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Srubna Culture and their Unique Timber Graves for the Dead

The Bronze Age Srubna Culture and their Unique Timber Graves for the Dead

Not much is known about the ancient Srubna (or Srubnaya) peoples of Eastern Europe as writing and records were either not developed, or the materials they were written on have not survived. As a result, we are reliant on the archaeological records to provide us with information about these interesting people who created timber kurgan graves and wooden framed dwellings that were said to remain standing generation after generation.

The Srubna (meaning “timber grave” in Russian) people were located in the steppe and forest-steppe region to the north of the Black Sea and Caspian Sea. This culture existed during the Late Bronze Age, between 1700 and 1200 B.C. The name of this Bronze Age culture is derived from the way their burial structures were normally constructedusing timber frameworks. Some of these structures, however, have slabs of stones, instead of wood, for their walls.

A reconstruction of a Srubna Culture hut.

A reconstruction of a Srubna Culture hut. Russian Wikipedia user Водник /Wikimedia Commons

These structures, known also as kurgans, are large burial mounds which are a common feature in Eastern Europe. The kurgans of the Srubna culture normally contain a ritual hearth, and the skulls and forelegs of animals. In addition, Srubna burials contain artifacts such as pots, bone buckles, small bronze objects and stone mace heads.

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Objects found during excavations of the Srubna timber graves.

Objects found during excavations of the Srubna timber graves. Wikimedia Commons

In one Srubna burial mound in Ukraine, archaeologists discovered a carved stone slab believed to be the earliest example of a stone sundial. The carved stone was first discovered in 2011 when a team of archaeologists led by Yurii Polidovich of the Donetsk Museum of Regional Studies was excavating a Bronze Age burial mound dating to the 12th or 13th century BC. During the dig they uncovered the stone slab which was marked with lines and circles on both sides, however, it was not known at the time what the markings were.

In 2013, photographs of the stone were sent to the Archaeoastronomical Research Center at the Southern Federal University in Russia. Research revealed that the carving displayed a sophisticated grasp of geometry and confirmed that it would have marked the time using a system of parallel lines and an elliptical pattern of circular depressions, a system known as an analemmatic sundial.

The sundial belonged to the Srubna or Srubnaya culture, a Late Bronze Age society.

The sundial belonged to the Srubna or Srubnaya culture, a Late Bronze Age society. It is believed that the sundial was placed on top of the grave to mark the final resting place of a young man sacrificed or otherwise marked as a messenger to the gods or ancestors. Credit: Archaeoastronomical Research Center at Southern Federal University

The skeletons of the dead are normally found lying in a crouched position on their left side. The heads are often facing the East, whilst the legs and arms are bent, with the hands in front of the face. A ceramic pot was often placed near the head of the deceased, possibly for ritual purposes. Although the dead were usually buried in kurgans, numerous single buried skeletons have also been found within the vicinity of the houses for the living. It has been suggested that these skeletons belonged to the victims of foundation rituals.

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The kurgans of the Srubna culture are usually located at some distance from the homes of the living. Incidentally, it has been observed that the interior of the kurgans is a reflection of the architecture of the houses of the living, indicating perhaps a belief in the continuity of life after death.

As for the dwellings for the living, they can usually be found close to creeks and rivers. The houses of the Srubna culture were of a half-dugout design, with walls that were probably built using wood, covered with thick layers of clay or wattle and daub. In each house there would be an open fireplace, and along one wall an earth podium would have served as a bed for the inhabitants. These large structures were capable of sheltering up to 20 people who would belong to several generations, but presumably from the same family. It has also been suggested that such houses were in use for over 100 years. 

Due to the scarce archaeological remains, not much can be certain about the Srubna culture. There are many more questions than answers available, and there is much speculation about its people.

Clay pot found during timber grave excavations.

Clay pot found during timber grave excavations. Wikimedia Commons

One question, for instance, pertains to the origins of the Srubna, whether it was an indigenous culture or perhaps brought to the region by migrants from the East. Another question is about the way the Srubna functioned as a society. Unlike other Bronze Age societies, it seems that they did not develop a political hierarchy, and yet were able to survive for several centuries. It is these questions and more about the Srubna Culture that hopefully will be answered in the future.

Featured image: Artist’s impression of a Srubna culture Kurgan from the steppes (Wikimedia Commons)

References

Mallory, J. P., 1997. Srubna Culture. In: J. P. Mallory & D. Q. Adams, eds. Encyclopedia of Indo-European Culture. Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, pp. 541-542.

Mikhailin, V., 2010. Spatially Determined Behaviors and Religious Representations: the "Srubna Culture" Model (Southern Russia). Revue de l'histoire des religions, 227(4), pp. 497-517.

Pappas, S., 2014. Photos: Ancient Sundial-Moondial Discovered. [Online]
Available at: http://www.livescience.com/48296-photos-ancient-sundial-moondial-discovered.html

Woollaston, V., 2013. Ukrainian Bronze Age stone revealed to be oldest sundial ever found - and could mark the location of a sacrificial grave. [Online]
Available here.

World Heritage Encyclopedia, 2014. Srubna Culture. [Online]
Available at: http://www.worldheritage.org/articles/Srubna_culture

By Ḏḥwty

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