Unusual burial practice discovered during an excavation in Slovakia
Headless skeletons were discovered by archaeologists from the Collaborative Research Centre (CRC) 1266 "Scales of Transformation – Human-Environmental Interactions in Prehistoric and Archaic Societies" at Kiel University (CAU), arranged around a Neolithic settlement in Vráble (Slovakia). The researchers from Kiel and Nitra learned that these burial practices had a high symbolic significance for the society of the time.
In Vráble, researchers discovered three neighbouring settlements from the later so-called Linear Pottery Culture (5250-4950 BCE). These three settlements were huge for this era around 5110 BCE, with up to 69 contemporary houses and an estimated 590 inhabitants. One of these settlements was additionally surrounded by a ditch, which made access difficult and provided visual protection via a palisade. Inside this ditch, the researchers found numerous skeletons. Unlike other cemeteries of the period, careful burial with grave goods was only seen in exceptional cases here. Rather, the bodies seem to have been carelessly dumped, or even dragged into the trenches.
An archaeological hunt for clues
So what inspired people back then to place the bodies of the deceased around the settlement? "To reach an answer, we had to unpack the entire case, and look at every detail as in a criminal investigation," explains Professor Martin Furholt, head of the research team. The first hypothesis was that the social position of the deceased was expressed here. In many societies, the expense of the funeral, as well as the amount and quality of the grave goods, indicate the social position of the deceased. This is known, for example, from the pyramids in Egypt, early medieval warrior graves, or large Bronze Age "princely mounds" in northern and central Europe. From this perspective, the ditch in Vráble could be interpreted as the burial place of people shunned by society, such as criminals. The missing heads are thus also reminiscent of the decapitation of criminals in earlier times. Another early interpretation by the researchers was that the headless people were victims of violence. Research results from Vráble in recent years show that there was a decrease in resources during the life of the densely-populated settlement, and that this probably led to rivalries between the three neighbourhoods, and their subsequent collapse. However, it is not that simple, as the excavations in summer 2021 made clear.
Recurring patterns emerged: the researchers found all the skeletons in the openings of the ditches. Moreover, they often appear in pairs, and once even in a group of three next to each other. In addition to the heads, many individuals also had their hands and feet cut off. "The deposition of the bodies in the graves, as well as the targeted removal of certain body parts, was a conscious act that followed defined rules," explains Dr Maria Wunderlich. "However, it is unclear where the missing body parts were left." However, the team's anthropologist discovered that the body parts were removed post-mortem, a few weeks after death. The first cervical vertebra, for example, was still on the skull. From this, the researchers conclude that the bodies were already a few weeks old, but not yet completely decomposed, when the heads were removed. They could not determine whether the dead were laid out in another place before their final burial or whether they were deliberately dug up again.
Ancestor cult and funeral tradition
Why were the dead buried in this way? One possible explanation is that there were special cultural characteristics concerning the treatment of the deceased. In many prehistoric societies, as in some of today's societies, there were and are various ancestor cults in which the deceased – or parts of them – were kept. "Skull cults and corpse dismemberment were common in the Neolithic period and linked to magical or religious ideas, whose meaning we, naturally, we do not know. But it is clear that people treated their dead differently," reports Professor Johannes Müller, Speaker of the Collaborative Research Centre 1266. "Deceased relatives could physically accompany everyday life or individual ceremonies for many years in this way. Often, we see a certain cult, in which skulls were taken out of the burials and made into death masks or arranged in pits as so-called nests of skulls (Schädelnester)."
We must consider the rituals from Vráble against the background of considerable social upheaval. "Around 5000 BCE, people abandoned long-used settlements and founded new ones. Architecture, tools, and supra-regional communication structures changed considerably", Dr Ivan Cheben, the Slovakian project partner at the Academy of Sciences in Nitra, points out. This becomes clear in many aspects. The supra-regional ceramic style of the so-called "Linear Pottery" (5500-4900 BCE) gives way to regional styles, and from 4900 BCE onwards we can no longer speak of Linear Pottery. The burial rituals, which had been uniform for centuries over a large area, also became more diverse over time. In addition to regular burials in external cemeteries, people were increasingly buried in settlements or as partial inhumations. All this together indicates that the traditions that had for centuries determined everyday life and the rituals of the early farming societies became obsolete. Instead, new structures and ideas took over, shaped less by supra-regional ideas than by local ones.
This is context in which the researchers evaluate the rituals from Vráble. Whatever the headless might have to report, their structural deposition was certainly significant for the local population. "In pre-modern societies, structured rituals served a specific purpose. People did not know what was responsible for misery or well-being, for favourable or unfavourable climatic conditions, sickness and health. We consider the deposition of bodies in the trenches as the expression of a message to nature or deities. With their ritual acts, they tried to structure their environment and influence it," explains Professor Martin Furholt.
Martin Furholt, Ivan Cheben, Johannes Müller, Alena Bistáková, Maria Wunderlich & Nils Müller-Scheeßel (2020): Archaeology in the Žitava valley I: The LBK and Želiezovce settlement site of Vráble, Scales of Transformation in Prehistoric and Archaic Societies 09. Leiden: Sidestone Press. www.sidestone.com/books/archaeology-in-the-zitava-valley-i