Worst Science Article of the Week: Did Women Wield Power in Greece 3,500 Years Ago?

By Andrew Moseman | June 4, 2008 11:06 am

The Mycenean lady, from the Athens Archaeological MuseumAncient Greek societies were, like the vast majority of other societies, patriarchal. Even as Athens moved toward an early version of democratic government around 500 B.C., men ran the show. But according to an article published on Sunday in the British newspaper The Observer, everything we knew about Greek gender relations was wrong.

The Observer article, titled “DNA Explodes Greek Myth About Women,” reports on a Manchester University study of DNA that dates back to the Mycenaean civilization from around the 16th or 17th century B.C., more than a millennium before the classical Athens of Socrates, Pericles, and Plato. What the scientists actually found through DNA analysis was that two skeletons located in a royal grave together were brother and sister, not husband and wife as archaeologists had previously thought.

The researchers’ study and their subsequent news release were tempered in their enthusiasm, saying that the find showed that Greek women from that era may have been able to achieve high social status—if they were born into a powerful family. Previously, they said, they thought women could only ascend to any kind of influence my marrying a wealthy man. The Observer, however, wrote that find elevated the status of Mycenaean women from little better than servants to places where they “often played key roles in running affairs of state.”

That’s overstating things by quite a bit, according to MIT ancient historian William Broadhead. “The presence of a brother and sister in this grave instead of a husband and wife actually changes little,” he told DISCOVER. “I would expect all the women in an imperial court to be buried in more or less similar fashion, regardless of any formal or informal power they might have wielded while alive.”

The Observer quotes Terry Brown, a member of the research team, as saying that “this discovery shows both the man and the woman were of equal status and had equal power.” But even if that was true for these two people, it doesn’t overturn much of anything, Broadhead says. Historians didn’t previously hold that these women were “chattel” or slaves in a man’s world, and it’s a stretch of the evidence to suggest that Ancient Greek women as a whole were power brokers based on such a small finding. “The article plays the classic rhetorical trick of exaggeration at both ends,” says Broadhead.

  • Richard Jefferys

    Unfortunately, since Discover has been owned by Bob Guccione Jr., you have published at least three pieces promoting the fraudulent scientists and journalists who peddle the falsehood that HIV does not cause AIDS (a Kary Mullis promo for Harvey Bialy’s hagiography of Peter Duesberg, a Celia Farber interview and, most recently. a profile of Duesberg that suggests his lies and misrepresentations regarding HIV have some legitimacy).

    Until this situation is remedied, Discover is in no position to be judging the quality of science journalism.

  • Demonspawn

    Wait a second, so it’s a bad article because it questions feminist wisdom? Because it’s not “politically Correct” ?

    Pick up “Sex and Culture” by J D Unwin (1934). He does great research into gender relations throughout history.

    Roman women had the vote.
    Babylonian women were free from “marital rape.”

    Of course, history also shows that both cultures collapsed not long after women got such “equality”.

    And, of course, we are repeating history right now.

  • Stephanie

    sexist opinions from demonspawn, methinks.

    What the ****? Women have had equality in countless positions across history, and the collapse of a culture or civilisation has absolutely nothing to do with women being given equality, you sexist pig. I think its hilarious [in a patheticly sad way] that you scramble to blame something or one on the collapse of an entire people on women being given equality? What about spartan women, what about Egypt? What about the amazon women warriors? Who are you to place men higher up on some hierarchy in your mind.

    Were repeating history how? Are you honestly of the belief that because women have equal rights to men our world is going to collapse? you couldnt honstly be so tenacious and close-minded.

  • Matt

    In modern Science there are no objective truths, what’s true given the facts available today is not necessarily true tomorrow. This article highlights once again the way that our perception of what is ‘true’ constantly changes as we are given more information. Soon we will see a large scale shift in both our collective perception of reality and in our understanding of the cause of our suffering, as the information that we so desperately need to fully understand ourselves is increasingly revealed to us. For more information, see: http://www.laitman.com/2008/06/scientists-have-turned-everything-upside-down-again/

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