4) Archeologists focus on burial rites to understand early Bronze Age Bohemia

Mikulovice burial site

One of the most important ways in which archaeologists are able to learn about pre-historic cultures and civilisations is by studying the way that they buried their dead. In recent decades this practice has been further improved through the adoption of several methods from the natural sciences. At a large necropolis in Mikulovice, archaeologists are currently using these techniques to gain a better understanding of early Bronze Age Bohemia. 

Burial rites are, quite literally, the customs or ceremonies through which a deceased person is symbolically laid to rest. They have been extremely diverse over the thousands of years of human history.

Burial site in Prague - Miškovice | Photo: Michal Ernée,  Institute of Archaeology of the Czech Academy of Sciences

Cremation for example, which is currently the most popular burial method in the Czech Republic, was also popular during the late Bronze Age. Indeed the so-called Urnfield culture, which lived on the territory of Bohemia and Moravia at that time, takes its name from this burial rite.

Archaeologists have found evidence of urn burials even further back in time, when metal casting was still unknown in this region of the world. In 1931, a dig in the Czech capital’s Bubeneč district, near Prague Castle, uncovered urns that dated back to the fifth millennium BC. It was the most richly decorated Neolithic burial site of its kind in this part of Europe, containing several stone artefacts and ceramic objects.

The importance of burial sites for archaeology

Prague - Bubeneč,  grave of a woman | Photo repro: L. Horáková-Jansová,  Sto let v archeologii/Archeologický ústav v Praze,  Academia

When it comes to prehistoric times, for which we have no written records, burial sites offer some of the most important clues for archaeologists trying to understand our ancestors, says Dr Michal Erneé from the Institute of Archaeology at the Czech Academy of Sciences. He is one of the country’s leading experts on prehistoric cultures.

“When we discover a body, a basic anthropological analysis usually allows us to estimate the gender of the individual in question, and how old they were. Further study of their bones can also give us clues about the illnesses that they had, what kinds of injuries they suffered throughout their lives and whether any of them proved fatal.

“These are all methods of analysis that belong to classical anthropology. But recent additions that we have adopted from the natural sciences allow us to look further and find out much more from the remains that we dig up.”

One of these more modern scientific methods is called isotopic analysis, which is based around studying rare elements of carbon in human and animal remains. By analysing the ratios of these elements, archaeologists get valuable clues about where prehistoric people came from and what their diet was.

Ceramic vessel from Mikulovice | Photo: Institute of Archaeology of the Czech Academy of Sciences

For example, isotopic analysis can show us whether the person in question had a predominantly vegetarian or meat-based diet. Even details such as whether they ate fish can be deduced through this method, which in turn provides hints about how the prehistoric individual likely would have lived.

Finally, there is also the relatively new phenomenon of DNA analysis which has become increasingly popular among archaeologists over the past decade. DNA can tell archaeologists much about the origins of studied populations on a global level.

For example, European genetic profiles are made up of three main components. The first are hunter gatherers, who made up more or less the entire European population before the arrival of Neolithic farmers from Anatolia around the fifth or sixth millennium BC. These farmer populations reached as far as France. Their genetic profile is completely different and can be easily distinguished from the original Mesolithic population.

Finally, Dr Erneé says, there is the so-called “steppe” element, which got into the DNA of European populations upon the arrival of migrants from the east at around 3,000 BC.

Michal Ernée | Photo: Zdeňka Kuchyňová,  Radio Prague International

“Their arrival finalised the basic genetic makeup of European civilisations.

“What we do is look at how these individual groups interact. We are most interested in the biological relationships between these individuals. We want to know how familial relationships worked in prehistory and how this had an effect on things such as burial methods, or on what type of items specific individuals would be buried with.”

When all of these sub-categories of excavation methodology are combined, archaeologists can get significant insights from studying burial grounds. And the larger these burial grounds are, the better the overall sample upon which conclusions can be made.

Mikulovice necropolis | Photo: Jarmila Švédová,  Institute of Archaeology of the Czech Academy of Sciences

Uncovering the secrets of the early Bronze Age at the Mikulovice necropolis

An example of how this works can be provided when we look at the ongoing excavation of a major pre-historic burial site around the village of Mikulovice in the Pardubice Region. The remains in question belong to the early Bronze Age Únětice culture, a significant Central European cultural group which seems to have dominated the amber trade around four millennia ago and buried its dead in graves, often with a wide variety of artefacts.

The site has already produced some major finds, such as the skeleton of a woman that wore a magnificent amber necklace made up of more than 400 individual beads, which is currently the richest amber burial in Europe that has been found in early Bronze Age excavations.

Replica of amber necklaces from Mikulovice | Photo: Jarmila Koutová,  Institute of Archaeology of the Czech Academy of Sciences

Dr Erneé has been working on the excavation of the area for several years now, after receiving a major grant for his international research project Makers of the Bronze Age. The project is focused on gaining a better understanding of the people who lived in Central Europe at the turn of the Neolithic and Bronze Age periods.

The archaeologist says that one of the discoveries that surprised him, was how long the people buried there lived.

“We have found the remains of women about whom we know that they gave birth to at least one child. And all of these women, with just one exception, lived for more than 55 years. Now I would say that this is quite a high age for the early Bronze Age. We are speaking about 2,000 BC here.”

Mikulovice burial site | Photo: Jarmila Švédová,  Institute of Archaeology of the Czech Academy of Sciences

The team had originally expected to find the remains of many women who would have died during their first childbirth, but no such cases have been discovered yet. In fact, the whole demographic profile of the Mikulovice burial site is very balanced, the archaeologist says.

“We cannot say that most of the bodies buried here died at a certain age, such as 15 or 20 years old. This is the case for both the men and the women that we find here.”

The skeletal remains also show that these people were only slightly shorter than the average height of today’s population. Women, Dr Erneé says, had an average height of between 160 to 170 centimetres, with men tending to be around five centimetres taller.

Meanwhile, analysis of the eating habits of the buried individuals revealed that an older couple which had been buried together in one grave ate a significantly larger proportion of meat than the others, which suggests that they were of high status in the local society.

Grave of a woman in Mikulovice,  where amber necklace was found | Photo: Institute of Archaeology of the Czech Academy of Sciences

Many artefacts have also been found at the Mikulovce necropolis, ranging from weapons and tools to jewellery and pottery. Dr Erneé again.

“We find a large number of these items. Some of them are simple ceramic vessels. We interpret those as containers for food or for animal bones, which could also be intended a gift of food for the afterlife.

“Then there are also gifts made of precious metals, amber, bone or stone. We also find tools made of these materials. All of these items can be analysed further and tell us a lot of valuable information.”

Asked about what he and his team plan to focus on next, Dr Erneé says that they are currently in the process of conducting isotope and DNA analysis of around 100 individuals who were buried at the Mikulovice site. Roughly 95 percent of the skeletal remains have been analysed successfully and the archaeologist hopes that the results could be published as soon as next year.