Archaeology of Menstruation

Archaeology Division’s 2018 Student Membership Award winner seeks to raise awareness about the need for more work on menstruation in the archaeological record.

I became interested in studying the archaeology of menstruation at the Egyptian site of Deir el-Medina. I was the last person in my friend group to get her period. I almost believed it wasn’t real, that everyone was lying to me about blood being expelled from the vagina every month. My friends congratulated, me saying “You’re finally a woman!” It felt as though I had joined a secret sect of society. My friends and I would use our membership in this community to repel intruders, so we could discuss our secrets away from their ears. We were manipulating the societal norms that vilify and secret menstruation away from the public for our own gain.

The photograph displays five women part of the author's family. One is carrying a female child in her arms.
The women of my family, circa 2000. Anne Sherfield

A couple years into my cycle, I realized that I had no idea what women did to mitigate their periods prior to the invention of pads and ibuprofen. In school we were taught the biology of menstruation but not its history. I searched the internet and local libraries for books on the history of menstruation and found books like Flow: The Cultural Story of Menstruation. In these books, menstruation’s cultural history seemed to begin with the invention of female hysteria in the sixteenth century, but I knew that women were alive and bleeding before this time. I wanted to know how Roman women dealt with their period. Did they free flow like the working-class women of the industrial era or did they stuff cotton up their vagina every month?

These questions still preyed upon my mind when I entered college and had access to information that was previously hidden behind paywalls. I found a wide variety of papers on menstruation from across the world, discussing menstruation in cultures beyond western Europe and America. The majority of these papers did not discuss the nitty-gritty details of how people stanched their blood flow, but focused on cultural behaviors surrounding menstruation, specifically menstrual seclusion. It was inspiring to see how people have used their menstruation like my friends and I did in middle school: to create a space for ourselves wherein we can share stories and secrets. However, these ethnographic and textual accounts still did not provide the time depth I desired.

During my sophomore year or college, I asked a graduate student instructor if she knew of any papers that discussed menstruation in the ancient world. She knew of one: “Menstrual Synchrony and the “Place of Women” in Ancient Egypt (OIM 13512)” by Terry G. Wilfong. In this paper, Wilfong presents a translation and interpretation of ostracon OIM 13512 from the New Kingdom Egyptian site of Deir el-Medina. The ostracon details the movement of eight menstruating women to/from the place of women.  Wilfong’s conclusion that menstrual seclusion occurred at Deir el-Medina has been debated in the years since this article’s publication, but the discourse has remained exclusively within the textual realm. This seems irrational to me since the size of the domestic structures at Deir el-Medina is often the reason for dismissing the possibility of menstrual seclusion at the site. I brought the archaeological evidence into the discussion by analyzing the architecture of the houses at Deir el-Medina as to their suitability for menstrual seclusion. I presented my findings on this investigation that I presented at the AAA Annual Meeting in San José.

I felt removed from the great women of history due to the elimination of menstruation from their stories.
Worldwide, the amount of ethnographic and textual work on menstruation is disproportionately larger than the amount of archaeological work on the subject. While researching for my project at Deir el-Medina, I found only four published studies that attempt to identify menstruation in the archaeological record: Claassen 2011, Faust and Katz 2017, Bengtson 2017, and Crown 1985. I was not surprised by this result, as menstruation is still taboo in the western world, but the result also stems from the lack of visibility of menstruation in the archaeological record. Patricia Galloway’s “Where have all the menstrual huts gone?” rightfully points out that this is unsubstantiated assumption, one not supported by the ethnographic and textual descriptions of these practices. My investigation into menstruation at Deir el-Medina is a step forward in the process of understanding how we can question the archaeological record to learn more about menstruation and its surrounding behaviors.

Archaeologically, understanding cultural behaviors surrounding menstruation is important because it can provide glimpses into gender relations and gender roles that allow us to understand the social structuring of past societies. However, it is equally important that menstruation be studied in order to personify and connect to the people of the past. As a teenager, I felt removed from the great women of history due to the elimination of menstruation from their stories. This removal is discussed often in literary circles, but it also needs to be tackled in archaeology. Menstruation is a biological continuity that has always occurred to half of the human population and there needs to be a cultural history that is representative of this reality.

Anne Sherfield is a spring 2018 graduate from the University of Michigan and a winner of a 2018 Student Membership Award from the Archaeology Division.

Sandra L. López Varela is contributing editor for Archaeology Division.

Cite as: Sherfield, Anne. 2019.“Archaeology of Menstruation.” Anthropology News website, July 17, 2019. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1224

Post a Comment

Want to comment? Please be aware that only comments from current AAA members will be approved. AN is supported by member dues, so discussions on anthropology-news.org are moderated to ensure that current members are commenting. As with all AN content, comments reflect the views of the person who submitted the comment only. The approval of a comment to go live does not signify endorsement by AN or the AAA.

Commenting Disclaimer

Want to comment? Please be aware that only comments from current AAA members will be approve. AN is supported by member dues, so discussions on anthropology-news.org are moderated to ensure that current members are commenting. As with all AN content, comments reflect the views of the person who submitted the comment only. The approval of a comment to go live does not signify endorsement by AN or the AAA.