Excavations in Slovakia have uncovered a Neolithic mass grave containing a collection of headless skeletons.
Archaeological investigations have been taking place at Vráble-Ve`lke Lehemby since 2012 as part of a joint project carried out by the Collaborative Research Centre 1266 of Kiel University and the Archaeological Institute of the Slovak Academy of Sciences. Vráble is one of the largest Early Neolithic sites known in Central Europe, consisting of three neighbouring settlements, with almost 600 inhabitants and up to 80 houses in use at one time. The site is believed to have been occupied from 5250 BC to 4950 BC, and is associated with the Linear Pottery culture (LBK), which was present in Europe c.5500-4900 BC.
Excavations in previous years have uncovered other human burials at the site, including several individuals whose heads had been removed, but the recent discovery of 38 such individuals in one grave came as a surprise to researchers. The mass burial is spread over an area of c.15m2 in a ditch marking the boundary of the south-westernmost of the three settlements, and all of the deceased – with the exception of one young child – appear to be missing their heads.
The positions of the skeletons indicate that they were thrown or rolled into the grave, and many of the remains are disarticulated or incomplete. In particular, the skeletons in the middle of the ditch are less well preserved than those around the sides, suggesting that older burials had perhaps been pushed into the centre some time after their initial deposition, to make space for new additions around the edges. This raises questions about whether the mass grave was the result of a single event, or whether the burials took place on multiple occasions, or even over several years. Although detailed osteological study is under way, analysis of the skeletons so far has found no signs of cut marks on the upper vertebrae, which indicates that the bodies probably had their heads carefully removed post-mortem, after a period of decomposition, rather than through violent beheading when alive.
While the details of the mortuary practices involved in this burial and the beliefs or motivations underlying them remain uncertain, researchers stress the significance of the discovery. The deposition of skeletons, or partial skeletons, in enclosure ditches is not uncommon for LBK sites, but the removal of the heads in this manner is currently unique. It is hoped that further investigations, including osteological, aDNA, and isotope analysis, as well as radiocarbon dating, will tell us more about the deceased, including their ages, relationships to each other, geographical origins, social status, and more, in order to improve our understanding of the Neolithic community of Vráble-Ve`lke Lehemby.