New Study Analyzes a Mesolithic Cemetery Full of Children and an Odd Standing Burial
Researchers have found some unique burials amongst the remains in one of Europe’s oldest cemeteries – the 8,500-year-old Gross Fredenwalde cemetery. So far nine skeletons have been excavated at the site, including four children under the age of six, a six month old infant, a woman buried with a child on her belly, and a young man who was buried in a standing position.
“It’s rare for the Mesolithic to find multiple graves in one place,” forensic anthropologist Bettina Jungklaus, who excavated one of the bodies, told National Geographic. “They were mobile people, ranging over the landscape.”
“It’s a big surprise,” agreed Erik Brinch Petersen, an archaeologist at the University of Copenhagen. “Hunter-gatherer people typically buried their dead right next to their houses. Here in northern Europe, a site like this is unique.”
Skull of a 40-49-year-old female that was buried in the Gross Fredenwalde cemetery. (B. Jungklaus)
In a paper published in the journal Quartär (PDF), Thomas Terberger, of the Lower Saxony Department of Historic Preservation, and the archaeologist who led the recent dig, wrote that the burials are evidence of careful planning. “It’s not an accumulation of burials by accident, but a place where they decided to put their dead. It’s the first evidence of a true cemetery in northern Europe or Scandinavia.”
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The Gross Fredenwalde cemetery is located on a 91.44 meter (300ft) hill in the northeast state of Brandenburg, about 70 km (43.5 miles) south of Berlin. Excavations in 2013 and 2014 uncovered evidence of the prehistoric graveyard, but the site has been known since it was accidently exposed in 1962.
Photo of 1962 burial after detection on the first day. (Gramsch/Schoknecht 2003)
The 1962 excavations found three adult individuals (2 males, 1 female) and three children. The female was discovered with one of the children on her belly. Along with the ochre covered burials, the researchers write that several grave goods were found:
“17 flint blades/ bladelets (incl. fragments), 41 red deer tooth pendants, four pointed bones/ awls and a slotted bone dagger attest a well-equipped burial Gramsch/Schoknecht 2003), but only some deer tooth pendants could be associated with a specific individual. The pendants discovered on the skull of a child probably belonged to the decoration of a cap. The decorated slotted bone dagger finds parallels in the Kongemose culture of southern Scandinavia and a truncated blade represents another typical late Mesolithic funerary object.”
New found grave goods belonging to the 1962 burial. Scale 1:1 (A. Kotula)
Referring to the bizarre standing burial, the researchers have described in their paper how the interment probably took place:
“The individual was put – probably dead – into a pit c. 1.6 m deep in a standing, slightly slanting posture. The body leaning with its back to the pit wall was fixed in this position by filling in sands to a level above the knees (c. 0.6 m). The bottom sands contained a single flint blade, which was probably a first grave good. The pit was then left open or was preliminarily covered and subsequently carnivores were able to get at the corpse and gnaw on some of the arm bones.”
Profile of the standing burial. (Drawing: B. Jungklaus; graph: T. Terberger)
The bones of the 24 – 27-year-old man are dated to approximately 7,000 years ago, making him a member of a late hunter-gatherer group, and they suggest that he did not take part in heavy physical work. “He looks like a flint knapper or experienced craftsman, rather than the strongest boy of the group,” Terberger told National Geographic.
Although the manner of his burial stands out, Terberger added that similar interments from about the same time period have been found in Olenij Ostrov, Russia, which may indicate that there were eastern influences on the Mesolithic European culture.
Position of the leg bones in feature 1/4 - the standing burial. (T. Terberger)
The infant burial has also received special attention by the researchers. Forensic anthropologist Bettina Jungklaus, who excavated one of the bodies, explained to National Geographic “It's really rare to find an intact burial like this, because an infant's bones are so small and fragile.”
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The preservation of the infant is said to be “almost perfect” and it was found with its arms folded across its chest. The bones and soil close to them are also stained with red ochre.
The six-month-old infant that was buried 8,400 years ago. (Rémi Bénali, National Geographic)
Jungklaus told National Geographic that there are plans for more analysis on the infant, including DNA testing, to find out about the cause of death, its sex, the environment at the time, and how it may be linked to other skeletons that were found in the cemetery. “We can look at possible illnesses, and perhaps determine the cause of death,” Jungklaus said. “Children are always the weakest link–they're the first victims when the environment or living situation changes.”
DNA analysis has also shown that there were about 1,000 years between the death of the infant and the standing man. This suggests that the cemetery may have been a place of importance for the ancient Europeans.
Featured Image: The ‘standing burial’ with mixed bones and parts of the spine in correct anatomical position. Two arm bones left of the spine show gnawing marks and are situated in different directions. The large truncated blade is typical for the late Mesolithic. Source: A. Kotula