Pottery making in ancient Hellas was a male-dominated profession, but about 3000 years ago, one woman from the island of Crete broke the mold to become the only known female master ceramicist in antiquity. The finding, based on a lengthy biomechanical analysis of her skeletal remains, sheds light on the elevated roles played by women in at least some parts of the classical world.

The master potter, who lived to be about 45 or 50, was buried in the city of Eleutherna on the slopes of Mount Ida, the legendary birthplace of Zeus. Ornate pottery in nearby graves suggests she lived between 900 B.C.E. and 650 B.C.E., after the fall of the Minoan and Mycenean civilizations (depicted above) and toward the end of the so-called Greek Dark Ages.

On closer examination of her bones, archaeologists noticed some intriguing details: Compared with other women at the Orthi Petra burial site, she was unusually muscular, especially on the right side of her body. She had also worn out the cartilage in her knee and hip joints, which would have made moving a painful, bone-scraping affair.

Curious as to what repetitive, lifelong motions would have led to that kind of wear, the researchers began to analyze the biomechanics behind the different professions of ancient women, pantomiming the motions with a human skeletal model and observing which muscles were involved. They tried clothes washing, bread baking, harvesting, and loom weaving—nothing panned out. Expanding their search beyond traditional female roles, they tried throwing pottery.

As luck would have it, the daughter of a modern-day master ceramicist—and a potter in her own right—just minutes from Eleutherna agreed to model for the scientists. Analyzing her muscles as she worked, they were convinced that her profession was a match for their ancient artisan. Constantly flexing her leg to turn the kick wheel would have worn out her joints; repeatedly leaning to one side of the spinning clay to shape and sculpt it would have developed the muscles on that side of her body, the researchers reported at a May conference on Crete.

Her lifetime devotion to the craft likely meant she was a master, the researchers say, blazing a trail for female ceramicists that continues on the island today.