Urn Analysis Reveals Elite Woman and Two Fetuses From Vatya Culture

Deep exploration of a Bronze Age cemetery in Hungary has revealed hundreds of artifacts and grave goods related to the Vatya culture. Analysis of the contents of one remarkable urn burial suggests high-status women in Bronze Age Central Europe mostly married outside of their immediate social group.

Deep Study of Vatya Culture Cemetery

A team of researchers from the University of Bologna, Italy, have published a new study looking at the Vatya people of the Early and Middle Bronze Ages in what is today Hungary. The research analyzed 29 graves from the Szigetszentmiklós-Ürgehegy cemetery, one of the largest Middle Bronze Age urn cemeteries in Central Hungary, located to the south of Budapest.

Szigetszentmiklós-Ürgehegy ‘urnfield’ during excavation. (PLoS ONE)

Szigetszentmiklós-Ürgehegy ‘urnfield’ during excavation. ( PLoS ONE )

Among the graves and urns, the excavators discovered a single golden hair ring with the cremated remains of a high-status Vatya culture woman who lived around 2200–1450 BC. Buried with her two fetuses, new techniques of analysis revealed that “Vatya women tended to marry outside their local area,” according to the paper published in the journal  PLoS ONE .

Grave good of the Vatya Culture: Bronze neck-ring (Ösenring); 2. Gold hair-ring (Noppenring); 3. Bone pins/needles (Knochennadeln) (PLoS ONE).

Grave good of the Vatya Culture: Bronze neck-ring (Ösenring); 2. Gold hair-ring (Noppenring); 3. Bone pins/needles (Knochennadeln) ( PLoS ONE ).

The Vatya Woman Preferred Foreign Stock

To overcome the traditional challenges of studying cremated remains, prehistorian Claudio Cavazzuti, and his colleagues team from the University of Bologna, applied a new technique called “osteological sampling strategies.” Human tissue from 29 graves was analyzed with this method and it was concluded that in Bronze Age Central Europe women generally married outside of their immediate group,” according to the paper.

How then did the scientists get from 29 cremated human samples to knowing that one woman in particular preferred foreign stock when it came to her men? And how did they get to the broader conclusion that these ancient women were exogamic – marrying only outside the limits of their tribe, or clan? The researchers studied 26 urns of cremated ashes and three whole body burials. The isotope analysis determined which of these individuals were local to the area and who were incomers.

A typical Vatya urn burial at the cemetery. (PLoS ONE)

A typical Vatya urn burial at the cemetery. ( PLoS ONE )

Ancient Lives Rising From The Ashes

The results of the analysis determined “seven of the sampled ashes belonged to adult men, 11 to adult women, two to adults of uncertain sex and six children, four aged 2–5 and two 5–10 years old.” In a PLoS release, Professor Cavazzuti said it was “a wide spectrum of new bioarchaeological methods, techniques and sampling strategies,” that enabled he and his team “to reconstruct the life-histories of cremated people of the Bronze Age”.

Besides all of these comparatively normal burials, one stood out. Known as “gravesite 241” the urn held the ashes of an adult woman “and two 28-32 gestational weeks-old fetuses, buried alongside goods including a golden hair-ring, a bronze neck-ring and two bone hairpin ornaments.” The study shows how this high-class woman suffered a tragic demise.

Left: Bone assemblage from burial n. 241a (adult female individual). Right: Bones attributable to both fetuses (PLoS ONE)

Left: Bone assemblage from burial n. 241a (adult female individual). Right: Bones attributable to both fetuses ( PLoS ONE )

Mixing Up Noble Bloodlines To Expand Control

How did the researchers conclude that this woman was “high-class,” having discovered only one gold ring? The reason is because the bone weight of her ashes was “50 per cent higher than the average of the 26 sampled ashes.” This told the researchers that the woman’s ashes were gathered “very carefully” post cremation, suggesting she was more important that the average cremated person.

The researchers believe that woman “241” was aged 25–35-years-old when she died and that her death was due to complications bearing or birthing. This was made evident in the discovery of the remains of twins who were buried with the woman, according to the study. Recreating the back story for this woman was achieved with the new strontium isotope analysis technique which showed the woman was not local and had moved to Szigetszentmiklós sometime between 8 – 13 years old.

The results from the new analysis were applied in a broader historical perspective which resulted in affirmation that high-rank individuals from different regions married to “establish or strengthen interconnections, alliances, and economic partnerships.”

Top image: The Vatya Cuture urn-field, with indivigual urn inset and remains that were found.     Source: PLoS ONE

By Ashley Cowie

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