Twenty-five thousand years ago, three teenagers were laid to rest in a common grave, near a village called Dolni Vestonice in the Czech province of Moravia. Their bodies had been manipulated such that one individual had been placed face down, while the individual on the left had his hand placed over the middle skeleton’s pelvic area, which had been covered in red ochre. What could it all mean?
Dolni Vestonice is an Upper Paleolithic site located near the modern town of Brno in the region of Moravia, which is situated in the eastern part of what is today the Czech Republic. Based on radiocarbon dating of the human remains and charcoal recovered from the site, Dolní Věstonice was found to have been occupied around 30,000 years ago. Dolní Věstonice has provided archaeologists with a large amount of information about the Upper Paleolithic in that region of the world, as numerous archaeologically interesting finds have been made there. Amongst these are the remains of kilns and numerous ceramic figurines, the remains of dwellings, and several burials, including an enigmatic grave known as the ‘Triple Burial’. These burials offer us a glimpse into the funerary practices of the people of that region during the Upper Paleolithic.
Dolní Věstonice is recorded to have been discovered in 1922, and was excavated during the first half of the 20 th century. A second excavation, which functioned as a salvage operation, was undertaken during 1980. It was during this excavation that the Triple Burial was discovered. Following the discovery of the burial, a specialist was summoned, and the remains exhumed. Based on analyses of the skeletons, it was determined that they belonged to teenagers. Two of the individuals were determined to be males, whilst the third one has been conventionally regarded as a female.
The female skeleton was found to have been placed between the two male ones. Analyses of her bones have revealed a marked left curvature of the spine, as well several other skeletal anomalies, indicating that she had been a cripple during her lifetime. By contrast, it has been suggested that the two males accompanying her were healthy individuals, and died in the prime of their lives.
The burial position of these individuals was somewhat unusual, most notably in that the hands of the male on the left were placed on the middle skeleton’s pelvic area, which was covered in red ochre. This individual was also found to be lying on his back, with his face towards the female. As for the male on the right, he was discovered to be lying on his stomach, facing away from the female, though his left arm was linked to hers.
As for grave goods, it has been reported that both men had necklaces of pierced canine teeth and ivory on their heads. Additionally, the male on the left had worn some kind of painted mask. Red ochre was also found to have been applied onto the heads of all three individuals. Most puzzling perhaps was the discovery of the remains of a thick wooden pole that was thrust up the coccyx and through the hip of the male on the left. This suggests that he might have had an unnatural death.
Several interpretations of the burial have been offered since it was discovered. For example, it has been suggested that the female may have died during childbirth. According to this scenario, the male on the left was a medicine-man (due to the mask he was wearing), whilst the other male was her husband. As these men were held responsible for her death, they followed her into the afterlife. Another suggestion is that the skeletons belonged to a young queen and two consorts.
Yet another interpretation is made with the assumption that homosexuality was accepted as normal by the people of Dolní Věstonice. This interpretation suggests that the female in the middle was actually a male, and that he was having a homosexual relationship with the male on the right. The male on the left might, for one reason or another, decided to humiliate the middle individual, causing him to commit suicide. As a result the male on the right commits suicide out of grief. Finally, the male on the left is executed by the community for what he had done.
Until now, no firm conclusions have been drawn regarding the mysterious Ice Age triple burial. Researchers can only speculate as to what the ancient inhabitants of Dolni Vestonice had intended when they buried the three teenagers over 25,000 years ago.
Featured image: Artist’s representation of the triple burial of Dolni Vestonice ( anthropology.net)
By Wu Mingren