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Peeking Behind the Veil: Unique and Decorative Burial Urns with Faces in the Pomeranian Culture

Peeking Behind the Veil: Unique and Decorative Burial Urns with Faces in the Pomeranian Culture

The Pomeranian culture is one of the most mysterious Pre-Christian cultures which lived near the Baltic Sea. Although many of their sites have been lost, the story behind their decorative urns provides some insight into their lives. For a time, these individuals buried their deceased in impressive urns with faces. The special vessels were often decorated with jewelry as well.

Even though there is a debate amongst researchers, many people say that the Pomeranian culture has its roots in the current territory of Pomerania - in the north of Poland and part of Germany. Urns with faces are some of the most interesting prehistoric artifacts discovered in this area. Their unique decoration tells a fascinating story of the people who didn't leave any written texts about their lives or culture.

Urns with facial decoration dated 500-150 BC (Pomeranian culture) in Father Dr. Władysław Łęga Museum in Grudziądz, Poland.

Urns with facial decoration dated 500-150 BC (Pomeranian culture) in Father Dr. Władysław Łęga Museum in Grudziądz, Poland. (Ciacho5/ CC BY SA 4.0 )

Urns with Forgotten Faces

Many Pomeranian cultural sites have been discovered in the area between the Odra and Vistula Rivers. Along with their typical fibula designs, jewelry, and pottery decorations, there is one particular type of artifact which makes this culture unique – urns with faces. These urns were important parts of burial ceremonies since about the 5th century BC.

The urns typically have thin necks and a polished black surface. They are also often topped with hats. However, the most interesting aspects of the urns are their uniquely decorated faces. No two of the images are the same, thus they may show some characteristics which are particular to the deceased person. The urns also have notable eyes and ears.

The people of the Pomeranian culture decorated the urns with small earrings. Some researchers believe that the earrings could have belonged to the person whose remains were buried inside them, however there is no concrete evidence to support this theory. While the earrings are simple, they usually consist of beautiful beads made of amber or other stones.

A Pomeranian culture’s urn with a face.

A Pomeranian culture’s urn with a face. ( Public Domain )

It is interesting to note that the urns’ faces often had wrinkles and their lips were usually closed. The lips were usually shut with a needle, suggesting that the dead person could have had his/her lips closed in this way as well. The urns were often decorated with scenes of hunting or rituals as well. Some urns were decorated with drawings of animals - the most impressive pictures present horses with a four-wheeled cart. Human icons also appear on some urns. Many researchers believe that the drawings show the dead person’s family and friends, and may even show scenes from the individual’s life.

There are also examples of urns decorated with spruce tree symbols. The spruce was a holy tree in the Pomeranian culture - it was related to natural powers and inner strength. The urns were buried in cists made with stones. Usually the vessels were buried in groups, and most burials contained 5-6 urns, but some larger groups had up to 30 urns found together.

Two urns with facial decoration in Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte, Berlin.

Two urns with facial decoration in Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte, Berlin. (Lillyundfreya/ CC BY SA 3.0 )

Unfortunately, as archaeologists did not always have much interest in preserving human remains, the ashes were removed from many of the urns. In many instances, only bronze and stone artifacts buried with the remains were recovered. It should be noted that although the Pomeranian culture lasted until the 2nd century BC, the tradition of burials with the urns with faces disappeared in the 4th century. It is unknown why this change took place.

Who Were the People of the Pomeranian Culture?

Some researchers suggest that the Pomeranian Culture evolved from the Lusatian culture around 650 BC and became a basis for the Oksywie and Przeworsk cultures, which appeared around 200 and 150 BC. However, as Leon Jan Łuka wrote in his work about the origins of the Pomeranian Culture:

“The following conclusions should be drawn:

1. The culture of the population of Eastern Pomerania in the Hallstatt C period did not differ from that of the Cassubian group of the Lusatian culture, as far as pottery, metallurgy and burial-rite are concerned. This authorizes us to adopt the thesis that there is no reason to give a new name to the culture in the Hallstatt C period in Eastern Pomerania, as it represented the culture of the Lusatian population.

2. There cannot be any question of the Pomeranian culture already in the Hallstatt C period; the beginning of its development should be dated to the younger Hallstatt period. In connection with that, it will be necessary to establish a new chronology of the phases of the Pomeranian culture, the duration of which should be limited to the younger Hallstatt period and the early and middle La Tene period.”

Looking for the Urns’ Inspiration

One theory suggests that the urns with faces appeared due to the Pomeranian culture’s interaction with the Etruscan culture based on the trade of amber. It is known that the Pomeranian culture also had contact with the Celts, however researchers are still trying to find out exactly what that relationship was. Unfortunately, the mystery continues due to extensive site damage.

Etruscan Canopic Urn from Chiusi. Louvre Museum.

Etruscan Canopic Urn from Chiusi. Louvre Museum. (Sailko/ CC BY SA 3.0 )

Nowadays, many of the sites which were created by the people of the Pomeranian culture and their descendants have been destroyed. Due to the expansion of farms and a general lack of respect for ancient sites by people over the centuries, many places related to the pre-Christian period have been lost forever. Archaeologists have been able to recover many of the urns, but most of them are still waiting a thorough analysis.

 Pomeranian culture costumes exhibited at the Archaeological Museum of Kraków.

Pomeranian culture costumes exhibited at the Archaeological Museum of Kraków. ( Silar/CC BY SA 3.0 )

Top Image: Pomeranian culture urn with a face. Source: Silar/ CC BY SA 3.0

By Natalia Klimczak

References:

Piotr Kaczanowski, Janusz Krzysztof Kozłowski, Najdawniejsze Dzieje Ziem Polskich, Wielka historia Polski, 1998.

Alicja Łuka, Kultura Pomorska na Pomorzu Wschodnim, 1959.

New materials on the origins of the Pomeranian Culture in Eastern Pomerania, by Leon Jan Łuka, available at: http://www.iaepan.edu.pl/archaeologia-polona/article/46

Urny twarzowe, available at: http://www.muzarp.poznan.pl/wystawy/bliskie-spotkania-z-2/archiwum/bliskie-spotkania-z-urny-twarzowe/

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