The Archaeology of Menstruation

People have been shedding their uterine linings for millennia, but what archaeological evidence do we have of periods & menstruation? In this post, you will find the YouTube video exploring the archaeology of menstruation and a full video transcript (with relevant references and links).

YouTube Video

YouTube Video Transcript

Here, you will find the complete transcript of the video in the previous section with hyperlinked references/citations.

Introduction

In a 2004 Guardian article, the Danish-British comedian and author Sandi Toksvig wrote: “Years ago, when I was studying anthropology at university, one of my female professors held up a photograph of an antler bone with 28 markings on it. “This,” she said, “is alleged to be man’s first attempt at a calendar.” We all looked at the bone in admiration. “Tell me,” she continued, “what man needs to know when 28 days have passed? I suspect that this is woman’s first attempt at a calendar.”

Now when this quote started making the rounds again on social media more recently, it got us thinking. People have been shedding their uterine linings for millennia, but what archaeological evidence do we have of periods & menstruation?

Spoiler alert: we don’t have much, but not for reasons you might think.

Hi, I’m Dr. Smiti Nathan, and I’m an archaeologist. In this video, we’re going to explore the archaeology of menstruation and why this area has been hidden for so long. Now let’s get into it. 

Background

The study of menstruation has been underrepresented in archaeology. Why? Well there are two primary reasons.

The first is patriarchy. While not all women and only women menstruate, women are the largest group that have periods and they’re a group that was overlooked in early archaeological research. Think about the idea of “man’s first attempt at a calendar” from earlier. 

The second reason is a bit more complex and expands on the first, and that’s colonialism. We know that people across time and across the world have different traditions and material cultures related to periods; however, many archaeologists have interpreted ethnographic, historical, and archaeological data from a perspective that is strongly influenced by colonial views of menstruation, which often meant narrowing our view of the wide range and rationales of these traditions.

In the last decades, we’ve made a lot of progress in considering gender, identity, and decolonization when we’re analyzing the archaeological record, but when it comes to menstruation, there’s still a significant gap.

So when looking at the archaeological record for evidence of menstruation, let’s focus on 3 areas for this video: products, places, and practices.

Products

Let’s start with period products. Typically, the first thing that comes to mind with period products are items used to capture menstrual fluids. 

Now, it should be noted that in certain past societies, there might not have been a desire for products that capture menstrual fluid. Some scholars stu dying various time periods and regions have suggested that people might have just bled in their clothes.

Anyway, when we first started researching ancient products used to capture menstrual fluid, we were really excited. We found a lot of interesting mentions of diverse materials from across time and places. However, when we dug a bit deeper, we came up a bit short in finding credible primary sources or the interpretation of a source was a bit off. 

For example, numerous websites and articles mention that Ancient Greeks used wool tampons. This seems to come from people thinking that the Greek physician Hippocrates described the practice of wrapping some lint or wool around a piece of wood and that was used as a tampon. However, that’s not really true. 

On her blog, Mistaking Histories, Helen King, a retired classics professor who wrote her dissertation on ancient menstruation, dives into the Greek wool tampon debate. I highly recommend checking out her full post and I’ll offer some of the highlights here. 

First off, there wasn’t an ancient Greek word for tampon. Tampons, as we know it, are a modern invention dating to the 1930s. That’s not to say there couldn’t have been tampon-like products in the past. If fact there are numerous ancient and historical documents from cultures all across the world that detail inserting items into the vagina for various purposes. However, when it comes to ancient Greece, King thinks the word motos might have been the root of the wool tampon confusion.

Motos is mentioned in the Hippocratic treatises, Joints and Instruments of Reduction, in the section telling a physician to roll up lint in a rag or soft thin leather and insert it into a fractured nose. According to one of the most popular ancient Greek dictionaries, translations of motos include tent, tampon, and lint pledget for dressing wounds. 

When it comes to menstruation, motos is mentioned in the Hippocratic text, Diseases of Women, and a different translation of the word in this context calls it a “pessary”, which is a removable treatment that is inserted in the vagina. According to this Hippocratic text, these pessaries were often wrapped in wool before insertion, but they were not used for capturing menstrual fluid during a typical period. 

So King thinks the translation of the word motos might be where the idea and confusion of Greek wool tampons came from. 

From my own experience learning different languages, I know there are ideas and concepts that don’t translate 1:1 and we do our best to make sense of them. However, it’s important to recognize when we might be imposing our modern worldviews and experiences on the past. Revisiting ancient sources and translations of popular ideas surrounding possible ancient period products gets us one step closer to better understanding the archaeology of menstruation, in general. 

Places

And while ancient documents and their translations are immensely helpful, in the Americas, we’ve actually relied on another sort of dataset to help us better interpret the archaeological record when it comes to menstruation.

This leads us to the second thing we look for when trying to identify menstruation in the archaeological record: places.

In the Americas, our understanding and interpretation of spaces related to menstruation heavily come from ethnographic accounts of multiple Indigenous communities [some examples: Driver 1941, Teit 1900, and Ray 1939]. 

Now, it’s important to note two things when it comes to these accounts:

One, ethnographic observations of what current or near-past Indigenous communities are doing aren’t a 1:1 analogy of what happened in the past.

Second,, some of these ethnographic observations, especially early ones, try to impose colonial beliefs about menstruation on Indigenous communities

In recent years, more work has been done to critically interrogate and decolonize our understandings of the past based on these observations, but more on that later.

When it comes to menstruation, there are numerous ethnographic accounts from multiple Indigenous communities on spaces that facilitated the spatial separation of people who were menstruating. 

In the past, archaeologists referred to these places as menstrual huts. However, that’s definitely a misnomer as these spaces and how they’re composed and situated vary across time and across the world.

One of the most famous early archaeological examples of menstrual spaces is at the Newt Kash Shelter in eastern Kentucky. Archaeologists found a cache of nuts, seeds, spoons made of shells, fibers, bedding, and medicinal plants that date to about 4,000 years ago. The archaeologists suggest that this rock shelter may have been a sanctuary and retreat for people who were menstruating or had recently given birth, given the presence of medicinal herbs, soft fibers that were likely used for padding, and shell artifacts, which were associated with fertility.

But what happens when you don’t have any artifacts?

Let’s go to the interior of the Pacific Northwest to the Flying Goose site located on the ancestral lands of the Kalispel Tribe of Indians in northeastern Washington state.

Archaeologists found a burnt structure when they were excavating the site and the nature of this structure was curious. You see, the size, where it was located, and the lack of artifacts didn’t match up to known archaeological architectural types in the region. 

The researchers decided to delve a bit deeper and conduct an array of scientific analyses and they ended up finding some interesting things. Thousands of years ago, this space for this structure was dug out, used in a way that didn’t leave artifacts behind, then intentionally burned at low temperature, and, then buried. At least one spring flood passed at the site before people returned to set another intentional fire with possible symbolic plant offerings. 

Based on the archaeological, scientific, and ethnographic data, the researchers believe that the structure was a menstrual lodge.

The ancestral Kalispel, as well as many other Indigenous communities in North and South America, felt people held great power while menstruating, especially during one’s first cycle. Sometimes, people were only separated into other spaces during their first menstrual cycle, and sometimes the spaces were burned after they were used. 

As Patricia Galloway argued in their seminal article, “Where have all the menstrual huts gone?”,  menstrual structures likely had distinct features that would help us locate them in the archaeological record. 

While Flying Goose didn’t have visible artifacts that could be associated with menstruation like at Newt Kash, researchers did leverage various datasets and dove a bit deeper to help reveal this possible menstrual lodge. 

Practices

Now so far we’ve talked about products and places as it relates to menstruation. So that brings us to the 3rd area that we could examine in the archaeological record: practices.

Specific practices surrounding menstruation often reflect certain underlying beliefs. 

The same practice, or a similar practice, could have very different implications depending on the underlying belief surrounding menstruation. For example, let’s take the practice of spatially separating folx who are menstruating. This is a practice that is observed in many communities around the world.

For the Kalispel, people were separated while menstruating due to beliefs surrounding their great power; however, in Nepal, in some Hindu communities, separation occurs because menstruating folx are believed to be unclean.

These chhau sheds, which are used for menstrual separation, are actually illegal in Nepal. Why? Well, because the conditions of these structures have resulted in increased susceptibility to freezing temperatures, snakes bites, physical assault, and, even death. 

However, chhau sheds are only one component of chhaupadi, which are specific practices and beliefs surrounding menstruation and childbirth in Nepal, with uncleanliness as a common theme.

So while chhau sheds and menstrual lodges both facilitate spatial separation, they each come from very different underlying beliefs which have different implications for menstruating folx.

Stigmas

Now negative underlying beliefs surrounding menstruation has been present in certain societies across time and around the world.

In the Middle Ages in Europe, medicine was based in humoural theory, which hypothesized that ailments were caused by an imbalance of bodily fluids. Based on this idea, physicians thought that people who menstruated had an excess of blood, which meant that anyone with a uterus was basically diseased

These beliefs, not only influenced people in Europe, but people who would go on to colonize many other parts of the world.

For example, In the Americas, certain ethnographic explanations of indigenous menstrual practices are rooted in these colonial sentiments towards menstuation. As indigenous scholar Cutcha Risling Baldy puts it, “The Western menstrual taboo not only influences theories of Indigenous menstrual customs but also relies on settler colonial rhetoric to help support a continuing politics of taboo.

Unfortunately, stigmas have resulted in practices that socially, mentally, and physically mistreat those who menstruate – both in the past and present.

Scholarly Interest

Stigmas also contribute to why there isn’t as much scholarly work done on menstruation.

Biological anthropologist Kate Clancy mentioned “the disgust she encountered when she told people she was writing a book about periods.” 

Such stigmas have likely influenced the lack of scholarly interest in the subject, as well as obscured our interpretation of the archaeological record. 

For example, the ancient text, Satire of the Trades, which dates to around 1950 – 1900 BCE, remarks that a washerman’s duties are undesirable and lists one of the tasks as cleaning the cloth of a person who menstruated. Some scholars thought this indicated a taboo surrounding menstruation; however, other scholars didn’t think that was the case.

You see, the Satire of Trades describes a father trying to convince his son to be a scribe by making other more manual professions out to be undesirable. While the reference to a menstrual cloth is certainly not positive, it’s not indicative of a strong taboo towards menstruating folks.

Instead, it more likely indicates biases surrounding gender and laundry tasks, as well as the possible dislike for menstrual blood. 

As Terry Wilfong puts it, “This tendency to see a formal menstrual taboo reflected in ambiguous evidence is not exclusive to Egypt but is frequently found in studies of pre-modern cultures.”

So when it comes to uncovering the archaeology of menstruation, we need to strongly interrogate our own beliefs and stigmas regarding menstruation as we interpret past practices.

Outro

Many people have experienced menstruation across time and across the world. It’s an important part of our human history and many people’s present reality. While this subject has been understudied, and therefore hidden, archaeologically, the good news is that there has been more work done on the subject in recent years. Some of this work isn’t even about finding new artifacts or sites, it’s about relooking at what we’ve already found. I’ll have links to all the studies we’ve mentioned as well as some other studies that we didn’t have time to mention in the blog post in the description.

Now, we mentioned a lot of methods that archeologists can use to understand the past.

So if you’re interested in learning a bit more about some other methods, check out this playlist here. That’s all for this video and we’ll catch you in the next one. Bye.

Additional Reading + Resources

Here is a list of additional scholarly archaeological (and archaeology-adjacent) work and studies that consider menstruation that we think are important:

Here is a list of blog posts and other digital content from scholars discussing menstruation and archaeology:

Credits

Anya Gruber: Researcher, Scriptwriter

Noor Hanania: Lead Video Editor

Smiti Nathan: Director, Co-Producer, Support Video Editor, Scriptwriter

Brooke Norton: Researcher

Special thanks to Sneh P. Patel for checking a previous version of this video’s script and offering invaluable feedback.Also, thank you to @gabchomp  &  @Katharine_Chen  for their thumbnail help.


If you enjoyed this post, check out my channel and other videos.

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Smiti Nathan

I’m an archaeologist that travels around the world for both work and pleasure. I have a penchant for exploring ancient and modern places and the people, plants, and foods entangled in them. I write about archaeology, travel, and productivity.

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