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21 July 2014
Ritual burials of children by ancient Alpine lake dwellers

Since the 1920s, archaeologists have known that Bronze Age villages dotted Alpine lakes in Switzerland and Germany, however, it wasn't until the 1970s and 1980s that many of the sites were excavated. Finds included hunting tools, animal bones, ceramics, and jewelry, as well as the remains of watchtowers, gates and more than 160 dwellings. Tree ring studies suggest people lived there at different periods between 3,800 and 2,600 years ago.
     The ancient lake-dwellers regularly faced flooding, moving back and forth as levels rose and fell. They built houses on stilts or sturdy wooden foundations, and made palisades from bog pine. Archaeologists unearthed children's skulls and skeletal remains encircling the villages at the palisade edges. Many of these ancient skulls were placed there long after their initial burial, at a time when the settlements experienced the worst inundation.
     An archaeologist at Basel University and co-author of the current study, Benjamin Jennings and his colleagues took a closer look at the fossil skeletons. Most were from children under age 10. The skulls showed evidence of head trauma from battle-axes or clubs, though the injuries don't have the uniformity associated with ritual killing. It is more likely the youngsters were felled in warfare, rather than killed as a sacrifices.
     Either way, these weren't ordinary burials, Jennings says. "Across Europe as a whole there is quite a body of evidence to indicate that throughout prehistory human remains, and particularly the skull, were highly symbolic and socially charged. The remains are found at the perimeter of the settlement - not inside and not outside, but at a liminal position on the border between in and out," At one site, the remains were found at the high-water mark, suggesting they may have been placed there as an offering to protect against flooding.
     "There are very few instance or examples of burials in the vicinity of the lake settlements, and so we really do not know where the majority of the lake dwellers are buried, or how they treated their dead," Jennings admits.

Edited from LiveScience (9 July 2014)

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