Wednesday 15 November 2023

Understanding the relationship between adults and children in shared Bell Beaker Culture graves in England and Luxembourg.

In the modern world, the death of a child is considered a traumatic event, usually marked by a private family burial, and wider public engagement only in the case of particularly tragic circumstances. How prehistoric cultures, which are thought to have suffered much higher rates of infant mortality, viewed such matters is unclear, although funerary practices may shed some light upon this. One notable practice, which dates back to at least the Mesolithic, is the practice of burying children alongside adults, which may represent an emotional kinship, but also be a way of emphasising family relationships.

However, such burials also raise a number of questions. In cases where the bodies appear to have been buried together as intertwined, fully-fleshed bodies, then why the adult and child came to die at the same time, or nearly the same time requires an explanation. Victorian antiquarians in Britain tended to see such burials as evidence of Human sacrifice, while their contemporaries in Germany concluded that in societies where infants were unlikely to survive the death of their mothers, the two were buried together even if the infant was still alive. Today, such stories are seen as rather fanciful, but shared burials are often described by archaeologists as containing the victims of raids or epidemics, assumptions which have little more evidence to back them than those of their Victorian predecessors. 

In a paper published in the journal Scientific Reports on 31 October 2023, Nicoletta Zedda of the Palaeogenetics Group at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz, and the Department of Environmental and Prevention Sciences at the University of Ferrara, Katie Meheux of the Institute of Archaeology Library at University College London, Jens Blöcher and Yoan Diekmann, also of the Palaeogenetics Group at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz, Alexander Gorelik, Martin Kalle, and Kevin Klein of Arbeitsbereich Vor- und Frühgeschichtliche Archäologie at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz, Anna‑Lena Titze and Laura Winkelbach, again of the Palaeogenetics Group at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz,  Elise Naish of the Luton Culture Trust, Laurent Brou, François Valotteau, and Foni  Le Brun‑Ricalens of the Luxembourg Institut National de Recherches Archéologiques, and  Joachim Burger and Maxime Brami, once again of the Palaeogenetics Group at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz, present the results of a study of two adult-and-child double burials from the Bell Beaker Culture of Western Europe (Latest Neolithic to Early Bronze Age), one from Altwies in Luxembourg, and the other from Dunstable Down in southern England.

Around the turn of the third millennium BC, many European societies switched from the communal burials which had predominated in the Neolithic to a system of individual graves which would predominate through the Chalcolithic and Early Bronze Age. In these societies combined burials, including those of children with adults, were an exception rather than a rule. Identification of such burials can be difficult, as remains can become combined when multiple burials occur at the same spot, or when multiple skeletons are cleared from a site and re-deposited for some reason.

The change from communal to individual burials has been linked to an influx of pastoralists from the Pontic-Caspian steppes, who moved westward through Europe, intermixing with local Neolithic populations, reaching Britain by around 2500 BC. These people, known as the Bell Beaker Culture, from the style of their ceramics, have widely been portrayed as violent and disruptive invaders, although it is unclear to what extent this is true. They were clearly capable of travelling long distances, as shown by examples such as the Amesbury Archer who was buried near Stonehenge in southwest England, but who has been shown to have originated from somewhere in the western Alps of continental Europe.

The Altwies and Dunstable Down graves were remarkably similar in their organisation, down to similar arrangements of stones around the bodies buried within them. This similarity implies a strong cultural link between the two sites, making a genetic study of the individuals involved an ideal way to assess the way in which the relationships between the individuals involved, and therefore how family relationships were perceived by the culture from which they came.

Adult–child graves sampled for this study, Bell Beaker period. (A) Altwies ‘Op dem Boesch’, Luxembourg; (B) Dunstable Downs, Southern Bedfordshire, United Kingdom.  Zedda et al. (2023).

The 'Op dem Boesch' burials at Altwies comprise two graves discovered during a highway construction project in 2000. The graves were located on the slope of a Jurassic plateau, giving a panoramic view over the Moselle Valley. This plateau is known to have been densely occupied during the Early Neolithic, but no other remains associated with the Bell Beaker Culture have been found nearby. The wider region between the Saar and the Moselle rivers has produced about 100 Bell Beaker Culture sites, the nearest of which are about 10 km from Altweis, at Sehndorf in Saarland, Germany, and Montenach in Moselle, France. A pair of otherwise isolated graves is not particularly unusual for the Bell Beaker Culture, where clusters of two-to-four burials being typical, and larger groupings much rarer.

Isotope dating of the Altweis graves has suggested that they originate from the second half of the third millennium BC. The first grave contained a single set of remains, thought to have been a young adult male, as well as retouched fake, the tip of a stone point and a fint strike-a-light. The state of the remains was poor, and an attempt to obtain DNA failed. The second grave was about 25 m upslope of the first, and comprised a oval pit in which a fire had been build prior to the burial, giving the interior a cracked reddish floor and burned walls, and contained two skeletons, surrounded by a ring of fossil shells, and accompanied by a largely complete maritime-style Beaker, none of which showed any sign of burning.

The skeletons are interpretted as a three-to-four-year-old child and a woman aged 25-35. The two skeletons were facing one-another, with the child's head lying on the woman's hand. The skeletons may have been disturbed after their burial, possibly implying that the grave was not infilled straight away, but left open, possibly covered by a rigid timber frame.

The burial on Dunstable Downs, known as the 'Echinoid burial', was excavated in 1887 during work to level a damaged barrow. After Human remains were discovered, local antiquary and naturalist Worthington George Smith investigated the site, reporting finding a crouched girl and child in a shallow grave beneath the eastern part of the barrow. 

The barrow was located on the summit of the Downs ('downs' is an English word for hill), a 244 m high plateau with a panoramic view over the Vale of Aylesbury, and close to the source of the River Ouzel. It is thought to have been linked to the cluster of seven barrows at Five Knolls, 400 m to the northwest. The original barrow was 3 m high and 14 m in diameter, and appears to have been used as multi-phase burial site. A large central grave had been robbed and emptied. This was surrounded by six or seven peripheral graves; the others being empty, contaning only very fragmentary remains, or in one case cremated remains in a funerary urn.

The grave contained a woman aged 18 to 25 years, lying on her left side facing to the north holding a four-to-eight-year-old child, who was facing towards her. There were two broken pots near her head, and a hammerstone and a white quartze pebble near her right hand. The grave also contained two further hammerstones, two flint scrapers, a flint arrowhead, some flint flakes, numerous fragments of Aurochs skeletons, and fragments of pottery in at least two styles. Notably, the two skeletons were found to be surrounded by a large number of fossil Echinoids (Sea Urchins). This discovery was thought to be highly unlikely for a long time, causing questions to be cast upon the veracity of Smith's reporting, but is consistent with other Bell Beaker Culture burials in the UK and on the continent, where remains have been found surrounded, by shells, fossils, or distinctive rocks.

Smith reported that the bones were soft and fragmentary when found, but they were preserved by cleaning and drying them and soaking them in hot gelatine and drying them again. They were then glued together to form a diorama recreating the way in which they were found. When Smith died, the remains were left to local naturalist Jannion Steele Elliot, who donated them to the Pritchard Memorial Museum at Bedford Modern School, where they were displayed for a number of years. They are today held in the collection of the Luton Culture Trust.

Radioisotope dates for the Dunstable Down skeletons suggest they date from the middle of the second millennium BC, although Zedda et al. treat this with some caution, as this would be anomalously young for a Bell Beaker Culture burial. Based upon dates obtained from similar burials in England, they suggest that the remains date from between 2150 and 1800 BC, with the younger isotope date probably due to contamination caused by the use of Animal geletine in the preservation process. 

Despite this apparent contamination, it was possible to obtain full genome sequences from both individuals at Dunstable Down, as well as both individuals at Altweis. All four individuals showed a high proportion of genetic material originating from the Pontic-Caspian steppes, although with an admixture of older Western European genes, consistent with a Bell Beaker expansion from the steppes into northern Europe. There was also a strong genetic similarity between the individuals at Altweis and Dunstable Down, as well as to other Bell Beaker individuals from England, the Netherlands, Germany, Bohemia and Poland, in particular to sites in Bohemia associated with the Corded Ware, the Bell Beaker and the Únětice cultures. 

Location of Altwies 'Op dem Boesch' (red dot) and Dunstable Downs (blue dot). Archaeological sites, in which individuals were found to share at least one identical by descent of more than 16 centimorgans with the newly reported genomes are shown in the same colour. Sharing patterns are further highlighted by a vector line. Relevant third- and second-millennium BC adult–child graves are represented by grey dots. Adult–child graves from the Eurasian steppe belt are not depicted. Zedda et al. (2023).

The genetic analysis revealed that the Altweis child was male, and that the woman was his biological mother. Both individuals mitochondrial haplogroup H, which is common in Europe today and which is thought to have originated on the steppes of southwest Asia before the Last Glacial Maximum. Because mitochondrial DNA is found in the mitochondria, organelles outside the cell nucleus, it is passed directly from mother to child without being sexually recombined each generation, enabling precise estimations of when individuals shared common ancestors, at least through the female line; this is known as the female haplogroup. It is also possible to trace direct ancestry through the male line, using DNA from the Y chromosome, which is passed directly from father to son without sexual recombination; this is known as the male haplogroup. Since everyone has mitochondria, it is possible to determine the female haplogroup of all Humans, but generally only males have a Y chromosome and can be assigned to a male haplogroup. The Altweis child belonged to Y haplogroup R1b, which is very common in males associated with the Bell Beaker Culture, although this haplotype is found throughout Europe, Western and Central Asia, North Africa, and the Sahel.

In continental Bell Beaker burials, women were typically placed on their right side with their head to the south, while men were placed on their left side with their heads to the north, so that both sexes faced to the east. The woman in the Altweis grave breaks this pattern, being buried on her right side, with her head to the north, so that she faces to the west. The child is placed in the conventional orientation for a male of the period, with the woman apparently placed out of the traditional alignment so that she could face the child.

The grave of Altwies, left: the bones of the mother and child highlighted; right: hypothetical reconstruction of the grave based on phenotypic traits partly inferred from the ancient genomes. Zedda et al. (2023).

At Dunstable Down, both the child and adult were female, although they belonged to different mitochondrial haplogroups, ruling out the possibility of their being mother and daughter; the child belonged to haplogroup K1c, common in Western Europe, while the adult belonged to haplogroup N1b, which is found across the Middle East, the Caucasus region, and Europe. The degree of relatedness of the two individuals makes it most likely that the woman was the child's maternal aunt.

The orientation of the individuals in the Dunstable Down burial is less clear, though Smith recorded that the child had its head to the north. The orientation of individuals in Bell Beaker Culture burials in England was less rigid, with women and girls typically buried either on the left side with the head to the north, or on the right side with the head to the east.

Adult and child burials are known from almost all cultures across western Eurasia in the third millennium BC, including the Bell Beaker, Corded Ware, and Yamnaya cultures. This is despite a tendency towards single burials during the period, and a general paucity of child burials. Infant mortality is thought to have been high in the Late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age, with many children apparently not receiving formal burials. This makes the practice of double burials particularly intriguing.

As with other cultures of the period, the graves of Bell Beaker children are rare. Some of the burials that are known appear to have been miniature versions of adult burials, complete with miniature vessels, weapons, and items of personal adornment. A number of double burials are known from Bell Beaker Culture cemeteries in France, with infants buried either facing or back-to-back with adult women, or in one case an adult man. In the Bell Beaker Culture in the UK, shared graves were much more common, with single burials generally reserved for men. Here women and children were often buried in groups, though graves containing children typically also contain at least one adult, generally a woman.

In Corded Ware cemeteries in Central Europe, two separate burial customs for children appear to have been present, with some cemeteries containing individual burials for children and others having children buried in communal graves, again commonly with adults also present. Genetic studies have shown that individuals in shared graves tend to be close relatives. In the Únětice Culture of Central Europe, which overlaps the range of the Bell Beaker and Corded Ware cultures, shared burials are again common, with genetic studies having found several cases of parents buried with children.

Exactly where the practice of burying children with adults originated is unclear. The Altwies and Dunstable Downs individuals all have high proportions of genetic material from the steppes of Southwest Asia, and burials of this type are also known among the Yamnaya people of the Pontic-Caspian steppes. Similar burials are also known among the Afanasievo people of Central Asia, who are thought to have originated on the Eurasian steppes and migrated eastwards towards Mongolia.

The appearance of these graves may mark an increase in the importance of children within culture around the end of the Neolithic, possibly related to a more conscious concept of a family unit, containing biologically related and unrelated individuals. A greater diversity of burial practices also appears around this time, with a mixture of individual and small communal graves, and an increasing amount of grave goods. It has been suggested that, in this context, children may themselves have been a form of grave goods, rather than valued individuals in their own right, serving as symbols of the status or fertility of the adults involved, possibly stored after their own deaths for internment in the grave of an adult.

Zedda et al.'s study demonstrates for the first time that the Bell Beaker people of Northwest Europe buried children with their mothers and other close biological relatives, something which apparently ties in with the wider practice of adult and child burials across the Bell Beaker world. However, at the Camino de las Yeseras Bell Beaker cemetery in Spain, a woman and child buried together were shown to be unrelated, with the woman showing genetic affinity to older Iberian populations, while the child showed a high proportion of steppe ancestry. Zedda et al. suggest that this might be a result of different customs prevailing in the southern part of the Bell Beaker range, where megalithic tombs and mass burials were still common, but possibly also a concept of the family which included non-biologically related individuals.

The limited genetic data available may tell us something about how kinship was viewed in the third millennium BC. The burial of a child with a paternal aunt at Dunstable Down suggests that patralinial lines were important, with a paternal aunt able to act as a substitute mother  The orientation of the grave at Altweis matches the gender of the male child rather than the adult woman, possibly indicating that males were seen as more important, regardless of age. In Corded Ware burials in Central Europe containing adults and children, the adults were always buried in the 'correct' orientation, with the children fitting around this, suggesting that for these people age was more important than gender. 

Corded Ware burials have also been shown to contain children alongside unrelated adults, again possibly showing a view of kinship that could contain non biologically related individuals. This may indicate that children could be buried with step-parents, or possibly even that fostering was an accepted custom by these people. One burial at Baden-Württemberg in Germany contains a 'family' of a man, a woman, and two children, none of whom are related to one-another, possibly indicating that while it was preferable for children to be buried with relatives, being accompanied by an adult was the important part, and non-relatives were acceptable if no relatives were available.

It was not possible to establish the cause of death for any of the individuals at Altweis or Dunstable Down, but the large number of adult and child burials from this time across Europe does raise some questions about how the people in these burials died. In most cases, the children involved are not new-borns, which rules out birth complications as a cause of death. Therefore, the widespread near simultaneous deaths of children and parents over wide areas of Europe. Yersinia pestis, the causative agent of the Bubonic Plague, is known to have been widespread in Europe during the Bronze Age, which would certainly be able to kill multiple family members in rapid succession, but it is unclear if this was present in the third millennium BC. 

The burial of mothers and children together could also be suggestive of violent deaths. Late Neolithic to Early Bronze Age Europe is known to have been a violent place, with women and children in no way spared this. Several child burials from Early Bronze Age Europe show signs of fatal blunt force trauma, and a woman in an adult and child burial at Eulau in  Germany is thought to have been killed by an arrow wound.

Worthington George Smith believed that the child in the Dunstable Downs burial had been buried alive with her mother, although he was able to cite no evidence for this. The belief that early people carried out Human sacrifice with great regularity was prevalent among nineteenth century antiquarians, and is not absent from modern archaeological literature. This is at least in part due to the writings of Greek and Roman scholars, who tended to sensationalise the savagery of peoples outside the classical world. This does not, however, mean that such Human sacrifice did not occur at all in prehistoric Europe.

What is clear is that nor all adult and child burials were the same, and that it is quite likely that how family relationships were perceived probably varied considerably across the physical and temporal range of these sites. Bell Beaker Culture burials appear to have involved considerable preparation, including the preparation of grave goods, such as beakers and other high-status items. The burning of the burial pit at Altweis before the deceased and accompanying grave goods were placed within implies that the funerary rights there took at least two days. This makes the interpretation of all such burials as having occurred in the aftermath of raids difficult (although some certainly did, at the Eulau cemetery there are thirteen skeletons in four pits, with five individuals showing signs of recent violent injury).

Possibly, however, the most significant aspect of the adult and child burials at Altwies and Dunstable Down is the symbolic way in which they were arranged, with the child lying in the adults arms. This seems to have begun in the Corded Ware Culture, and persisted into the later Bell Beaker Culture. The posture appears to denote that both individuals in the grave were important to the society that buried them, and suggests a strong emotional element to the funerary rituals, albeit one that we are not fully able to decipher today.

See also...

Follow Sciency Thoughts on Facebook.

Follow Sciency Thoughts on Twitter.