In 2000, during the construction of a highway in Altwies in southern Luxembourg, archaeologists discovered two graves from the Early Bronze Age. One of the two is the final resting place of a woman and her child. The two skeletons lie in a warm embrace, with the adult holding the child’s head in her hand. This grave pose is very similar to a grave discovered in Dunstable Downs, Great Britain in 1887 – more than 500 kilometers from Altwies. Are the two burials connected in any way?
“The sight of a woman in a sleeping pose holding a child in her arms is moving and poignant. Even if this peaceful image may be deceptive, it still reflects a lost meaning that has been preserved over thousands of kilometers and between many different cultures,” explains Maxime Brami from the University of Mainz. As the archaeologist and his colleagues explain, the characteristics of the two burial sites suggest that the people of the Bell Beaker culture, to which the skeletons belong, mourned their dead with strictly followed rituals.
In order to gain further insight, the researchers analyzed the genetic information of the human remains. “A woman and a three-year-old boy were buried in Altwies, and DNA analysis showed that they were actually mother and son,” explains Brami. “However, a different picture emerges at Dunstable Downs: a young woman was buried there with a girl of around six years old, but the DNA revealed that the two were paternal aunt and niece.”
This suggests that at least in some Early Bronze Age communities lived together in extended families and buried their dead together, with biological and family relationships being the main focus. According to the archaeologists, the joint burial of the two British skeletons suggests that the paternal aunt played the role of a surrogate parent for the child – an indication that the male line was crucial for family and property at that time. “The data, […] “could indicate a patrilineal descent system in the western Eurasian Bell Beaker culture,” explains Brami.
Upon further research, the archaeologists identified more than 100 similar multiple burials of adults and children in Eurasia from the same period. Why were they buried together? Did they each die together, perhaps even violently? At least no signs of violence were found on the skeletal remains in Altwies. The researchers suspect infections or epidemics as an alternative reason for the multiple burials.