It has been a long held opinion among archaeologists that social inequality in Europe first appeared during the Chalcolithic (or 'Copper Age') and Early Bronze Age. Prior to this, in the Late Neolithic, communal burials seem to have been the norm across Europe, but in the Chalcolithic and Early Bronze Age a new trend appeared; communal burials were still common, but alongside these were individual burials, typically of males, accompanied by grave goods including metal and non-metal weapons.
This trend appears to start with the Maikop Culture of the Caucasus Region between about 3700 and 3000 BC, and Bell Beaker Culture, which spread across Europe from about 2800 BC, and has been interpreted as a sign that these were high status individuals, either warriors who had achieved high status in battle, or chieftans whose status was based upon the control of resources.
However, in recent years, many archaeologists have challenged this, arguing that such assumptions are based upon modern ideas of prestige and personhood, which are not applicable to many non-European cultures, and may not be the best model for these early Europeans. The majority of this work has centred on the re-evaluation of 'warrior burials' in Britain and Northern Europe, where the shift from communal to individual burials is quite sudden.
This change in funerary practices also occurred in Southern Europe, but in a more gradual way, something which has largely been overlooked by modern archaeologists. For example, the Chalcolithic Rinaldone Culture of Central Italy, which lasted from about 3650 to about 2200 BC, produced multi-chambered tombs, with chambers holding single and multiple burials within the same complex, apparently providing an intermediate phase that predates the appearance of single 'warrior graves' in Northern Europe.
In a paper published in the journal World Archaeology on 8 February 2022, Andrea Dolfini of the School of History, Classics and Archaeology at Newcastle University re-examines the Rinaldone Culture's burial customs, with an emphasis on the Rinaldone and Casetta Mistici funerary sites, and proposes a new interpretation of these sites.
The prevalent theory about the origin of Chalcolithic 'warrior graves' throughout much of the twentieth century was that these marked the arrival of invaders from the Eurasian steppes who quickly subdued the largely peaceful local population with superior, metal-based weapons technology, setting themselves up as a new ruling caste. However, from the 1970s onwards this idea was replaced by a new concept, that the development of metal technologies in Europe allowed for the development of a more divided society without the need for any invaders, as the rarity and high value of metal allowed those who controlled its supply to set themselves up as rulers over the rest of the population. However, recent genetic studies of individuals from the Bell Beaker and Corded Ware (roughly 3000-2350 BC) cultures has suggested that these cultures did in fact have an influx of new genetic material compared to earlier inhabitants of the same area. This has brought the Eurasian invader theory back into favour, with many arguing that these invaders came from the Yamnaya Culture of the Pontiac Steppes (roughly 3300-2600 BC), who are also theorised to have brought with them Indo-European languages, although this fails to explain how the oldest 'warrior graves' predate the origin of this culture.
The Rinaldone Culture of Central Italy appeared in the middle of the fourth millennium BC, directly replacing Late Neolithic cultures in the same area, and marking the earliest example of metal-production in Italy. Unlike the cultures that preceded it, the Rinaldone Culture apparently made a clear distinction the dead and the living, building elaborate funerary complexes and engaging in elaborate mortuary rights.
Rinaldone cemeteries typically consist of small groupings of graves, each of which was a low-vaulted underground chamber, reached through an entrance shaft and closed of with a wooden or stone slab. Each grave could contain up to ten individuals, who might be articulated, disarticulated, or actively reorganised. Multiple burials typically contained a mixture of male and female individuals of all ages, although infants appear to be under-represented.
The funeral process was a long one, and strange to modern thinking. Bodies were initially placed intact within the grave, on their back or side, and often accompanied by some grave goods. The grave was returned to at a later date, and the now dry remains broken up, with some or all of the parts being removed from the grave. Finally, the remains were returned to the graves and either placed onto stacks of bones, or arranged around new burials. Grave goods, including food and drink, could be placed with articulated bodies or bone piles, or left in the corridor leading to the chamber.
Grave goods varied depending on the age and gender of the person being buried. Adult males typically received copper and stone weapons, including daggers, maces, and axes. Women and children were given beads and jewellery made from silver, antimony, and soft stone, as well as flint blades and/or scrapers and arrowheads. Burials of both genders and all ages were accompanied by copper awls and flasks of a mead-like alcoholic drink.
Some of these tombs contained what would elsewhere be recognised as Chalcolithic 'warrior graves'; individual burials of adult males who were typically buried with weapons, and then sealed, never to be disturbed. The two sites examined by Dolfini, Rinaldone and Casetta Mistici, show an unusually high number of these 'warrior graves'.
Rinaldone, which gives its name to the culture, lies between Lake Bolsena and the River Tiber, and comprises sixteen chamber graves with entrance corridors facing towards the southwest. The graves are arranged in two clusters, one containing thirteen graves, and the other three. Seven of the burial chambers at Rinaldone contain 'warrior graves', adult males buried with copper and stone weapons, six in the main cluster and one in the smaller cluster. One of the burials in the larger cluster also contains reorganised bones from other burials. Between them these graves contain six copper-alloy objects, two stone maceheads, 22 flint arrowheads, and a ceramic flask, one of the largest collections of grave goods from the Italian Chalcolithic. The graves have been dated to between 3650 and 3350 BC, based upon the manufacturing style of the objects present.
As well as the 'warrior graves', the Rinaldone site also contains a grave with two sets of articulated remains, accompanied by four arrowheads, and a grave with the reorganised bones from an indeterminate number of individuals, accompanied by eight arrowheads, and a few potsherds. The site also contains five empty graves, two of which still contain grave goods; four arrowheads in one and an axe/hammer in the other. While the acid soil at the site had damaged all of the skeletons to some extent, skeletons are unlikely to have completely disappeared, and the site was excavated by competent archaeologists unlikely to have overlooked even the most fragmentary of Human remains. This leaves two possibilities; either the graves were never used, and what we interpret as grave goods were placed into the empty chambers for some reason unclear to us, or bodies (and possibly other goods) were placed into these chambers, and subsequently removed.
The Casetta Mistici site lies on the outskirts of Rome, and was excavated in 2005-6. The site comprises seven underground chambers, arranged in a tight cluster, with entrances facing to the south, and two later trench graves. The chamber burials have been radiocarbon dated to between 3650 and 3350 BC, although one of these graves contains a body which was apparently added later. One of the trench graves directly overlies one of the chamber burials (this is is thought to have been intentional) and was dug between 3540 and 3350, while the second dates from the early third millennium BC and has partially cut into another grave chamber, causing it to collapse.
Other than the chamber which had a body added later, all of the graves contain a single body. Five of these contained children under twelve years old, four buried without any grave goods, the fifth with a copper awl, two stone beads, and a pendant made from the canine tooth of a large Canid. One of the graves contains a woman between the ages of 40 and 49, buried with a copper awl, a short flint blade, two arrowheads, and some pottery fragments. Notably, this woman showed signs of a blunt force trauma to the head at about the time she died, suggesting that she may have died a violent death. The two individuals sharing a grave are both between 13 and 19, and buried without goods. The remaining two graves contain individuals between 30 and 39, one of whom was buried with an impressive selection of grave goods. This includes five metal items, one of which is an axe of a type associated with the Levantine region, and otherwise unknown from Italy. Analysis of the lead isotopes present in this axe suggest it does come from outside of Italy. As well as the metal goods, this grave contained a finely knapped bifacial dagger, a long flint knife, ten arrowheads and a bone awl.
'Warrior graves' are also known from several other Rinaldone burial sites, including Marcellina-Visoli, where a single 'warrior grave' is unaccompanied by other burials, Ponte San Pietro, where a large cemetery contains two 'warrior graves' among numerous other burials, Lunghezzina, where a single 'warrior grave' is present among other burials, and Fontenoce di Recaniti, where there are several 'warrior graves', but metal goods are rare.
The appearance of these single graves with apparently valuable grave goods has generally been interpreted as the dawn of a new age of material culture in Italy, combined with the rise of new concepts of male dominance and power. This perception has, however, undergone several revisions over time. In the 1950s it was proposed that the Rinaldone culture marked the arrival of invading warrior-shepherds from the east, who set themselves up as rulers over the local population, establishing dynasties that would go on to become bronze-age aristocracies. From the 1970s onwards it has been argued that these burials represented the emergence of a local aristocracy, who gained power by securing control over resources such as metals and imported goods, although possibly without any concept of inheritance, so that each successful leader would have his accumulated wealth buried with him, rather than passing it on (although the presence of some children buried with lavish grave goods has been cited as evidence against this theory). It has also been noted that the Rinaldone burial sites tend to be located on fertile alluvial plains, possibly indicating that an emerging land-holding elite was using the location of burial grounds to lay claim to high quality farmland.
Dolfini has previously examined the nature of the burials at the Rinaldone sites, noting that a small number of men (and an even smaller number of women and children) were given single step burials, accompanied by grave goods, while the majority of the population were given multi-step burials, during which bodies were broken up and mixed with other remains over time, causing them to lose their individual identities. This led him to conclude that the single, undisturbed, burials were a mark of individuals having achieved some level of power and status meriting special treatment.
All of these hypotheses make the assumption that the 'warrior graves' mark the appearance of a new elite caste, who were somehow able to gain control over resources, and whose burial marked them out as special, something which Dolfini now questions.
Dolfini starts his re-evaluation by questioning whether the goods placed within the 'warrior graves' were genuinely richer than those placed within other burials. We can see the value of the goods placed within the 'warrior graves' because they have largely remained there until uncovered by modern archaeologists. However, other graves were re-opened, probably several times, as part of a complex, multi-stage funerary process, during which parts of the body were removed and placed elsewhere. This removal of parts of the body makes it quite plausible that goods buried along with the body were also removed.
This can clearly be demonstrated with ceramic vessels, as there is evidence of such vessels being buried with the dead, then smashed when people re-entered the tomb, with most of the fragments being removed, and some of them subsequently re-buried with the disarticulated body parts, and Dolfini believes that is likely to have been the case for other grave goods.
Another piece of evidence cited by Dolfini is the presence of occasional weapons in chambers with rearranged bones, or no burial at all. When found, these weapons are either alone or parts of small collections scattered over the floor apparently at random, rather than arranged in a precise pattern about the dead, as is the case in 'warrior graves', something which has been interpreted as evidence of evidence of collections of weapons being broken up and scattered at the same time as the bodies were dismembered.
Dolfini argues that it is the preconceptions of archaeologists and anthropologists, and in particular the tendency to try to interpret 'primitive' cultures through the lens of colonial studies of Polynesian and New Guinean societies, is likely to have led to a flawed interpretation of the Ridaldone burials and the customs surrounding them.
He observes that the 'warrior burials' seen from five thousand years later, seem to have been the most important burials produced by the Rinaldone culture, but that in fact these were the most simple burials produced by these people. The 'warrior graves' contain an individual placed in a grave, which was then sealed and apparently forgotten, while other grave sites were re-opened numerous times and the remains within interacted with by the people in them. Dolfini theorises that it may be this ongoing ritual involvement with the community that may signal status within the community, rather than the presence of grave goods.
Many of the assumptions made about the status of 'warrior graves' relate to the perceived value and rarity of copper metal. It has been assumed that such items were rare objects, requiring considerable skill and technological know-how to produce, and that they are therefore valuable items which could have been hoarded by an emerging elite class.
However, while the conceptual leap needed to smelt copper from ore is a big technological step up from the Neolithic, once this step has been made the smelting process is not particularly difficult (i.e. people who had seen the process were likely to be able to reproduce it). Furthermore, the production of copper items once you have copper requires considerably less skill than making similar items from stone.
The apparent rarity of copper items probably stems not from the difficulty of making them, but from the fact that copper is recyclable. Once a flint blade is broken it must be discarded, and new flint collected to make a new blade, but if a copper blade is broken it can be melted and used to make a new blade, leading to far less discarded items entering the archaeological record. Analysis of bones and other material from Chalcolithic sites in Italy suggests that the use of copper tools was usual for ordinary domestic tasks.
The importance of trade as a source of wealth in the Chalcolithic may also have been over-stated. In the Late Neolithic Italian communities are known to have been plugged into very extended trade networks, with valued materials such as obsidian from Lipari and Greenstone from the Alps being traded thousands of kilometres from their source. In the Chalcolithic, these networks seem to have disappeared, with few materials being found more than 200 km from their source.
If the Rinaldone 'warrior graves' do not contain important leaders, the question of who they were still remains. The presence of grave goods, while it may not be a sign of wealth, is clearly not a sign of poverty or social exclusion, suggesting that these people did have some status in the society they lived in. Rinaldone suggests that these burials may have been those of people (usually male) who either died violent deaths or lived violent lives, noting that many societies in different parts of the world have associated violent death with vengeful spirits, and developed a variety or rituals aimed at protecting themselves from said spirits.
A person who had been somehow tainted by violent death could well be buried with personal effects (particularly weapons) which had also become tainted. It is also quite conceivable that other members of the community might leave weapons in a burial to placate the dead, or that the weapons of their enemies might be buried with them. However, once the dead were laid in their burial chamber, the tomb would then be sealed permanently, with no-one wishing to risk re-entering.
Dolfini theorises that such practices could be applied both to male warriors of particular ferocity (which would account for the overwhelming majority of 'warrior graves' containing male bodies, both in the Rinaldone culture and elsewhere in Europe), but also those that had died violent deaths at the hands of another. He suggests that the woman from Casetta Mistici may have been an example of this, as she shows signs of having died of a blunt force trauma, and was sealed in a burial chamber which was not subsequently disturbed. He further notes that a male burial from Marcellina-Vasoli had a copper arrowhead embedded in his tibia, and that other deaths by violence might not be detectable from skeletal remains (Ötzi the Iceman is known to have died as a result of an arrowshot, but has no marks on his bones).
Dolfini questions the long-held assumption that the 'warrior graves' of the Rinaldone tradition held high-status individuals along with symbols of their wealth. He instead suggests that these individuals may have received different treatment in death because they were in some way tainted by deeds or circumstance in life, preventing them from being allowed the usual funerary rites.
This claim relies heavily upon the idea that the goods found with these burials were not of outstanding value, and that other members of the community may have been buried with items of equal value, which were subsequently removed. Central to this review is a reassessment of the value of copper to Chacolithic communities. If it was genuinely rare, as has previously been assumed, then prior claims about the status of the 'warrior grave' internments are probably valid. But if, as Dolfini suggests, copper was a relatively abundant resource, then its inclusion in grave goods would be relatively unimportant, and these burials must be judged by their exclusion from the more usual burial customs of the day.
Dolfini does not attempt to suggest that important leaders were absent from Chalcolithic communities, but rather that it would not necessarily be possible to identify them via their graves. Such individuals could well have been buried with extensive grave goods, but in a community that valued post-mortem interactions between the living and the dead, such goods could well have subsequently been removed from the grave and distributed among the community for ritual or practical use, while the body eventually reached its rightful final destination, broken up and mixed in with the bones of the community they lead.