Skeletons of six babies found during archaeological dig
Archaeologists have found the skeletons of six babies in a medieval “house of the dead” near Poland’s border with Ukraine.
In 2017, famers started noticing bones appearing in their fields in the village Gródek nad Bugiem, so they swiftly informed the nearby Hrubieszów Museum about the grisly findings. Rightfully so as the bones led to astonishing discoveries - burials from 11th century, the times of Bolesław I the Brave and his famous battle with Yaroslav the Wise, Grand Prince of Rus, which took place somewhere nearby.
Excavation work on the site was led by Dr Tomasz Dzieńkowski from the Maria Curie-Skłodowska University’s Institute of Archaeology and has covered a site about 300 meters from a medieval stronghold.
Scientists uncovered fragments of fabric with golden thread near a skeleton, and this year’s works were yielding similar finds until they came across a large pit with a three-metre diameter. Inside were the numerous remains of incinerated people, as well as a dog’s skull, the bones of an adult's hand and a broken clay pot. On its edge, archaeologists, to their surprise, came across well-preserved baby skeletons.
Bartłomiej Bartecki from the Hrubieszów Museum told PAP: “It could have been a so-called ‘house of the dead’ or a monumental family tomb, with a similar form to the homes of that time. Half-dugout, which were partly burrowed in the ground, and were usually covered by a gable roof.” The unusual discovery dates back to 11th century.
Dr. Dzieńkowski said: “Similar practices were discovered by archaeologists in Polabia, Pomerania, Greater Poland and occasionally in Lesser Poland, but in this form they haven’t been seen in Western Russia so far, although the idea of ‘the houses of the dead’ wouldn’t be strange here.”
While other groups of Slavs practiced corpse burning and skeletal burial, animal bones and fragments of ceramics, the presence of children’s bodies untouched by fire is unusual.
In the western part of the tomb, the archaeologists found a perfectly preserved complete skeleton of a new born child, along with five other remains of little children.
The scientists have several theories regarding the dual nature of the burial site – one rite including burning, while the other involved putting the bodies straight into the ground. During the time of the house of the dead’s functioning (between 9th and 12th centuries), Christianity was still in the process of spreading across this area so it is possible that people were choosing between the older and newer rites.
For now, the researchers don’t know what caused the infants’ death, especially since the mortality rate of children a thousand years ago was extremely high. Bartecki noted: “Therefore, it is rather unlikely that these children fell victim to some bloody rituals, all the more so as we didn’t find any evidence of this, for example in the form of fractured skulls as result of a blunt force."
Another interpretation is also possible – within the cemetery, there was a designated area for children’s graves, but for example only for those, that weren’t baptized.
With the excavations coming to an end, the scientists will continue analysing their findings, hoping to learn more about the purpose of the sepulchral structures they found, the probable cause of the infants’ death, as well as 11th century burial rituals on the Polish-Ruthenian border.