Together in Life – together in Death

Adults and Children in Bronze Age Graves


This interdisciplinary project explores personal relations, gender and family structures at Bronze Age communities across the Austrian and Czech border (c. 1600–800 BC). It brings together archaeologists and anthropologists from both countries with a profound interest in studying cremation graves and their potential to inform us about social relations of the past.

The development of new, cutting-edge methodologies to investigate cremated remains makes it possible to ask innovative social questions. The investigation of power relations between the sexes and the distribution of resources between age groups/generations in the past are important topics, as they may also affect the current social debate outside of academia.

Past communities followed social conventions when carrying out funerals, which, as archaeologists, we can trace as burial practices. At the beginning of the Late Bronze Age, burial practices shifted from inhumations in family mounds to individual burials for cremated individuals in urns. In some cases, however, two or more people are buried together in one urn or grave. We assume a close connection for these individuals. The exact nature of these connections must remain elusive, but we can suggest family relations as well as temporal proximity of death.

We explore these relationships in terms of their age and sex composition, comparing several cemeteries in Austria and the Czech Republic. For example, women and children buried together will inform us about the roles of women in society. The age differences between men and women buried together shed light on power relations between the sexes. Family traditions will differ between communities; shared practices within a community inform us about shared traditions and beliefs, as well as how people networked on a wider, regional scale.

A detailed evaluation of data from individual cemeteries, compared to all available data over the entire region north-west of the Carpathian Basin, will help us get at complex patterns of social relations. The first step is to establish how frequent double and multiple burials were, and how they were spatially distributed in eastern Austria and Moravia.

We will prepare a site gazetteer that provides an overview of cemetery sites of the Middle and Late Bronze Age (c. 1600–800 BC) linked to a GIS. The database will record the number of single, double and multiple graves and record archaeological and anthropological data for each individual, in particular age and gender. A detailed anthropological assessment of cremated human remains from the graves is important to assess age and gender patterns. The fragmented nature of the cremated body makes the identification of double and multiple burials difficult. Pieces of one individual left on the funerary pyre might sometimes be included in other burials. It is therefore important to establish reliable criteria to differentiate admixture from the burial of multiple people. Because of their size, the cremated bones of foetuses, neonates and small children are particularly easy to miss, both in the collection for the funeral and in the anthropological analysis.

The archaeological analysis of double and multiple graves will first establish in which ways individuals were combined. Possibilities range from commingled remains to separate heaps of cremated bones in one grave to individuals separated in different urns in one grave. We will then focus on understanding why people were buried together. We will ask how graves of multiple people differ from other graves, and differentiate grave goods that can be considered belonging to the respective individuals and those which are part of the grave furnishing. Looking at object biographies, we will be able to distinguish if artefacts were cremated with the individual or added to the grave in a subsequent step. Taking stratigraphy and funerary taphonomy into account, we may be able to differentiate and reconstruct several steps of the ritual that led to the grave contexts we discover archaeologically.

In the final, trans-national analysis, we will compare the identities of the people buried together. How common are mother-child combinations or couples of men and women, for example? The estimated age of the individual may point us to the fist age of motherhood or typical age differences between marital partners. For other archaeological periods, aDNA analysis now helps to reconstruct family genealogies. The high temperatures of cremation largely destroy DNA in the human bones; we must thus rely on combining archaeological and demographic information to get one-step further in understanding Bronze Age family structures.