Birth and Death: Infant Burials from Vlasac and Lepenski Vir

Article excerpt


Vlasac and Lepenski Vir are key sites for the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition in south-east Europe that feature rich burials, including many infants and subadults. Both sites provide the possibility of examining social attitudes to the death of the young and shed light on the importance of these age groups for the reproduction of social units over time. In spite of several analyses of human osteological material from the area of the Danube Gorges, there has been little integration of the results from physical anthropology and the archaeological context of the burials. In a programmatic step to overcome this research bias, we initiated a re-analyses of infant burials from Vlasac and Lepenski, focussing on this group because of a large number of infant burials and their striking spatial patterning. Mortuary data from Vlasac and Lepenski Vir provide the possibility of defining transformations in cultural attitudes towards infant deaths.

The archaeology of the Danube Gorges

The archaeological sites in the Danube Gorges were excavated through rescue projects in the 1960s-1970s on both the Serbian and the Romanian sides of the Danube (see Figure 1). Sequences at sites such as Lepenski Vir, Vlasac, Padina and Schela Cladovei document the transformation of fisher-hunter-gatherers of the Mesolithic period (c. 10 000-6300 CalBC) to early pottery users of the Early Neolithic (c. 6300-5500 CalBC) (e.g. Srejovic 1969, 1972; Chapman 1992; Radovanovic 1996; Bonsall et al. 2000; Boric 1999, 2002a, 2002b; Tringham 2000). Sites in the Upper Gorge (Vlasac, Lepenski Vir and Padina) contained remains of trapezoidal floors with rectangular stone hearths, sculptured boulders and complex sequences of human burials. Subsistence focused on both the river and the hinterland areas, and faunal remains included red deer, pig, aurochs and abundant fish bones. The most problematic issue at Lepenski Vir is the presence of Early Neolithic pottery in the trapezoidal buildings, and their absolute dating (cf. Boric 1999, 2002a; Garasanina & Radovanovic 2001; Tringham 2000).


Isotopic measurements of stable carbon and nitrogen suggest a possible dietary shift in the Neolithic, i.e. after c. 6100 CalBC (cf. Bonsall et al. 2000; see also Grupe et al. 2003 and Boric et al. in press). Although isotopic measurements were analysed for ten children from Lepenski Vir and 7 from Vlasac by Bonsall et al. (2000: 125-6) it is not possible to relate palaeodietary results to particular individuals as information on what skeletons were analysed was not published in their report. (For new stable isotope analyses of this material see Grupe et al. 2003 and Boric et al. in press).

There are more than 500 burials in the Mesolithic and Early Neolithic sites on both sides of the Danube in this region (Roksandic 1999, 2000; Radovanovic 1996; Boroneant et al. 1999; Boroneant 2001), and the buried individuals represent only a selected portion of the population that inhabited the region over several millennia. A variety of burial positions is recorded: extended inhumations, burials in a sitting position with crossed legs, crouched/flexed burials, group burials, cremations and partial burials with disarticulated cranial and postcranial bones. There is a pronounced manipulation and circulation of detached skulls and mandibles. A relatively large number of infant and subadult individuals are attested at Vlasac and Lepenski Vir. The category 'infant' here designates individuals up to one-year old. A large majority of Vlasac and Lepenski Vir infant burials are neonates. There are two foetuses at Vlasac and there are several possibly older infants at both Vlasac and Lepenski Vir on the basis of size of long bones. Ageing infant burials on the basis of size of long bones must be considered only as an approximate estimate ([+ or -] several weeks). Here, we describe infant burials from these two sites. …