Personal adornment in prehistory
personal adornment in prehistory


I love it when personal adornment, dress and equipment open a window on the world of its wearers. And that’s even more fantastic if those wearers lived in prehistoric times some 4,000 years ago! That window can only be opened when these items of personal presentation are analyzed in a wider context, and that is exactly what the research in Stereotype does.

Stereotype is the result of the PhD research by Karsten Wentink. The research addresses grave goods in prehistory, in particular the Corded Ware and Bell Beaker cultures. Now before you think ‘wait, what, archaeology? Pots and flint? I came here for adornment!’ – the research pivots on the presentation of the self, the careful creating of a persona by choosing a specific type of outfit. In the chapter ‘Presentation and perception’, the author zooms in on this very aspect. Based on the work of Goffman, the chapter walks us through the use of personal appearance as a means to convey intentions and to interact with others. An example in the book is that of the business suit: there’s a reason these all look alike (sorry, fashion designers), as wearing them sets the scene for a specific social interaction: doing business. Wearing a suit creates a visual framework that elicits a particular type of social comportment, so the dress code informs you about the social code that is expected in this setting. (there’s a reason you’re not expected to show up in flip-flops and your favourite Hawaii-print for a business meeting!) This dress code is understood beyond your own social group: when you’re doing business internationally, the suit will be worn by all participants. Even if you do not speak each other’s language, you share common ground in the way you dress, which reconfirms you’re all there for the same reason and will adhere to the social rules associated with that reason: your personal appearance conforms to a larger social front. I found this chapter to be particularly interesting, as it illustrates how personal appearance, dress and adornment form part of the weave of social fabric, up to a point that they not only fit in with a certain social event, but can even be used to set the scene and to steer the direction of social interaction.

 Now, on to the objects themselves. The author takes this premise of the social power of adornment and appearance, and uses it to reconstruct the world of the people buried well over 4,000 years ago. What outfit did they bring along on their last journey, and what did they want to communicate through it? In short: what was their ‘business suit’ aimed at? In three chapters, the author picks apart all types of objects deposited in graves. Beakers, flint weapons, archery equipment, and ornaments in amber, bronze and gold are all carefully discussed and analyzed. Working from the starting point of personal appearance, this also includes looking at these grave goods from another perspective. Why do archery sets appear in one of two cultures studied, but not in the other? What use is an archery set anyway, seeing as it’s never complete and ready for use? Does the inclusion of flint weapons automatically make the deceased a ‘warrior’? What to think of gold and amber jewellery found in some graves: does this make the owner a ‘prince’ of ‘princess’? When looking at these items not individually per grave, but in the wider scheme of burial practices of these periods, they appear to share a common denominator: the materials used to make them come from distant places. What if this distance were the decisive factor here, instead of asserting individual martiality or wealth?

As in the case of the business suit, the items brought along by the dead conform to a larger social front. This is where that window on a past world opens. The author argues that the personal appearance of the dead reflects a world where travel, exchange and meeting strangers was the norm. The ‘outfit’ of the dead resembled that of a traveler: vessels to offer and share a drink with, practical items like firelights, but also items that came from afar and served as proof of journeys accomplished and long-distance relations maintained. Large-scale migration has been attested through ancient DNA research and a remarkable similarity in some aspects of material culture all over Europe, so as an ‘archaeological fact’ this interconnectivity was already established. Through the personal appearance of the dead on their last journey however, we learn that traveling and being a gracious host or guest mattered to them, that giving and receiving hospitality was held in high value, and that contact with strangers did not scare them, but was sought after and appreciated.

There is much more to this research, obviously: in order to reach his conclusions, the author has also analyzed the orientation of graves, the placement of grave goods within the burial, use-wear analyses to see whether objects had been used in life or were created just for the burial set – all building blocks that help to read the intentions behind the choice of grave goods. I enjoyed this book because it combines personal appearance and adornment with archaeology, and in doing so is a great example of the insights to be gained from studying how a person chooses to present him/herself, whether it is a few decades or several millennia ago!

 Stereotype. The role of grave sets in Corded Ware and Bell Beaker funerary practices, by Karsten Wentink. 296 pp, with colour illustrations, in English.

The book was purchased through Sidestone Press, where it is also available for online reading.