Written by: Katy Meyers Emery
Primary Source: Bones Don’t Lie
I’ve been thinking quite a bit about love recently- primarily because I recently became engaged, but also because I’ve been seeing increasingly more images of skeletons in an embrace. An recent article from the Siberian Times reported on the finding of hundreds of tombs from a Staryi Tartas village, in the Novosibirsk region of Russia. Within these, dozens of individual skeletons were found holding one another in embrace. Some had the hands interlocked, some are facing each other in a type of hug, some are spooning one another, and many are curled up facing each other. It isn’t just individuals buried with children, it is adults together, or children together, or a combination of these groups.
The burials date to the Bronze Age, about 3,500 years ago, and are attributed to the Andronovo culture, a migrant group the moved into Siberia from the Middle East. This group is most often recognized for their advances in metallurgy, and can be recognized by their distinctive crouched inhumation burials. They bred cattle, were innovative with their use of carts and chariots drawn by horses, and lived in small village like communities of 10-20 sunken log houses. Their graves were richly furnished with pottery vessels, bronze ornaments, bronze daggers, gaming pieces such as horse phalanges and sheep astragals, and bone arrowheads. Burials were also found with large ritual pits containing faunal bones, and other bone and bronze artifacts. There is still much to be learned about this group, and further investigation of the burials is a good place to begin learning about their health, social organization, and lifestyle.
The challenge and first question remains, why are these burials done in a manner that involves the bodies interlocking, embracing or placed together? This isn’t the first time we’ve seen this type of burial. For example, there is the famous ‘Romeo and Juliet burial’, called so due to it consisting of a teen male and teen female buried embracing one another. This 5th to 6th century CE burial was found outside of Mantua, Italy. Another example is the ‘Lovers of Valdaro’, a male and female found holding one another for 5,000 years. In a previous article, I used an ethnographic example of a modern male and female cremated and buried together to argue that it is possible that these ancient burials are representations of love or affection (Read the whole article: Can We Excavate Love). Now, we can’t excavate love, and there are dozens of reasons that individuals would be buried like this, but affection and devotion is a possibility.
Archaeologists in Siberia are debating a number of possibilities for this style of burial. One suggestion is that if the man died, that his wife may have been killed and buried with him. There is historic evidence for this practice in Indian cultures. It is known as Sati or Suttee, and consists of the widow throwing herself on the burning pyre of her deceased husband- killing herself in the act to be buried with him. Another theory from these archaeologists is that a young woman may have been sacrificed to be with the man. An example of this from another culture is from Beowulf, where a young female was selected to be killed and included in the burial of important deceased men. This was also the hypothesis from another recent Viking excavation, where they proposed that slaves may have been included in burials as grave goods (See Slaves as Viking Grave Goods).
However, it is also possible that burials were left open until another individual died and could be buried with another deceased individual, or both individuals may have died at the same time. Professor Molodin, Director of Research of the Institute of Archeology and Ethnography of the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences, argues that when the burial is a child and adult, it looks like a natural thing for them to be together, and it is more likely the deaths were natural or simultaneous. It is possible the child is buried with an adult relative or the two relatives died together, and the adult is meant to protect the child in the afterlife. However, with two adults, Molodin argues that the answers aren’t as obvious. It is possible that this demonstrates the importance of nuclear families, and that this was an important relationship to signify in death. In order to gain more insight on why this is occurring, DNA tests are going to be done to establish kinship of the individuals buried together. This type of analysis is fairly expensive, and still quite rare- however it could be extremely revealing as to the nature of the relationships within the burials.
At this point, these are all hypotheses- there are no straight answers and before we can even begin to interpret this, we need a lot more evidence. The concept of love being demonstrated in a burial is a wonderful notion- it solidifies that Disney concept of love, where we live happily ever after and die on the same day as our spouse so we never have to spend a day without them. Romanticism is wonderful, but there isn’t really room for it in bioarchaeology. This will be an interesting study and site to follow up on, and hopefully soon we will get to see the full evidence and interpretation.
(Also, to be clear about this, there is a strong focus on males dying naturally and females being sacrificed to be with them. This is the Siberian archaeologists’ interpretation, not my own and personally I wish this study wasn’t so male oriented. Why can’t the husband be buried with the wife? Don’t women deserve to have a companion in the afterlife?)
Liesowska 2013 Modern Science to Unlock the Secrets of Couples Holding Each Other in Loving Embrace for 3500 years. Siberian Times. http://siberiantimes.com/science/casestudy/features/modern-science-to-unlock-the-secrets-of-couples-holding-each-other-in-loving-embrace-for-3500-years/