Why Were These Neolithic People Buried With Urns on Their Heads and Feet?

Found in Transylvania, the 6,000-year-old vessels may have once held provisions for the afterlife

Cluj Napoca
Archaeologists found the unusual burials while conducting excavations in the Romanian city of Cluj Napoca, pictured here. Mihai Virschi via Flickr under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Excavations at a 6,000-year-old cemetery in Transylvania have uncovered the remains of people buried with urns placed over their skulls or feet, reports Romanian news outlet Gherla Info.

Archaeologists conducted the dig ahead of a planned construction project in the city of Cluj-Napoca in northwest Romania. So far, the team has been unable to determine what the urns once held, but as Ben Turner reports for Live Science, it’s likely they contained food or drink intended for the nourishment of the dead in the afterlife.

In addition to the graves, the researchers found a pit used to store food that was later repurposed as a landfill. An animal skull, possibly from a cow, as well as ceramic fragments that may offer clues to the settlement’s pottery-making technology, was discovered nearby.

Remnants of wooden walls found at the site suggest the Neolithic settlement’s inhabitants fortified their homes, with the wealthiest living in the most well-fortified areas.

Next, the researchers hope to determine whether the skeletons belonged to men or women and gather information about the deceased’s health. They will also try to determine the original contents of the vessels, which were likely included in the burials as funerary offerings.

“Their story must be told, revealed, through such excavations,” Paul Pupeză, an archaeologist at the National Museum of Transylvanian History, tells Gherla Info, per a translation by Republic World’s Ajeet Kumar. “By learning more about them, we will know more about ourselves. We are the first to get our hands on these fragments, after thousands of years.”

Per Encyclopedia Britannica, farming spread across southeastern Europe in the seventh millennium B.C.E., sparking the establishment of permanent settlements and the rise of pottery-making. By the time the Transylvanian settlement emerged, people in the region had developed copper and gold metallurgy.

The 10,000-square-foot area excavated contains a later Iron Age Celtic settlement built over the Stone Age one between 2,000 and 2,200 years ago. The Celts’ burial customs were very different from those of the Neolithic people, writes Stacy Liberatore for the Daily Mail. They often cremated their dead and buried them in urns alongside grave goods, some of which were made out of iron.

As Owen Jarus reported for Live Science in 2014, the term “Celts” refers to a diverse group of ancient people with many languages and political groupings, including Gauls from what’s now France and Celtiberians from Iberia. They lived across much of continental Europe—including Romania, then part of a region known as Dacia—and spread as far east as Turkey.

The researchers are moving the finds to the natural history museum, where they will be analyzed, restored and preserved. The museum may eventually display some of the artifacts discovered at the settlement to the public.