The bones of large men covered with red dye, discovered by archaeologists in two mounds in Vojvodina in the northern part of the Republic of Serbia probably belong to people who arrived there almost 5,000 years ago from the steppes of southern Russia or Ukraine.
Excavation of the burial mound in Šajkaška
The excavated grave site shown against a section of the burial mound in Šajkaška
The target of the research were two large mounds, 40 m in diameter and 3-4 m high, located in the Šajkaška region (in the autonomous district of Vojvodina) on the lower Tisza River – at the very western edge of the Eurasian steppe. In each of them there were two spacious wooden burial chambers.
Both mounds were built in two phases. Initially, when the first dead were laid to rest around 3,000-2,900 BC, they were much smaller.
After about 100-200 years, when the second burial was made, their diameters and heights were significantly increased.
“The graves we discovered were not spectacularly furnished, but the red colour of some of the bones attracted attention. This was due to the use of ochre to cover, or possibly colour, the bodies of the dead,” said Piotr Włodarczak, PhD, from the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnology of the Polish Academy of Sciences, who was one of the leaders of the excavations.
As the archaeologist stressed, at that time it was a “sacred colour” and was used during funeral rites. The remains belonged to robust men over 1.8 metres tall.
Remains of a ‘robust man’ unearthed in one of the burial mounds in Šajkaška
Excavation of one of the burials in Šajkaška
“Both the use of ochre and the above-average height of the deceased – men living in this part of Europe at the turn of the 4th and 3rd millennia usually reached about 1.6m – indicate that the dead were immigrants.
The ritual with the use of ochre and placing individual burials in large mounds is associated with communities living in the eastern European steppe areas,” explained the scientist.
Genetic studies of the remains show that in fact the deceased either came from the east or were direct descendants of the newcomers.
Samples were also taken from the bones for isotopic analyses, which make it possible to determine, among other things, their diet.
“It was no surprise to us that the deceased consumed a lot of meat, as these communities were involved in livestock farming,” Dr Włodarczak added.
The excavation took place in 2016-2018, but only now have the researchers finalised a number of specialised analyses.
The project was funded by the National Science Centre. It was conducted in cooperation with the Museum of Vojvodina in Novi Sad.
As Dr. Włodarczak explained to the Polish Press Agency, it was at the turn of the 4th and 3rd millennium that a nomadic community arrived in Europe from the southern steppes of Russia and Ukraine, traces of which are described by archaeologists as the Yamnaya culture. It significantly changed the cultural situation of Europe.
“Proto-state Bronze Age centres began to emerge and elites were singled out, as evidenced, for example, by large barrows in which individuals were buried”, he added. Archaeologists assume that these were community leaders.
Some of the graves were very richly equipped with weapons, ornaments or decorated vessels. The barrows discovered in Vojvodina are the westernmost located tombs of the nomadic community of the Yamnaya culture.
Reconstruction of the Yamnaya burial