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Neolithic site of Burzahom

Protection sought for mysterious Neolithic site of Burzahom

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An ancient settlement in India is among the list of sites expected to get World Heritage status at a two-week UNESCO meeting currently being held in Doha. The Neolithic site of Burzahom is a story teller of life between 3,000 and 1,000 BC. It is known for its unique subterranean dwelling pits, unusual petroglyphs, including one that appears to depict two suns, and evidence of ancient cranial surgery.

The earliest traces of human habitation at Burzahom date back some 5,000 years, a period in which inhabitants created subterranean dwellings by digging pits below ground level using stone tools, some with steps leading down into them. The sides of the pits were then plastered with mud. Holes discovered around the pits suggest that wooden poles were used to support roofs made out of birch or tree branches. Stone hearths have also been found at ground levels, near the mouth of pits, showing that habitation activities were also at the ground level.

The early Neolithic people of Burzahom made pots in different shapes and sizes, and polished tools made of stone, animal bones and antlers. The bone tools included harpoons for fishing, needles for sewing, and arrow-heads, spear-heads and daggers for hunting. Researchers also found stone axes, chisels, adzes, pounders, mace-heads, points and picks.

Subterranean dwelling pit

Subterranean dwelling pit. Photo source: Kashmir Network

By 2,000 BC, the Neolithic people of Burzahom started to live in mud huts at ground level, and by this time, there is also evidence of multiple burials, usually under house floors or in the compounds. Red ochre was smeared on the bodies before burial. Apart from human burials, animals were sometimes buried along with humans or in separate graves. The buried animals included wild animals like wolves, ibex and antlered deer and domesticated animals like dogs, sheep and goats. Not long after, the inhabitants entered what is known as the ‘Megalithic Phase’, which is associated with the setting up of menhirs or single standing stones, which can still be seen in Burzahom today.

An interesting discovery made at Burzahom was a carved stone slab that shows two hunters hunting a stag, while twin suns shine in the sky. The presence of two similar suns in the sky is a mystery. Some researchers believe that the Neolithic artists depicted two suns to indicate the duration of the hunt (e.g. two days), while a far more exotic theory has been proposed by a team of astronomers who believe that the scene represents the ancient night sky with the two suns actually representing the moon and a supernova, while the hunters and the animals represent constellations like Orion and Taurus.

Burzahom petroglyph

Burzahom petroglyph depicting hunting scene with two suns. Photo source: Kashmir Network

Another unique finding from Burzahom, was seven complete and four incomplete evidences of trepanning of human skulls. Cranial surgery, known as trepanning or trepanation, is one of the first ever surgical practices and is known to have begun in the Neolithic era. It involves drilling a hole in the skull of a living person to cure illness such as convulsions, headaches, infections or fractures.  

Skull found at Berzahom with evidence of cranial surgery

Skull found at Berzahom with evidence of cranial surgery. Photo source.

One of the skulls found at Burzahom displayed evidence of multiple trepanation or drilling holes. There are six completed perforations resulting from eleven attempts over at least four successive sittings with the woman either living or recently deceased. Some scientists believe that the trepanation was done with the sole purpose of taking out round skull pieces for ritual offerings or magico-religious practices, while others insist that it was a clear case of surgery performed for predominantly medical reasons on the woman while she was still alive. Amazingly, many cases of ancient trepanation appeared to be successful as there was evidence of both the original wound and the surgical wound having been healed

Inclusion on UNESCO’s World Heritage list would have significant economic implications for Burzahom as a listed site is eligible for financial assistance towards preservation and the coveted status is also a powerful draw for tourists.

Featured image: Burzahom has the remains of a settlement dating back to 2,500 BC. Credit: Vinod Chaku

By April Holloway

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