On the disposal of the dead during the Early Iron Age.
The main area of interest of this project, which has been funded by the German Research Foundation (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft) since 2010, are the German Federal states of Baden-Wurttemberg and Bavaria.
Apart from these two federal states neighbouring regions are also taken into account. This extended area comprises the German federal states of Rhineland-Palatinate, Hesse and Thuringia; in addition Bohemia and Moravia, Upper and Lower Austria, and Switzerland, as well as Eastern France.
From early on, human skeletal remains in settlements of the Iron Age have aroused strong interest among archaeologists and laymen alike. Beside single bones, the settlement burials consist mostly of complete skeletons in settlement pits. As a common characteristic they seem to have been simply thrown into the pit from above, and only very seldom have objects been found which could be denominated as burial gifts. The first finds of this kind were thought to be the result of accidents or homicides.
In contrast to analogous Neolithic finds, it is unlikely that the settlement burials are the outcome of proper burial rituals, as we know of many individuals in the cemeteries and burial mounds of the Early Iron Age who had received a sometimes very lavish funeral. Among German researchers the most commonly held opinion is that the individuals in the settlement pits belonged to a part of Iron Age society with very little or no social standing. They could have been slaves, prisoners of war or otherwise unfree persons. French speaking scholars, on the other hand, favour a different interpretation: in their view, the dead in the settlement pits are best explained as ritual killings. This interpretation has certainly formed under the impact of places like Gournay in Northern France which contain hundreds and thousands of human bones and which without doubt were ritual centres. However, such sites are somewhat younger than the settlement burials. A third explanation assumes that the humans in the settlement pits died a „bad“ or unlucky death.
The main aim of the project is to find evidence which would provide a sound basis for assessing the alternative interpretations cited above – settlement burials as individuals with low social standing, as a result of ritual killings, or as victims of „bad“ deaths.
In particular the question has to be answered whether the settlement burials of the Early Iron Age represent a special group within the general population and – if yes – what kind of social role they played. For example, the hypotheses that the dead in the settlement pits had a low social standing has never been properly proved, the location of deposition was considered evidence enough. For a consistent interpretation of the social structure of Iron Age society the question of the social role of the settlement burials can be of vital importance. Generally speaking two scenarios are imaginable: 1. The settlement burials belonged to the same population as the ‚proper’ burials in the cemeteries. In this case, special circumstances of death or similar causes should be taken into account as explanations for the different mode of disposal. 2. The settlement burials did not belong to the same population as the ‚proper’ burials. If it can be shown that the dead from the settlements did not get the same degree of medical treatment and nutrition as the ‚proper’ burials and, furthermore, that they came from a different area, then clear indicators of a lower social status would have been found.
The project is based on the interdisciplinary integration of archaeological and anthropological research. In the case of the latter, the relatively new method of isotope analysis is employed. For a proper understanding of the results of both disciplines a systematic search for analogies is also necessary.
The basis of the project is a concise archaeological investigation of the individuals in question. For example, in the files of the state offices for the protection of archaeological monuments many unpublished reports of relevant finds are to be found. The existence of more than 100 individuals makes the application of statistical methods possible. Anthropological analyses will provide basic data on age, sex, measurements and palaeopathological findings. Isotopic analyses on different bones will add a further dimension and data layer to this. Judging from the current state of research, the most relevant information can be gained from the isotopes of the elements strontium, oxygen, carbon and nitrogen. For example, very interesting results on Neolithic mobility have been achieved with strontium and oxygen. Similar research has also been successfully undertaken on burials of the middle Latène period in Southern Bavaria. There it has been shown that some of the individuals sampled probably came from Bohemia. The usefulness of carbon and nitrogen for the study of prehistoric diets has already been proven in the 1980s for various Iron Age groups. Since then a plethora of studies has been published that show the importance of these isotopes for characterising social differences (e. g. in terms of meat consumption). In order to have the means for comparison it is necessary to conduct research not only on settlement burials but also on some of the ‚proper’ burials. Finally, the results of the archaeological and anthropological methods will be the subject of a cross-cultural comparison with corresponding observations on contemporary societies.
The workload within the project is divided into the parts archaeology, anthropology/isotopic analyses, and cross-cultural comparison. After the selection of the relevant individuals is completed, archaeology and anthropology can work side by side.
The data acquisition in the state offices for the protection of archaeological monuments in Bavaria and Baden-Wurttemberg is largely completed. Even at this initial stage of the analysis, very interesting spatial clusterings of settlement burials can be observed. In order to see if this is due to same kind of data distortion, or is indeed a relevant historical observation, further work will be done in the near future. Additionally, the first anthropological results have already been collected, but it is still too early for any reliable interpretation of this data.
S. Sievers (Römisch-Germanische Kommission, Frankfurt a. Main)
G. Grupe, A. Staskiewicz (Staatssammlung für Anthropologie und Paläoanatomie München)
J. Wahl (Landesdenkmalamt Baden-Württemberg, Arbeitsstelle Osteologie, Konstanz)
A. Schwentke (Institut für Ur- und Frühgeschichte und Archäologie des Mittelalters, Eberhard-Karls-Universität, Tübingen)
Bayerisches Landesamt für Bodendenkmalpflege, München
Landesdenkmalamt Baden-Württemberg, Esslingen