A possible Neolithic crime scene in Serbia

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In 1931, Serbian archaeologist Miloje Vasić discovered a pit containing human skeletal remains during research at the Vinča-Belo Brdo archaeological site on the outskirts of Belgrade, Serbia.

In his diary, Vasić remarked the find as “an ossuary with a dromos”, in which 9 human skeletons were found.

Interpretations have not ruled out that it was a mass burial, but, based on a recent analysis of the original photographic documentation, the position of the deceased has been questioned as to whether the burial was a Neolithic crime scene.

Vinca-Belo Brdo Site

The multi-layered site of Vinča-Belo Brdo (which gave its name to a Neolithic culture in southeastern Europe) is located about 14 km from the center of Belgrade. It was inhabited from the Early Neolithic to the 6th millennium BC (Starčevo culture) throughout the Middle and Late Neolithic (Vinča culture), Copper Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age, until the medieval period.

The first archaeological excavations took place in 1908 until 1934 (with interruptions due to the Balkan Wars and World War II). After that, excavations continued from 1978 to 1986, with further studies under the direction of NN Tasić from 1998 to the present day.

The site revealed only a few finds from the Starčevo period, therefore the tomb with the dromos is of particular interest as it was built by the Starčevo culture.

The first anthropological analysis of the 9 skeletons was carried out in 1937 by anthropologist I. Schwidetzky, however, after World War II, only skull fragments from the burials survived. After more than 70 years, they will again be examined anthropologically by researchers from the Laboratory of Bioarchaeology of the Faculty of Philosophy of the University of Belgrade.

Image credit: Maja Miljević-Đajić

In a study published in the journal Documenta Praehistorica XLVIII, anthropological analysis revealed that there were in fact 12 adults in the burial instead of 9, and that this likely represents a Neolithic crime scene, rather than the rite typical Starčevo grave.

Two female skulls and one male skull have been identified, while the sex of the remaining 9 skulls is inconclusive. Only one individual was a young adult (15-18 years old), while the others were adults (20-40 years old). The average height of these individuals was 161 cm, which was roughly the average height of early Neolithic people in this region.

Traces of violent behavior

The typical mortuary practice of the Starčevo culture involves the deceased being buried on the left or right side in a squatting (fetal) position. However, photographic evidence reveals that this was not the case at the burial, suggesting either a violent death or that the deceased was buried disrespectfully. This is evidenced by traces of blunt trauma detected on two of the skulls.

Photographic evidence also supports this as it shows that a skeleton’s left leg was placed on its back (which was not possible without dismembering the leg), while the right leg was contracted with a broken femur.

Based on absolute dates, the tomb was confirmed to belong to the Starčevo culture, and the nine dated individuals correspond to a chronological range between 5700 and 5500 BC. Although some of the deceased were buried at the same time, this is not a simultaneous burial of 12 people, further adding to the mystery as to whether this was indeed a Neolithic crime scene .

Written by Maja Miljević-Đajić

Header image credit: Maja Miljević-Đajić

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