Direct AMS Radiocarbon Dates for the Sungir Mid Upper Palaeolithic Burials

Article excerpt

The site of Sungir (alternatively Sounghir) lies east of the town of Vladimir, about 200 km northeast of Moscow. It is a large mid Upper Palaeolithic (`Eastern Gravettian' sensu lato) cultural accumulation on the left bank of the Kliazma river, of which some 1500 sq. m was excavated in several seasons between 1957 and 1964 (Bader 1965; 1967; 1978; 1998).The single burial (Grave 1/Sungir 1) was excavated in 1964. It is that of an adult male in extended, supine position, with his head oriented to the northeast and hands placed over his pubis (FIGURE 1). The second grave was discovered in 1969 and contained two adolescents -- one male (Sungir 2) and one (probably) female (Sungir 3) -- both extended, supine and lying head to head (FIGURE 2). All three burials were covered in red ochre and Sungir 1 was possibly associated with fires in a manner intriguingly similar to the DVXVI male burial at Dolni Vestonice, Moravia (Svoboda et al. 1996). Several thousand mammoth ivory beads accompanied all three individuals, apparently sewn onto clothing in complex designs from head to foot (Bader 1998). In addition to these, bracelets of mammoth ivory were worn by Sungir 1, and spears of straightened mammoth ivory, ivory daggers, pierced antler rods, a disc-shaped `pendant', 20 mammoth ivory bracelets, small animal carvings, perforated fox teeth, bone pins, stone tools and other more enigmatic items of organic material accompanied the double burial. In terms of the ochre colouring, cultural items, stone-tool assemblages and chronological positioning, the burials relate to a wider mid Upper Palaeolithic burial phenomenon that includes the `Red Lady' of Paviland, Wales (Aldhouse-Green & Pettitt 1998), Lagar Velho boy, Portugal (Duarte et al. 1999), the numerous burials including the `triple burial' at Dolni Vestonice (e.g. Svoboda et al. 1996) and Brno 2, Moravia (Pettitt & Trinkaus in press), and the single, double and triple burials from the Grimaldi Caves, Italy (e.g. Formicola 1988; 1991), which represent in our opinion the first convincing appearance of formal burial by modern humans in Europe. Of these, the oldest directly dated is Paviland (at c. 26,000-27,000 BP), while Lagar Velho at c. 24,000-25,000 BP and Brno 2 at c. 23,000-24,000 BP fall at the younger end of the range. Estimates of the age of the Sungir burials were in the order of 27,000-28,000 BP on the basis of dates for the cultural levels into which the shallow graves had been excavated.


Long-bone fragments from each of the burials were selected for dating. These received the current standard Oxford pretreatment for bone samples; each was demineralized in acid, washed, given an alkaline rinse to extract humic acids before being gelatinized by heating in a weak acid, before combustion and measurement (see Pettitt & Trinkaus in press for further details of Oxford methods). …