Ritually motivated trepanation in Southern Russia?

For a large part of human prehistory, people around the world practised trepanation: a crude surgical procedure that involves forming a hole in the skull of a living person by either drilling, cutting or scraping away layers of bone with a sharp implement.

To date, thousands of skulls bearing signs of trepanation have been unearthed at archaeological sites across the world.

But despite its apparent importance, scientists are still not completely agreed on why our ancestors performed trepanation.

Anthropological accounts of 20th-Century trepanations in Africa and Polynesia suggest that, in these cases at least, trepanation was performed to treat pain – for instance, the pain caused by skull trauma or neurological disease.

Trepanation may also have had a similar purpose in prehistory. Many trepanned skulls show signs of cranial injuries or neurological diseases, often in the same region of the skull where the trepanation hole was made.

But as well as being used to treat medical conditions, researchers have long suspected that ancient humans performed trepanation for a quite different reason: ritual.

p045xp6q
A 14th-century painting of trepanation by Guido da Vigevano

Enter a caption

The earliest clear evidence of trepanation dates to approximately 7,000 years ago. It was practised in places as diverse as Ancient Greece, North and South America, Africa, Polynesia and the Far East. People probably developed the practice independently in several locations.

Trepanation had been abandoned by most cultures by the end of the Middle Ages, but the practice was still being carried out in a few isolated parts of Africa and Polynesia until the early 1900s.

Since the very first scientific studies on trepanation were published in the 19th Century, scholars have continued to argue that ancient humans sometimes performed trepanation to allow the passage of spirits into or out of the body, or as part of an initiation rite.

However, convincing evidence is hard to come by. It is almost impossible to completely rule out the possibility that a trepanation was carried out for medical reasons, because some brain conditions leave no trace on the skull.

However, in a small corner of Russia archaeologists have turned up some of the best evidence for ritual trepanation ever discovered.

p045xq4p
The trepanned skull of a 20-25-year-old female. The trepanation hole has only partially healed, suggesting she died within 8 weeks of the operation.

The story begins in 1997. Archaeologists were excavating a prehistoric burial site close to the city of Rostov-on-Don in the far south of Russia, near the northern reaches of the Black Sea.

The site contained the skeletal remains of 35 humans, distributed among 20 separate graves. Based on the style of the burials, the archaeologists knew that they dated to between approximately 5,000 and 3,000 BC, a period known as the Chalcolithic or “Copper Age”.

One of the graves contained the skeletons of five adults – two women and three men – together with an infant aged between one and two years, and a girl in her mid-teens.

Finding multiple skeletons in the same prehistoric grave is not particularly unusual. But what had been done to their skulls was: the two women, two of the men and the teenage girl had all been trepanned.

Each of their skulls contained a single hole, several centimetres wide and roughly ellipsoidal in shape, with signs of scraping around the edges. The skull of the third man contained a depression which also showed evidence of having been carved, but not an actual hole. Only the infant’s skull was unblemished.

The job of analysing the contents of the grave fell to Elena Batieva, an anthropologist now at the Southern Federal University in Rostov-on-Don, Russia. She immediately recognised the holes as trepanations, and she soon realised that these trepanations were unusual.

They had all been made in almost exactly the same location: a point on the skull called the “obelion”. The obelion is on the top of the skull and towards the rear, roughly where a high ponytail might be gathered.

Less than 1% of all recorded trepanations are located above the obelion point. What’s more, Batieva knew that such trepanations were even less common in ancient Russia. As far as she was aware at the time, there was just one other recorded case of an obelion trepanation: a skull unearthed in 1974 at an archaeological site remarkably close to the one she was excavating.

Clearly, finding even one obelion trepanation is remarkable. But Batieva was looking at five, all of them buried in the same grave. This was, and is, unprecedented.

There is a good reason why obelion trepanation is uncommon: it is very dangerous.

The obelion point is located directly above the superior sagittal sinus, where blood from the brain collects before flowing into the brain’s main outgoing veins. Opening the skull in this location would have risked major haemorrhage and death.

This suggests the Copper Age inhabitants of Russia must have had good reason to perform such trepanation procedures. Yet none of the skulls showed any signs of having suffered any injury or illness, before or after the trepanation had been performed.

In other words, it appeared as if all of these people were trepanned while they were completely healthy. Was their trepanation evidence of some sort of ritual?

p045xpbm
A treppaned skeleton.

It was an intriguing possibility. However, Batieva had to give up the trail. She had many more skeletons to analyse from all over southern Russia, and could not afford to get sidetracked by just a few skulls, however enigmatic.

Before she gave up, Batieva decided to search through Russia’s unpublished archaeological records, in case any more strange obelion trepanations had been discovered but not reported.

Surprisingly, she got two hits. The skulls of two young women with obelion trepanations had been discovered years earlier: one in 1980 and another in 1992. Each one had been unearthed less than 31 miles (50km) from Rostov-on-Don, and neither showed any signs of having been trepanned for a medical reason.

This gave Batieva a grand total of eight unusual skulls, all clustered in a small region of southern Russia and potentially all of about the same age. A decade later, even more came to light.

In 2011, an international team of archaeologists was analysing 137 human skeletons. They had recently been excavated from three separate Copper Age burial sites in a mountainous part of southern Russia called Kabardino-Balkaria, around 310 miles (500km) south-east of Rostov-on-Don, close to the modern-day border with Georgia.

The archaeologists had not set out to discover trepanations. They were there to learn about the general health of the prehistoric inhabitants of the region. But among the 137 skulls, they found nine with conspicuous holes.

Five of them were standard examples of trepanation. The holes had been made in a variety of different locations around the front and side of the skull, and all of the skulls showed signs of having suffered a physical trauma, suggesting that the trepanations had been performed to treat the effects of the injuries.

But none of the other four trepanned skulls showed any signs of damage or disease. What’s more, all four had been trepanned exactly above the obelion point.

Quite by chance one of the researchers – Julia Gresky, a German anthropologist – had already read Batieva’s paper describing the unusual trepanations from the Rostov-on-Don region.

Now Gresky, Batieva and other archaeologists have teamed up to describe all 12 of the obelion trepanations from Southern Russia. Their study was published in April 2016 in theAmerican Journal of Physical Anthropology.

p045xp89
Casts of trepanned Peruvian skulls

The 12 skulls would have been remarkable discoveries wherever they had been found. But the fact that they were all discovered in the same tiny corner of Russia meant that a connection seemed likely. If there was no link, the odds that a batch of such rare trepanations would turn up exclusively in southern Russia would have been exceedingly low.

Gresky, Bateiva and their colleagues argue that, while this idea is difficult to prove, the clustering of these unusual trepanations suggests that southern Russia may have been a centre for ritual trepanation.

Maria Mednikova of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow is an expert on Russian trepanation. She believes that trepanations in specific, dangerous areas of the cranium may have been performed to achieve “transformations” of some kind. She suggests that, by trepanning in these places, people thought they could acquire unique skills that ordinary members of society did not have.

We can only speculate as to why these 12 apparently healthy people were trepanned in such an unusual and dangerous way. But thanks to the trepanation holes themselves, we can infer a surprising amount about the fate of the people after they received their trepanation.

One of the 12 skulls belonged to a woman under the age of 25, who had been buried at one of the sites near Rostov-on-Don. It showed no signs of healing, suggesting that she died during her trepanation or shortly afterwards.

However, the owners of the other skulls seem to have survived their operations. Their skulls showed bone healing around the edges of the trepanation holes – although the bone never completely re-grew over the holes.

p045xqbj
The trepanned skull of a 30-35-year-old male, one of five people in the mass grave. The hole is healed, suggesting he survived at least four years

Three of the 12 skulls showed only slight signs of healing around the trepanation hole, suggesting that their owners only survived between two and eight weeks after the operation. Two of these individuals were women between 20 and 35 years of age. The third was an elderly person between 50 and 70 years old, whose sex could not be determined.

The other eight skulls showed more advanced healing. Based on what we know about bone healing today, these individuals probably survived for at least four years after their operations.

These eight survivors included all five of the people from the mass grave near Rostov-on-Don, whose bizarrely-trepanned skulls first attracted Batieva’s attention almost 20 years ago.

The two men, two women and one adolescent girl had all survived with their obelion holes for years. The girl, who based on her skeleton was between 14 and 16 years old, must have been trepanned when she was no older than 12, and possibly much younger.

It is still possible that these 12 people were suffering from diseases or head injuries. In that case, the trepanning operation may have worked for at least eight of them.

But it is also possible that Batieva and her colleagues are right, and these people were trepanned for a ritual purpose. If that is true, we can only guess at what benefits they received – or believed they had received – throughout the rest of their lives.

Source.

Advertisements

Oldest-known astrologer’s board discovered in Croatia

From LiveScience:

A research team has discovered what may be the oldest astrologer’s board, engraved with zodiac signs and used to determine a person’s horoscope.

Dating back more than 2,000 years, the board was discovered in Croatia, in a cave overlooking the Adriatic Sea. The surviving portion of the board consists of 30 ivory fragments engraved with signs of the zodiac. Researchers spent years digging them up and putting them back together. Inscribed in a Greco-Roman style, they include images of Cancer, Gemini and Pisces.

The board fragments were discovered next to a phallic-shaped stalagmite amid thousands of pieces of ancient Hellenistic (Greek style) drinking vessels.

An ancient astrologer, trying to determine a person’s horoscope, could have used the board to show the position of the planets, sun and moon at the time the person was born.

“What he would show the client would be where each planet is, where the sun is, where the moon is and what are the points on the zodiac that were rising and setting on the horizon at the moment of birth,” said Alexander Jones, a professor at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World at New York University. [See Photos of Astrologer’s Board]

“This is probably older than any other known example,” Jones said. “It’s also older than any of the written-down horoscopes that we have from the Greco-Roman world,” he said, adding, “we have a lot of horoscopes that are written down as a kind of document on papyrus or on a wall but none of them as old as this.”

Jones and StašoForenbaher, a researcher with the Institute for Anthropological Research in Zagreb, reported the discovery in the most recent edition of the Journal for the History of Astronomy.

A ‘King Tut experience’

In 1999, the team was digging near the entrance of the Croatian cave, a site well known to archaeologists and people at the nearby hamlet of Nakovana who simply called it “Spila,” which means “the cave,” Forenbaher told LiveScience.

But what nobody knew at the time was that the cave had a section that had been sealed off more than 2,000 years ago. Forenbaher’s girlfriend (now his wife) burrowed through the debris, discovering a wide low passageway that continued in the dark for nearly 33 feet (10 meters). Forenbaher described going through the passageway as “the unique King Tut experience, coming to a place where nobody has been for a couple of thousand years.”

Stepping into the cavern “there was a very thin limestone crust on the surface that was cracking under your feet when you went in, which meant that nobody walked there in a very, very, long time,” Forenbaher said.

The team would later determine that it had been sealed off in the first century B.C., possibly in response to a military campaign waged against the local people by the Romans.

When the archaeologists investigated they found the phallic-shaped stalagmite, numerous drinking vessels that had been deposited over hundreds of years, and something else. “In the course of that excavation these very tiny bits and pieces of ivory came up,” said Forenbaher, “we didn’t even realize what we had at the time.”

The team went to work. “What followed was years of putting them together, finding more bits and pieces, and figuring out what they were,” Forenbaher said. In the end they found themselves staring at the remains of the oldest-known astrologer’s board.

How did the board wind up in the cave?

Archaeologists are not certain how the board came to the cave or where it was originally made. Astrology originated in Babylon far back in antiquity, with the Babylonians developing their own form of horoscopes around 2,400 years ago.

Then around 2,100 years ago, astrology spread to the eastern Mediterranean, becoming popular in Egypt, which at the time was under the control of a dynasty of Greek kings.

“It gets modified very much into what we think of as the Greek style of astrology, which is essentially the modern style of astrology,” Jones said. “The Greek style is the foundation of astrology that goes through the Middle Ages and into modern Europe, modern India (and) so on.”

Radiocarbon dating shows that the ivory used to create the zodiac images dates back around 2,200 years ago, shortly before the appearance of this new form of astrology.

Researchers are not certain where the board was made although Egypt is a possibility. The ivory itself likely came from an elephant that was killed or otherwise died around that time, they suspect. Being a valuable item, the ivory would have been stored for several decades, or even a century, before it was used to construct the zodiac. These signs would then have been attached to a flat (possibly wooden) surface to create the board, which may have included other elements that didn’t survive.

At some point it may have been put on a ship heading through the Adriatic Sea, an important route for commerce that the cave overlooks. The people who lived in Croatia at the time were called Illyrians. Although ancient writers tended to have a low opinion of them, archaeological evidence suggests that they interacted with nearby Greek colonies and were very much a part of the Mediterranean world.

It’s possible that an astrologer from one of the Greek colonies came to the cave to give a prediction. A consultation held in the flickering light of the cavern would have been a powerful experience, although perhaps not very convenient for the astrologer.

“It doesn’t sound like a very practical place for doing the homework for the horoscope like calculating planetary positions,” Jones said.

Another possibility is that the Illyrians traded for or stole the astrology board from someone, not fully understanding what it was used for. The board, along with the drinking vessels, would then have been placed as an offering to a deity worshiped in the cave whose identity is unknown.

“There is definitely a possibility that this astrologer’s board showed up as an offering together with other special things that were either bought or plundered from a passing ship,” Forenbaher said. He pointed out that the drinking vessels found in the cave were carefully chosen. They were foreign-made, and only a few examples of cruder amphora storage vessels were found with them.

“It almost seems that somebody was bringing out wine there, pouring it and then tossing the amphora away because they [the amphora] were not good enough for the gods, they were not good enough to be deposited in the sanctuary,” Forenbaher said.

The phallic-shaped stalagmite, which may have grown on the spot naturally, appears to have been a center for these offerings and for rituals performed in the cavern. Forenbaher cautioned that all stalagmites look phallic to some degree and it’s difficult to determine what meaning it had to the people in the cave. “It certainly meant something important,” he said.

“This is a place where things that were valued locally, were deposited to some kind of supernatural power, to some transcendental entity or whatever [it was].”

Ancient curse deciphered

From LiveScience:

A fiery ancient curse inscribed on two sides of a thin lead tablet was meant to afflict, not a king or pharaoh, but a simple greengrocer selling fruits and vegetables some 1,700 years ago in the city of Antioch, researchers find.

Written in Greek, the tablet holding the curse was dropped into a well in Antioch, then one of the Roman Empire’s biggest cities in the East, today part of southeast Turkey, near the border with Syria.

The curse calls upon Iao, the Greek name for Yahweh, the god of the Old Testament, to afflict a man named Babylas who is identified as being a greengrocer. The tablet lists his mother’s name as Dionysia, “also known as Hesykhia” it reads. The text was translated by Alexander Hollmann of the University of Washington.

The artifact, which is now in the Princeton University Art Museum, was discovered in the 1930s by an archaeological team but had not previously been fully translated. The translation is detailed in the most recent edition of the journal Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik.

Reading a curse

“O thunder-and-lightning-hurling Iao, strike, bind, bind together Babylas the greengrocer,” reads the beginning of one side of the curse tablet. “As you struck the chariot of Pharaoh, so strike his [Babylas’] offensiveness.”

Hollmann told LiveScience that he has seen curses directed against gladiators and charioteers, among other occupations, but never a greengrocer. “There are other people who are named by occupation in some of the curse tablets, but I haven’t come across a greengrocer before,” he said.

The person giving the curse isn’t named, so scientists can only speculate as to what his motives were. “There are curses that relate to love affairs,” Hollmann said. However, “this one doesn’t have that kind of language.”

It’s possible the curse was the result of a business rivalry or dealing of some sort. “It’s not a bad suggestion that it could be business related or trade related,” said Hollmann, adding that the person doing the cursing could have been a greengrocer himself. If that’s the case it would suggest that vegetable selling in the ancient world could be deeply competitive. “With any kind of tradesman they have their turf, they have their territory, they’re susceptible to business rivalry.

The name Babylas, used by a third-century Bishop of Antioch who was killed for his Christian beliefs, suggests the greengrocer may have been a Christian. “There is a very important Bishop of Antioch called Babylas who was one of the early martyrs,” Hollmann said.

Biblical metaphors

The use of Old Testament biblical metaphors initially suggested to Hollmann the curse-writer was Jewish. After studying other ancient magical spells that use the metaphors, he realized that this may not be the case.

“I don’t think there’s necessarily any connection with the Jewish community,” he said. “Greek and Roman magic did incorporate Jewish texts sometimes without understanding them very well.”

In addition to the use of Iao (Yahweh), and reference to the story of the Exodus, the curse tablet also mentions the story of Egypt’s firstborn.

“O thunder- and-lightning-hurling Iao, as you cut down the firstborn of Egypt, cut down his [livestock?] as much as…” (The next part is lost.)

“It could simply be that this [the Old Testament] is a powerful text, and magic likes to deal with powerful texts and powerful names,” Hollmann said. “That’s what makes magic work or make[s] people think it works.”

The future of Spain’s dolmens uncertain

From Reuters:

Spain’s pre-historic burial chambers have survived invasion, war, a long dictatorship and a property bubble which paved over vast tracts of the country.

But the economic crisis which ended the building boom that buried some of the country’s greatest archaeological treasures under shopping malls and new housing may also be bad news for those hoping to provide lasting safeguards for Spain’s remaining tholos dolmens or passage tombs.

The Aljarafe region outside the city of Seville in southern Spain, with a rich Arabic and Christian history, is believed to house Europe’s most extensive grouping of tholos dolmens, dating back some 5,000 years.

Many of these archaeological treasures were buried under new construction during a decade-long building craze that swept across Spain and left 1.5 million vacant homes when it ended.

A debt crisis ravaging Spain’s economy has saved some of the dolmens by freezing funds for construction. But the credit crunch also means scarce money to explore these little-known Copper Age settlements and turn them into tourist centers.

“It’s as if we had a gold mine under our feet; all we need is the investment muscle to reap the benefit. I don’t see this latent potential in any other industry or sector,” Juan Manuel Vargas, a local archaeologist said.

Vargas is head archaeologist in Valencina de la Concepcion, a small town outside of Seville and home to many dolmens, two of which — La Pastora and Matarrubilla — are open to the public and receive about 10,000 visitors a year.

Dolmen constructions are large stones stood upright to support a large flat boulder like a roof or gigantic table. They were erected around Western Europe, from Ireland to the Baltics, starting about 7,000 years ago. Human remains have been found in or near many of them, leading to the theory that they are tombs. In the passage dolmens, the stone structure forms the entry way to a burial mound.

La Pastora dolmen in Valencina boasts the longest corridor ever discovered in a passage grave in Europe, while its sister Matarrubilla houses a stone altar inside its burial chamber offering clues into the funerary rituals of early settlers.

Driving along a dirt road to La Pastora past rolling hills dotted with olive trees under a brilliant sun it is easy to imagine the centuries of civilizations who have inhabited this mystical land. But the visitor is catapulted back into the present upon reaching the dolmen.

The chamber sits beside a giant telecommunications tower, and empty beer bottles are strewn inches from an archaeological site which provided a range of ancient artifacts before excavations were halted after the funds ran out.

“It’s a problem of mentality. After seeing it every day, our residents aren’t aware of what they’re living next to,” Vargas explained.

The youth are not the only ones who have failed to recognize the historical value of the land underneath their beer bottles.

The Montelirio dolmen, a unique two-chamber structure in neighboring Castilleja de Guzman, was nearly suffocated by plans to build a supermarket and a retirement home.

In 2007, archaeologists discovered the remains of what they thought was a chieftain in Montelirio, and to their surprise, 19 women believed to have drunk a poison in a ritual to accompany their leader on his journey to the netherworld.

The remains of the women sit in a circle in a chamber adjacent to the bones believed to be of their chief.

“Montelirio offers important clues into these societies and their possible burial rituals,” archaeologist Vicente Aycart said, adding: “Who knows? Maybe this was a matriarchal society and that one man was their favorite eunuch!”

Aside from the archaeological wealth yet to be unveiled, these little-known prehistoric sites may prove a profitable tourism mine for a country that needs fresh growth drivers to battle sky-high joblessness and the threat of another recession.

Economists agree that Spain would do well to draw on its rich history and culture to promote itself as an all-season tourism destination and fuel a sector worth about 11 percent of gross domestic product.

“Spain has enormous opportunities to further boost cultural tourism linked to music, history, architecture and archaeology,” said Jose Luis Zoreda, CEO of Spanish tourist lobby Exceltur.

“But given autonomous communities’ financial difficulties right now, I don’t know if this kind of investment will be on the top of their list in 2012,” he said.

Spain’s indebted autonomous regions, which invested heavily in the construction boom, are now at the heart of financial market concerns that the country may miss its budget deficit target and need a bailout just like Greece, Ireland and Portugal.

Plans to create an archaeological park in Aljarafe with a visitors’ center, museum and a route taking visitors from the dolmens to the nearby Phoenician artifacts of El Carambolo and the Roman city Italica are at a standstill.

Once money starts to flow again, archaeologists and non-profit associations warned that steps must be taken to protect this triangle of ancient history while developing controlled and sustainable tourism.

“The real gem of these places is the scientific depth that we don’t even know yet. First we need to create a cultural site. The tourism will come later,” said Jorge Arevalo, vice president of a dolmen protection association said.

“If we don’t take care of it, future generations won’t be able to enjoy it. We have a responsibility to history.”

Ancient Britons drank from human skulls

From BBC News:

Ancient Britons were not averse to using human skulls as drinking cups, skeletal remains unearthed in southwest England suggest.

The braincases from three individuals were fashioned in such a meticulous way that their use as bowls to hold liquid seems the only reasonable explanation.

The 14,700-year-old objects were discovered in Gough’s Cave, Somerset.

Scientists from London’s Natural History Museum say the skull-cups were probably used in some kind of ritual.

“If you look around the world there are examples of skull-cups in more recent times – in Tibetan culture, in Fiji in Oceania, and in India,” said Dr Silvia Bello, a palaeontologist and lead author of a scientific paper on the subject in the journal PLoS One.

“So, skulls have been used as drinking bowls, and because of the similarity of the Gough’s Cave skulls to these other examples, we imagine that that’s what these ancient people were using them for also,” she told BBC News.

Gough’s Cave is situated in the Cheddar Gorge, a deep limestone canyon on the southern edge of the Mendip Hills.

Palaeo-investigations started there a hundred years ago, with many of the finds now held at the Natural History Museum (NHM).

The site is particularly noteworthy for the discovery in 1903 of “Cheddar Man”, the complete skeleton of a male individual dating to about 10,000 years ago.

But the users – and owners – of the skulls discussed in the PLoS One article are actually from an earlier period in the history of the British Isles.

This was during a brief warm spike in a series of ice ages that allowed humans living in southern Europe to venture north into what was otherwise an utterly inhospitable landscape.

These Cro-Magnons, as we now call them, were hunter-gatherers living on their wits and, it seems, eating human flesh when the need and opportunity arose.

Gough’s Cave famously held the remains of human bones that had been butchered to extract marrow in exactly the same way as animal bones on the site had been processed.

Our modern sensibilities find the thought of cannibalism repulsive, but these people lived in a different age, Dr Bello said:

“They were a one man band; they were going out, hunting, butchering and then eating their kill. And they were extremely skilled at what they did, but then that’s how they survived.

“I think the production of the skull-cups is ritualistic. If the purpose was simply to break the skulls to extract the brain to eat it, there are much easier ways to do that.

“If food was the objective, the skull would be highly fragmented. But here you can really see they tried to preserve most of the skull bone; the cut marks tell us they tried to clean the skull, taking off every piece of soft tissue so that they could then modify it very precisely. They were manufacturing something.”

NHM colleague Professor Chris Stringer helped excavate one of the skull-cups in 1987 and is a co-author on the paper.

“We’ve known that these bones were treated in this way for 20 years; it’s been evident that there were cut marks on the skulls,” he told BBC News.

“But by applying the latest microscopic techniques and the experience we’ve got in working on butchered animal remains, as well as human remains, we can start to build up a much more detailed picture of how the Gough’s Cave remains were treated. Yes, cannibalism is the most likely explanation. What we can’t say is whether these people were killed to be eaten, or whether they died naturally. Were they even members of the same group?”

And precisely how the cups were used cannot be known with total confidence either, although in more recent examples of such practice they have held blood, wine and food during rituals.

At about 14,700 years old, the Gough’s Cave skull-cups would represent the oldest, recognised examples in the world.

The museum plans to put a detailed model of one of the skull-cups on display this March so that visitors can get a deeper insight the practices of these ancient Britons.

From BBC News.

Another article on the matter here.

Vikings revered Stone Age objects

From Views & News from Norway:

New archaeological findings suggest that the Vikings considered Stone Age objects to have magical qualities, and that such “antiques” were more important in Viking culture than previously understood.

Examinations of around 10 Viking graves found in Rogaland, southwest Norway, revealed Stone Age items, such as weapons, amulets and tools. Olle Hemdorff of the Archaelogical Museum in Stavanger told newspaper Aftenposten that he believes the items were buried so that “they would protect and bring luck to the dead in the after-life.”

The latest revelations are linked to discoveries from Vikings who had travelled to Iceland, and who have been found carrying Stone Age items with them. Previously, such findings were not considered to be significant, but recent analysis links them to similar, earlier-overlooked evidence from several locations over the former Viking lands.

As well as being buried with the dead, as were some of their ships, Stone Age arrowheads and daggers were sometimes buried under Viking houses. Hemdorff suggests that “by including objects from their ancestors, the Vikings legitimized and gained ‘control’ over the past.”

The custom of burying Stone Age treasures has also been identified in Iron Age communities and excavations from the age of migration (400-600 BC) found in Norway, Sweden and Denmark. Indeed, the practice is mentioned in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, where it is stated that flint, pottery, round stones and shards are thrown into Ophelia’s grave.

Hemdorff speculates that Shakespeare “probably built his own description on an old custom that we now know goes back to Viking times.”

From Views & News from Norway.