Remains of High-Born Woman and Twin Fetuses Found in 4,000-Year-Old Urn

A new chemical analysis suggests the wealthy mother left her homeland to marry an elite member of the mysterious Vatya culture

High-ranking woman and twin fetuses
Researchers found the remains of a high-ranking woman (left) and her two twin fetuses (right) in a Bronze Age urn in central Hungary. Cavazzuti et al., 2021, PLOS One; CC BY 4.0

More than 20 years ago, researchers conducting excavations ahead of construction of a supermarket near Budapest, Hungary, discovered a Bronze Age cemetery filled with cremation urns. Though cremation typically preserves fewer details than standard burials, a new type of chemical analysis has enabled archaeologists to pinpoint an odd urn out: grave number 241. The urn contains the remains of not one, but three individuals: a pair of twin fetuses and their high-born mother, as reported this week in the journal PLOS One.

In use between roughly 2200 and 1450 B.C.E., the Szigetszentmiklós-Ürgehegy cemetery is linked to the enigmatic Vatya culture, which thrived on agriculture, farming and trade. (Bronze, gold and amber grave goods found at the site can be traced to trading partners across Europe.) So far, researchers have excavated 525 burials. But as Laura Geggel reports for Live Science, several thousand have yet to be investigated, making the graveyard one of the largest Bronze Age cemeteries known in Hungary.

For the study, a team led by Claudio Cavazzuti, an archaeologist at the University of Bologna in Italy, analyzed 41 samples taken from 3 burials and 26 cremations in the cemetery. The three buried individuals were adults of indeterminate sex, while the cremated remains consisted of 20 adults and 6 children 10 years of age or younger. Aside from number 241, each grave contained just one occupant—and the differences didn’t end there.

The Szigetszentmiklós-Ürgehegy cemetery (left) contains thousands of graves, most of which are cremation urns (right).
The Szigetszentmiklós-Ürgehegy cemetery (left) contains thousands of graves, most of which are cremation urns (right). Cavazzuti et al., 2021, PLOS One; CC BY 4.0

The unusual urn held the ashes and bones of a genteel woman whose cremated remains were “comparatively more complete” than the others, writes Mike McRae for Science Alert. Her bones weighed 50 percent more than the average urn, indicating that her remains were carefully collected after her cremation on a funeral pyre. While other urns found at Szigetszentmiklós-Ürgehegy contained simple ceramic or bronze grave goods, the woman’s held expensive objects sourced from across Central Europe. Her gold hair-ring was probably a wedding gift from her new family; a bronze neck-ring and two ornamental bone pins perhaps served as reminders of her homeland.

Skeletal analysis confirmed that the woman was originally born outside the community, possibly in central Slovenia or Lake Balaton in western Hungary, per Live Science. The researchers came to this conclusion by scrutinizing the strontium signatures in her bones and teeth. Comparing strontium isotope ratios found in enamel, which forms in one’s youth, with those present in a specific region can help scholars determine where an individual grew up.

The woman’s isotope ratios indicate that she was born elsewhere but moved to the region between the ages of 8 and 13, likely to be married into a noble Vatya family. She eventually became pregnant with twins, only to die between the ages of 25 and 35. Researchers are unsure whether the mother died before or during childbirth, but the fetuses’ gestational age was about 28 to 32 weeks.

The urn's grave goods included a bronze neck-ring (left), two bone hair pins and a gold hair-ring (right).
The urn's grave goods included a bronze neck-ring (left), two bone hair pins and a gold hair-ring (right). Cavazzuti et al., 2021, PLOS One; CC BY 4.0

“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 tells Ashley Strickland of CNN.

The researchers’ results reveal that the woman was part of an emerging elite class that married strategically. Their findings paint a vivid picture of how Bronze Age women traveled afar to wed and seal new alliances between different communities. In Bronze Age societies where men usually stayed in their hometowns, these high-ranking women were perhaps the drivers of new political, economic and military partnerships. Mixing of bloodlines, then, might have redistributed power from the top of the hierarchy to the rest of the population.

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

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