The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Archaic Undies

So, it appears that archaeologists working in Austria have uncovered several 600-year old bras.

[This space left for those who are going to crack jokes about either pervert archaeologists or rank 600-year-old laundry]

The objects look like they could have come from the sock and underwear aisle at the local CVS, and aren't exactly consistent with what most of us think that Medeival women would have been wearing.  On the other hand, you can now tell your local SCA maven that your Hanes are historically accurate, thank you very much, and she should stop yammering on about how your underclothes fail to convey the proper historical era.

Now, if you were to compare this find with information from the era concerning other aspects of clothing, you might be able to make some arguments or draw some conclusions about how these undergarments reflect on attitudes regarding the body, bodily functions, and sex.  Depending on what other information is available, that may or may not be a fruitful line of investigation.

That, or it's a reason to crack a joke about archaeologists being late to the panty raid. 

However, what I find interesting is one of the narrative lines moving through the stories on this.  And it's not the content of the narrative line that's interesting, it's the form.

What the hell am I talking about?

Well, several of the articles I have seen on this quote a scholar who states that it had long been thought that the bra developed from the corset, and that the discovery of this corset may indicate that the corset actually originally developed from the bra.

So, what is interesting about this to me is that this pretty closely parallels other lines of discussion or explanation regarding the development of artifacts.

While radiocarbon dating, obsidian hydration, dendrochronology, and other forms of determining the age of a site are extraordinarily useful, they only work when there's materials in the site that are amenable to the method being used.  And so we require the use of time-diagnostic artifacts - artifacts that are routinely found in sites dating to particular periods of history or pre-history, which can therefore tell us the age of a site, at least approximately, even when datable materials are not present.  However, when an artifact is found to change, and then change back to it's previous form, that can throw a bit of a monkey wrench into the works. And so, bras apparently are an artifact type that can join a few specific others in bouncing between two different forms, making their time diagnostic properties somewhat more limited (though, given that they are made of cloth, the odds of these types of garments ever preserving to be good diagnostic artifacts is actually quite small), and while the applicability of this is probably rather limited, it's a good illustration of a basic principle.

The other way in which this is interesting is that it illustrates the challenges of attempting social interpretation based on types of artifacts, rather than common collection types.  Contemporary women's undergarments are usually explained through a combination of practicality and negotiation of personal freedoms and sexuality.  The corset of the Victorian age and early was typically viewed as both a tool and a symbol of woman's limited and subjugated role in society, while the bra was seen as a symbol of women choosing comfort over social pressure/convention, and the development of women's lingerie in general is seen as a sign of women controlling both their clothing and their own sexual behavior (though counter-arguments to the contrary have also been made).

So, to find essentially identical items 500 years earlier than the modern version appears, associated with a time and place with very, very different social norms and mores, it immediately begs the question: are we looking at similar negotiations and attitudes?  Are we looking at different ones that had a similar material manifestation?  Are we, perhaps, reading too much into the material culture of the people we study, and assuming that it tells us more than it does?

And if this is true for bras, is it perhaps also true of other artifacts to which we attribute great importance?  Do we read too much into the use of shell beads?  Are we properly considering the factors that lead to the development of milling implements?

It's essentially a "slow news day wacky story" that, if you stop and think about it, makes you ponder how we examine material culture.

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