Cold Case Schleinbach: why it makes sense to preserve skeletons in situ

We have recently been re-examining an interesting early Bronze Age site called Schleinbach in Lower Austria. In the manner typical of the Únětice Culture, people were buried in a small cemetery next to a settlement, and some bodies were found in former storage pits or other abandoned settlement features. The site was located on the premises of a brick factory. Finds were first recognised in 1911, and Karl Kriegler excavated the first graves and pits in 1916. Excavations continued in a more or less systematic manner into the 1940s.

Pit 60 was documented in 1931 and is particularly noteworthy: it comprises the bodies of an adult male and three children. The youngest child was placed on the right side, head towards the south-east; one of the older children was placed on the back, head in east, with feet tilted to the left side, and one child was placed on the left side with the head in the north-east. The last of the individuals, the adult male, was found in supine position on top of them all. His body was north-west oriented, with his head looking east; his upper arms lay next to the body, but the elbows were bent and the hands were found next to the shoulders; the right hand was found with the palm up, the left hand was turned sideways. His legs were not found parallel, but slightly open (the feet had been cut off before the recovery).


Schleinbach, Pit LX: adult man and three children (Weninger 1954: 3)

The peculiar body position of the male individual (soon dubbed ‘the priest’) and the combination with the children’s bodies led the excavator to preserve the findings in context. It was an enormous undertaking to fix the skeletal remains in the surrounding soil and transport the whole block to the Lower Austrian Museum (at that time located in Herrengasse 9, Vienna), where the burial was stabilised with plaster and put on display. The complex remained on display in several locations, before it found a temporary home in the Lower Austrian museum storage facilities in an old tobacco factory in Hainburg.

The first anthropological analysis, conducted in the 1950s, estimated the age of the children as 4-5, 10 and 12, and suggested a male sex for all individuals (Weninger 1954); this analysis was based on morphological observations. For the most part, Josef Weninger was not able to take the bones out of the block for measurements.

When we recently arrived at Hainburg for the re-examination of the skeletons and to take some DNA samples, we found the block in a sorry state. It had been broken in several segments and many bones were loose. Nevertheless, the preservation of skeletons in situ enabled some interesting observations – insights into decomposition events that would not have been apparent had the skeletons been excavated and stored in a box.


Doris Pany-Kucera and Michaela Spannagl-Steiner examining fragments of the block

In fact, ‘archaeothanatology’ or ‘l’anthropologie de terrain’ (Duday 2006, 2009) advocates systematic recording and observation of joint articulations, to infer the environment in which the body decomposed. This way, we can learn whether the body had been decomposing in an empty space, a void or a coffin; for example, whether it was wrapped and confined, or whether the grave had been filled by soil immediately. Joints disarticulate in a specific order during decomposition and gravity also plays its part. Archaeothanatology also aids in deciding if bodies had been disturbed, manipulate or reorganized after the initial deposition.

When we saw the skeleton, the ribs were in disarray – this, however, was a result of transporting and handling the block when the bones were no longer fixed properly. Originally, the rib cage had been well preserved. Josef Weninger remarked on this unusual finding, that the excavator Karl Kriegler wanted to interpret as an indication of artificial body preservation such as mummification. Josef Weninger drew exactly the right conclusions, namely that after the decomposition of soft tissue, the rib cage must have been filled by ‘fortunate soil filling’ (1954: 4).


Spine of adult over spine of Child A

The adult man was placed directly over the children’s bodies. There was no soil separating the skeleton, which makes a single depositional event (a multiple rather than collective grave) quite certain. The spine of Child A came to lie just under the spine of the adult and provided a barrier – this caused a specific break in the alignment of the lumbar vertebrae.



Cervical vertebrae of the adult male

When Doris and Michaela examined the skull of our adult male buried in supine position, we were able to lift the skull and look at the joints of the cervical vertebrae. The skull was found lying on the right side, but the cervical vertebrae were still straight – they had not rotated to turn the head while it was still articulated. Instead, the skull had fallen towards the right side after the joints had decomposed. We could therefore ascertain that originally, the head was looking straight ahead when it was buried. In fact, the position of the skulls of the Children A and B does also not align well with the anatomical articulation. It appears that post-depositional processes were responsible for the movement and turning of the skulls. Water could have penetrated the grave at some point after the connection between the head and spine had broken down, which may have caused the ‘light children’s skulls’ to float (Weninger 1954: 26).

The re-assessment of the Schleinbach individuals suggests that the man was between 27 and 35 years old when he died, the children were aged 3-4, 8-9 and 12-14 (Pany-Kucera, Spannagl-Steiner and Rebay-Salisbury in prep). If the DNA analysis returns usable results, we will know the sex of the children, and if and how they were related. The individuals share some morphological traits that makes a genetic relationship likely; in close, kinship-based communities of the early Bronze Age, such general similarities are not surprising. Only the youngest child had evidence of head injury, an impression fracture, which might have been the cause of death. The context, however, suggest that all individuals died at the same time, perhaps from the same cause – brutal murder. An alternative explanation (put forward by Weninger 1954 on the basis of Kriegler’s suggestion) is that it was an adult man’s burial, with the three children constituting a human sacrifice on the occasion of his funeral. This, to me, is not a likely explanation, for three reasons: first, the pit is located slightly off the grave group and most likely a former settlement structure, second, the children were clearly placed first and the adult on top – with grave goods, the body is usually placed first and grave goods are placed around the body, and third, human sacrifice is not part of the usual cultural practice of the early Bronze Age.

The bodies were haphazardly dumped in an old storage pit, which may have been closed by a cover. The bodies initially composed in a void, but after the decomposition of soft tissue, the void was filled by fine sediment and left undisturbed until 1931. The open legs of the adult suggest that the lower body had not been bound or restrained by a shroud; it was either naked or covered by lose clothing.

The fact that the skeletons were preserved in situ (on top of being photographed – quite unusual for the time!) has helped to extract much more information on this unusual burial context that if they bones had been put in a box and stored, as so many others were. At present, the storage of the block-parts in far from ideal, but we will work out a sensible storage solution with the Natural History Museum in Vienna, where the skeletons will be united with the rest of the collection from Schleinbach. An excavation of the skeletons under controlled conditions and after 3D-scanning is only the second best alternative to preserving the skeletons in its original surroundings. We do not know yet what questions future generations of archaeologists will ask on the basis of this material – but we are immensely grateful to the foresight of the imaginative excavator Karl Kriegler who started work on the site over 100 years ago.

Duday, H. 2006. “L’archéothanatologie ou L’archéologie de la mort (Archaeothanatology or the Archaeology of Death),” in R.L. Gowland and C.J. Knüsel (eds) Social Archaeology of Funerary Remains. Oxford: Oxbow: 30-56.

Duday, H. 2009. The Archaeology of the Dead: Lectures in Archaeothanatology. Oxford: Oxbow.

Pany-Kucera, D., Spannagl-Steiner, M. and K. Rebay-Salisbury in prep. Early Bronze Age individuals from Schleinbach: a re-examination and complementary assessement of the skeletal material.

Weninger, J. 1954. Frühbronzezeitliche Skelette aus Schleinbach in Niederösterreich. Teil 1: Eine seltsame Mehrbestattung aus Schleinbach (NÖ). Archaeologia Austriaca 16: 1-27.

Weninger, M. 1954. Frühbronzezeitliche Skelette aus Schleinbach in Niederösterreich. Teil 2: Die Einzelbestattungen aus Schleinbach (NÖ). Archaeologia Austriaca 16: 28-66.

Rettenbacher, M. 2004. Die Siedlung und die Gräberfelder von Schleinbach: Eine Studie zur Aunjetitz-Kultur im südlichen Weinviertel. Archäologische Forschungen in Niederösterreich 2. St. Pölten: Niederösterreichisches Institut für Landeskunde.


About Katharina

Katharina is a prehistoric archaeologist working at the Austrian Academy of Sciences. Her main research interests include the archaeology of the human body, gender, identity and personhood as expressed through funerary practices and art. She specialises in the Bronze and Iron Ages of Europe. As a mother of two young boys, she gathered some practical experience in addition to her theoretical interest in motherhood.
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