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Ancient cemetery findings include Bronze Age woman and her twin babies

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Peering into the life of a young woman who lived 4,000 years ago during the Bronze Age is now possible thanks to new research.

The young woman, who lived along the Danube River in Hungary, was found with twin 32-week-old fetuses in a cemetery.

In a quest to understand more about the Bronze Age Vatya community in Central Europe, researchers analyzed remains from graves at one of the largest Middle Bronze Age urn cemeteries found in Central Hungary.

The Szigetszentmiklós-Ürgehegy cemetery was first discovered during the construction of a supermarket south of Budapest more than 20 years ago. The field was full of covered urns, rather than graves, and they were dated from 1500 BC to 2150 BC.

It was a custom for the Vatya culture to cremate their dead, something that has hindered research about them. But University of Bologna researcher Claudio Cavazzuti and his colleagues used new sampling methods to learn more about the remains contained within the urn cemetery.

They analyzed human tissues from 29 graves, including three actual burials and 26 cremations. When they came to gravesite 241, they found a surprise. The urn contained not one but three individuals: the remains of a woman between 25 to 35 years old, as well as twin 32-week-old fetuses.

Among the remains were also grave goods associated with a high-ranking individual, including a golden ring the woman would have worn in her hair, as well as a bronze neck-ring and two bone hairpin ornaments.

A bronze neck-ring, golden hair-ring and bone hairpins were found among the remains.

“It is extremely difficult to find pregnant women among cremations, as bones are usually very much fragmented and the remains of fetuses are very fragile,” Cavazzuti said.

The study published Wednesday in the journal PLOS One.

The researchers were unable to tell if she had given birth to the twins, if her life was cut short ahead of giving birth or if childbirth difficulties were the cause of her death. But she and her babies had been cremated with care.

The bone weight within her urn was 50% higher than the average urn, meaning the cremated remains of the woman and her twins were carefully collected after being burned on a pyre. Her ornaments were placed in the urn after the cremation.

And she wasn’t originally from the area. She had been born elsewhere and moved to the place where she died between the ages of 8 and 13, according to a strontium analysis (strontium is found in human bones). This was true of the remains of other women in the cemetery as well.

Strontium can act as a marker of geographic location and reflect migration patterns as researchers study ancient humans. This isotope is directly linked to the food we eat, a geologic byproduct that acts like a location marker of where the food was grown.

The Vatya culture lived along the Middle Danube with an economy based on agriculture, livestock and long-distance trade, Cavazzuti said. Bronze, gold and amber found here can be traced back to different parts of central, eastern and northern Europe.

The researchers believe their findings reinforce that women marrying outside their community, called female exogamy, was associated with Bronze Age societies. In this case, high-ranking women were introduced to this community from other communities.

“Our study emphasizes the social and political role of Bronze Age women as agents of cultural hybridization and change,” Cavazzuti said.

“We may also argue that the integration into the kinship group of high-ranking women from outside, as a result of marriage exchanges, might have been crucial for the emerging elite of the 2nd millennium BC,” he explained.

This would “institute or reinforce political powers and military alliances, but also to secure routes, economic partnerships and, consequently, for exercising the ‘redistributive power’ towards the rest of the population.”

It’s unknown why the Vatya culture practiced cremation, but the researchers have theories.

“Probably there was a change in ideology and a different relationship with the afterlife, and with the sphere of the divine,” said Cavazzuti, lead author of the new research.

“We cannot exclude, however, that cremation became widespread also as a practical response to epidemics, considering the increasing demographic size of the communities and the high degree of mobility and interconnectedness among different regions.”

Methods like strontium analysis and others used during this research could help reconstruct the histories of communities that are otherwise difficult to study. While they may not have been preserved through writing or names, these Bronze Age communities left behind traces of their customs, behaviors and lives.

“Cremated remains have been often neglected in the past studies, as bones are very fragmented and therefore considered scarcely informative,” Cavazzuti said.

“We can (now) better understand how society was organized, how people moved and how goods circulated. The more we know, the more we understand that the roots of our way of thinking have their origin in this fundamental period of European history.”