Professor Olsen illuminates histories of excluded women

Associate Professor of Greek and Roman Studies and Director of Women’s Studies Barbara Olsen discusses the erasure of real women from the histories of ancient cultures, as shown above. / Photo courtesy of Imaan Lamba

Amid nationwide women’s marches, Associate Professor of Greek and Roman Studies and Director of Women’s Studies Barbara Olsen gave an enlightening talk on the female voice in another era: Bronze Age Greece.

This lecture, titled “Women at the Margins of Greek History: Documents and Archives from Bronze Age Greece,” focused on women and gender history in Ancient Greece, using tablets and artwork as well as myths of the time as sources of information.

Professor Olsen is an Aegean prehistorian who specializes in Greek archaeology and history. Her work predominantly focuses on women and gendered institutions in Greek history and she teaches classes in Greek History, Archaeology and Women in Antiquity, among other subjects.

Her other research interests include Greek historical memory and children in early Greek history.

Professor Olsen is the author of Women in Mycenaean Greece: The Linear B Tablets from Pylos and Knossos published by Routledge in 2014 and is the Editor of Routledge’s forthcoming 4-volume anthology series The Greek World: Critical Concepts in Classical Studies.

When asked about her interest in studying women in ancient Greece, Professor Olsen said she has been working on this area of research throughout her career.

She went on to explain, “I became interested in the evidence for real (rather than mythological) women in the ancient world when I was a senior at Cornell, and since then I’ve been committed to recovering archaeological, historical and literary evidence that would help re-center Greek women as central and important players in the ancient world. In graduate school, I became aware of administrative records written in an early version of Greek from approximately 1200 BCE and realized that no one had yet attempted to use them to think about the real-life women behind the stories of Greek mythology.”

This inspired her to combine two subjects that she is passionate about. She described this realization as an ideal opportunity to fuse her passion for Greek archaeology with her commitment to women’s studies.

Using the limited amounts of documentation for women that existed 800 years ago, Professor Olsen’s goal is to find the real women behind the mythological stories of the time. Although female characters are fleshed out and developed in mythology, the real women of the time are barely documented and difficult to learn about. To exemplify this, at the beginning of the lecture she asked, “Who is the most famous woman in Ancient Greece?”

The audience’s responses showed that mythological characters such as Helen and Athena are well known, while real women from this time remain obscured by the lack of remaining documentation centered on their lives. Due to this, historians often refer to mythological sources to decipher the mysteries of women’s lived experiences in ancient times.

However, this method of research poses several challenges. In Olsen’s words, “translation of political events into mythological yarn” is a source of good stories but not always of reality. Other challenges include the fact that most archaeological sources of the time discuss men.

City-states such as 5th Century Athens never mentioned the names of women in public, which resulted in the erasure of information about women and their contributions, despite their making up half the city’s population.

This gap is exacerbated by the legal invisibility of women in some city-states of the time, as they were unable to own property.

<p”>The documentation that does exist contains complex terminology which makes it difficult to decipher, and historical reality can easily be confused with myths, especially for the Heroic Age women of the Trojan War period.

Athens, while providing 70-90 percent of sources of documentation concerning women, is perhaps the most unique city-state to gather historical information about women of the time. This is owing to the tradition of Athenian women only being named in public for performing scandalous activities such as adultery.

Under regular circumstances, women were seen only in domestic or familial roles, often identified as ‘wife of’ or ‘daughter of’ their male relatives.

This cultural seclusion of women involved their being allowed to leave their homes without approval on only three occasions, including their own wedding, funerals of family members and some religious festivals. During the most documented period, women are recorded as being wives, matrons and prostitutes, with mention of a few priestesses.

In 5th Century Sparta, women’s names were preserved when they died during childbirth while men’s names were preserved when they died in combat.

Due to the tradition of Spartan men enrolling in the army at a young age, girls received an education and were also trained to compete in athletic competitions.

In addition to this, women owned 40 percent of property in Sparta and were even entitled to criticize men for poor military or athletic performance.

To the surprise of historians, evidence from the Bronze age contains more information about women of lower classes than aristocratic women, which is different from the usual pattern. Lower class women in Pylos worked in palace maintenance jobs or in major industries that were dependent on women for labor and historians have also found evidence for what could be the world’s oldest assembly line.

These women seem to have been treated as slaves, as evidenced by their titles and the palace records of the bare caloric rations that were given out to them. Occupations included spinning, weaving, head band making and flower grinding. Women also assumed the roles of cult leaders, key bearers and priestesses, performing ceremonial functions and sometimes becoming property owners. Key bearers were also entrusted with bronze required for ceremonies and this was the first time we see women being in control of property and commodities such as bronze, which was not the case in Sparta or Athens. The oldest known European dispute can also be traced back to a woman in Pylos.

She also provided examples of women in Knossos who had ownership of property and had greater public access.

With respect to these changes, and when asked what she hopes people will take away from her lecture, Professor Olsen said, “I would hope the audience would take from my talk the idea that attention to time and place matter when we study women’s history and that even in cultures that decentered women from the public sphere, women could find ways to make their voices heard and their contributions known.”

She finished with a comment on the relationship between her research and recent politics: “As a classicist, I think a lot about how understanding the ancient world helps us come to understand our present. I think it’s of critical importance to understand that we have inherited a long tradition of women’s resistance and that we can choose to join that tradition — marginalized people are not ever really without power”.

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