Animal and horse activists have found that the farms dedicated to raising pregnant mares for urine production have very cruel practices, and recommend people find alternatives to Premarin.