Station: [213] Funerary Rites

Here, you can see two burials that we have reconstructed for you: one is the grave of a pregnant woman with foetus and the other the burial of a newborn child. They both date from the middle Neolithic and tell us about funerary rites during that period. At the same time, they illustrate the harsh living conditions the people experienced, which included high infant mortality rates, early pregnancies, and a life expectancy of about 30 years.

This 18-year old woman was in her ninth month of pregnancy. She died shortly before giving birth. You can see the graceful bones of the foetus inside her pelvic area. This woman was laid to rest in a sleeping position, with a pottery spoon, a pot with handles and an amphora to accompany her on her journey to the other side. This grave belongs to a small cemetery dated to between 3800 and 3.500 BC that lies to the South of Leipzig.

  It is not clear whether this baby burial is indeed a grave, a sacrificial offering or simply a way of disposing of the little body? That’s because this newborn baby’s skeleton was found in a settlement pit, next to animal bones, ceramic fragments and tools made of stone and bone.  There are a remarkable number of tortoise shells and dog skulls as well.  Furthermore, several layers of mussel shells overlaid the skeleton. The baby was laid in its final resting place in around 3300 BC.

In fact, the way people dealt with their dead in the middle Neolithic can seem rather strange to us.  Only part of the population was buried in a regular way, either in shallow graves in the ground, small cemeteries, or in trapeze-shaped structures that could measure up to 10 metres in length. They were surrounded by small ditches and palisades, and surmounted by a mound. Funerary monuments of this kind often formed entire streets.

Many other human skeletons have been found in settlement and rubbish pits that are often in a twisted position, or just in pieces. Some bones bear the marks of animal teeth; were these corpses left to rot, and only later gathered up and buried? Or did their funerary rites involve violence which led to dismembering the bodies of the deceased?