Post-Mortem Mutilations of Human Bodies in Early Iron Age Kazakhstan and Their Possible Meaning for Rites of Burial

By Bendezu-Sarmiento, J.; Francfort, H. -P. et al. | Antiquity, March 1, 2008 | Go to article overview

Post-Mortem Mutilations of Human Bodies in Early Iron Age Kazakhstan and Their Possible Meaning for Rites of Burial


Bendezu-Sarmiento, J., Francfort, H. -P., Ismagulova, A., Samashev, Z., Antiquity


Introduction

The study of modifications to the surface of human bones has up to recently been rather neglected, as the anthropological material was either little known or little sought out. Several studies of ancient collections have, however, shown that such modifications were more frequent than previously thought and their identification has raised new questions about the treatment of bodies in pre- and post-funeral rites (Boulestin 1999; Boulestin et al. 1996; Gambier & Le Mort 1996; Jelinek 1993; Le Mort 1981; 2003; Ullrich 1991 amongst others).

In the present paper we examine bones from Zevakino, an Early Iron Age cemetery in Kazakhstan, where we recorded many ancient fractures and cut-marks. A critical review of their possible causes looks at post-mortem disturbance, by ancient and modern excavators, gnawing during excarnation and documentary analogies for mummification and scalping. We conclude that although most of the burials were robbed, the human remains were generally articulated and the scars carried on their bones should have derived from deliberate post-mortem rituals.

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

The cemetery

The cemetery of Zevakino lies in eastern Kazakhstan (Figure 1) on the right bank of the High Irtysh, 5km south-east of the village of that name (Figure 2). The cemetery spreads along a N-S axis over several kilometres and contains over 500 burials dating from the Bronze Age (early second millennium BC) to the later Middle Ages (Arslanova 1970; 1971 a & b; 1972; 1974a & b). The graves that interest us here were found almost exclusively in the south of the cemetery, and belong, according to the analysis of the archaeological material and mortuary practices, to the so-called 'transition' period between the Bronze and Iron Ages (late second--early first millennium BC). On the surface, the graves are characterised by indications of oval or rectangular enclosures of modest dimensions (between 2 and 5m in diameter or width). The burial pit, either oval or square, is oriented NE-SW or N-S and is relatively large (up to 2 x 1.4m) compared to the size of its enclosure, but shallow (rarely deeper than 1m).

[FIGURE 2 OMITTED]

The bodies, with skulls oriented towards SW, SSW and S, are laid on their sides, particularly the right side, with upper and lower limbs flexed (Figure 3). The orientation of the burial pit and the position of the individual differ from the E-W orientation and the preference for the left side that was previously the norm in Bronze Age Kazakhstan (Bendezu-Sarmiento et al. 2007) as well as in southern Siberia (Legrand 2006).

In most graves it can be shown that the body decomposed in situ. There are a number of clear disarticulations, but in terms of anatomy, these are spatially limited. In these cases it seems likely that shortly after burial a void was created by a container made of a light material (bag, or blanket of felt, leather or bark) that was nevertheless sufficiently strong to last while decomposition of certain body parts was underway. For this period (late Karasuk period, end of second millennium BC) there are indeed cases where a covering made of bark was used amongst the burials of the Minusinsk Basin (Siberia), notably in the Lugavsk culture (Chlenova 1972: Table 29-7).

Burials may be single, double, or multiple inhumations (Figure 3). In multiple burials, the adults occupy the main central space while children are either placed in the remaining spaces or squeezed in between adults. In some cases, it may be that graves were intended to be re-opened. It is perhaps in this light that we can interpret the presence of wooden roofs (as in enclosure 7) and the shallow depth of the grave pits. But there are good examples where the deposition of bodies, side by side or superimposed, was contemporary. In our sample we can argue this for burial 32 and enclosures 38 and 43 (Figure 3).

[FIGURE 3 OMITTED]

[FIGURE 4 OMITTED]

Most of the graves had been looted of their artefacts (only structure 35, individual 95 appeared untouched), which raises the question of disturbance of the bodies and the accidental cutting of the bones by looters (Figure 3A). …

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