Traceless Death. Missing Burials in Bronze and Iron Age Estonia/ Jaljetu Surm. Puuduvad Matused Pronksi- Ja Rauaaegses Eestis

Article excerpt


In an overview of the Stone Age religious beliefs written half a century ago, Lembit Jaanits (1961, 68 f.) drew attention to the fact that the majority of people who lived at that time were most likely never buried in the ground. This conclusion was made on the basis of an amazingly low number of burials known in either settlement sites or separate cemeteries outside the settlements of that time. Similar thoughts had been published by Estonian folklorist in exile Oskar Loorits (1949, 118) already 12 years earlier. Although more cemeteries and graves from the late Mesolithic and Neolithic have been discovered within the last fifty years in what is today Estonia and its neighbouring areas, this suggestion is still valid and realistic. With a reference to anthropological evidence of some Siberian peoples, Jaanits supposed that the dead could have been taken to certain places outside the settlements (located e.g. in the forest) and left there on the surface of the ground, wrapped perhaps into skins or birch bark (Jaanits 1961, 69). After some time almost no traces will remain from such exposed bodies.

As for the number of burial sites, the situation is even worse concerning the Early Bronze Age: no graves have been reported so far in Estonia, which could belong to the second millennium BC (Lang 2007, 147). This is most likely due to the stage of investigation and it is only a matter of time when the first burials will be discovered. In the southernmost neighbouring areas, for instance, several flat cemeteries with pit graves of the Early Bronze Age date have been unearthed, e.g. at Kivutkalns and Raganukalns (Graudonis 1967; Denisova et al. 1985). It was also in the late second millennium BC when the first monumental above-ground burial mounds were erected there, e.g. at Pukuli, Reznes, and Kalniesi (Graudonis 1967; Vasks 2000). In northern and western Estonia the first monumental stone graves were built slightly later, i.e. at the beginning of the Late Bronze Age (Lang 2007, 147 ff.). Since that time, at least one portion of burials has become very much visible in the archaeological record, and forms the main subject of research.

However, it was gradually understood since the early 1990s that despite large numbers of stone graves of the Late Bronze and Iron Ages, one part of prehistoric populations have never been buried there. How big that part was, is not clear. At first sight this conclusion based on palaeodemographic calculations was only made for both stone-cist graves of the Late Bronze and early Pre-Roman Iron Ages and north-west-Estonian tarand-graves of the Roman Iron Age (Lang & Ligi 1991; Lang 1995a) because the number of burials in those graves was too small even for regular nuclear families. The tarand-graves in other parts of the country yielding larger numbers of burials were regarded to correspond to burial places of single farms with either nuclear or extended families. Later research into the osteological evidence of cremated bones has clearly demonstrated that even large burial grounds of the Middle and Late Iron Ages might have belonged only to one or a few families and not to larger village communities (Magi 2002, 74; Allmae 2003; Mandel 2003). This conclusion did not suit historical documents, however, that had reported a settlement pattern consisting of relatively advanced villages in the 13th century.

The current article aims to discuss the problems connected with mortuary customs that are difficult to study or even invisible for archaeology. This is, first, a study of 'the others'--people who did not belong to the sphere of those buried finally in stone graves, sand barrows or flat cemeteries. Second, this is also a study of complexity in cultural behaviour concerning the death and mortuary customs in which the 'proper burying' has formed only one--and perhaps not the most popular--way of acting. Following the definition given by Frands Herschend (2009, 37), by the term 'burying' I mean the placing of the dead in a 'burial site', i. …