A day in the life of a Neolithic woman

The discovery of the remains of a Neolithic settlement on Czech soil in 2001 led to years of painstaking research. Now the results of more than 15 years of study have appeared in a surprising format – a comic book called A day in the life of a Neolithic woman. The book, which is intended primarily for schoolchildren and educators, is the work of archeologist Veronika Mikešová and illustrator Michal Puhač who merged facts and fantasy to bring us a glimpse of life in this part of the world 7,000 years ago. I spoke to the illustrator about what the work entailed and how closely it is linked to archeological findings dating back to the early Stone Age.

'A day in the life of a Neolithic woman', photo: archive of Veronika Mikešová'A day in the life of a Neolithic woman', photo: archive of Veronika Mikešová “The story is based on real archeological findings – the discoveries made in Velim, near Kolín – and we used it as a starting point for the story or narrative.”

So what are some of the discoveries that helped to piece this story together?

“There are a lot of important findings at the site in Velim documenting life in a settlement in the early Stone Age. One such finding is a piece of rope made from honeysuckle and nettle and a Neolithic well constructed from oak wood. These are the most important finds.”

Suggesting how people lived 7,000 years ago in this settlement…The story starts with a nightmare, as Brentina wakes up. What are the main challenges awaiting her in the next 24 hours?

“Well, it is very similar to life as we know it. They cook, they prepare to go on a hunt, make instruments for daily use, weave rope – a piece of which was preserved, as I said – so, a normal life…”

What are the main dangers in her day? Are there any dramatic moments in those 24 hours?

“It is more dramatic for her husband and the men from the village who set out on a deer hunt. But Brentina worries about them, so for her it is also challenging.”

“It is very similar to life as we know it. They cook, they prepare to go on a hunt, make instruments for daily use, weave rope.”

So she is left to tend to the fire. What do we know about their dwellings, their homes?

“What we know stems from archeological findings – they used wooden instruments, stone instruments, a lot of natural materials, leather, bark and so on.”

Do we know anything about the shape of the dwellings for instance?

“From archeological research we know how big they were, how the main columns were placed and so on. As regards construction technology we can only guess or work with ethnological research.”

Do we know what they ate?

“Yes, we do. They farmed land so they cooked a lot of wheat, of course they ate meat, used herbs and so on.”

And their dress?

'A day in the life of a Neolithic woman', illustrations by Michal Puhač'A day in the life of a Neolithic woman', illustrations by Michal Puhač “That is harder to say, but we think they made textiles from linen and nettle and since they hunted they also used leather. So it was probably a combination of all that.”

The woman Brentina –the main character – is a daughter, wife and mother –does that mean that the comic book shows us relations within the family and community 7,000 years ago?

“Unfortunately no, that is artistic license, it is just for the story, we cannot say how it was in Neolithic times. This is just our guess.”

How much of the story was firmly given by archeologists and how much artistic license did you get?

“We tried to keep the story line simple. We had some facts, for instance we know they used certain instruments, but how they used the instruments was something that we can only guess at.”

The woman was named Brentina –what made you give her that name? I understand it means fog.

“Yes, all the names we used denote the weather, what the weather was like when these people were born. We consulted the matter with a linguist and he suggested we use the Romansh language used in Switzerland, the oldest language we know of in Central Europe. It does not reach back to Neolithic times, but it is the oldest we know. Of course, we do not know how they communicated, what kind of language they used.”

“As I started to work on the comic book I was submerged deeper and deeper into this world until it became very familiar…I would say that at some point I started to live with them.”

So what did you do – use simple present-day language?

“Yes, we used simple present-day language, that’s correct.”

Why did you decide to accept this offer? And in what way was your work different from when you are illustrating a reality you are familiar with?

“It was quite challenging, I must say, but I like challenges, so I accepted it. We do not know much about the reality of those times, but with the help of archeologists we know something and as I started to work on the comic book I was submerged deeper and deeper into this world until it became very familiar…I would say that at some point I started to live with them.”

Did the colours you used differ from what you would use illustrating the present-day – or was anything else dramatically different?

“I don’t think so, because our world is full of colours, as colourful as their world and as rich in shapes, so it is very similar I think.”

'A day in the life of a Neolithic woman', illustrations by Michal Puhač'A day in the life of a Neolithic woman', illustrations by Michal Puhač Other periods in Czech history have been covered in comic books –Munich, 1968, the birth of Czechoslovakia – what makes the comic book such a popular educational tool?

“Pictures communicate ideas faster and more easily. They are also easier to remember when you are trying to recall something, so I think that is why they are so popular in presenting history.”

What did you enjoy most about the work?

“It was like a bridge to my childhood. All the adventures from the books I read as a child suddenly came back and I was able to relive the excitement and enjoy that feeling all over again.”