5. Socio-temporal Dimensions of Mortuary Customs at Holešov

Regarding the great proportion of burials from Holešov that bear less significant chronological attributes (nearly two-thirds of graves fall into this category), only general hypotheses on the development of funerary customs on the eve of the Early Bronze Age can initially be formulated. Naturally, the basic concept of such hypotheses describes a gradual reduction of the amount of stone tools in burial assemblages and, on the other hand, the increasing number of copper artefacts, followed later by those of bronze, would be expected to offset the diminishing role of stone implements in funerary rituals (Czebreszuk 2013, 779). Another hypothesis suggests that the percentage of tin in copper alloys was rising throughout the Early Bronze Age, as seen in metallographic studies (Págo 1985; Bertemes 1989; Bertemes and Heyd 2002). Such statements, it should be stressed, are expected to be valid only in general terms, in other words 'on average'. They can be successfully detected when large amounts of data are available and suitable research methods employed. Exceptions and smaller groups of cases deviating from general trends can, of course, occur. I shall test to what extent these attributes support the hypothesis on the spatial expansion of the cemetery from north to south-east, as preliminarily suggested by the excavator (Ondráček 1972). This kind of spatial development was also observed (in the opposite direction from south to north) at another similar cemetery at Branč in south-west Slovakia (Shennan 1975).

Moving from chronology to social organisation (also studied at Branč by Shennan 1975), we can expect that the majority of burials follow a quite specific set of rules governing the formal attributes of interments. A strong correlation between the sex of the deceased (determined by osteological methods) and body orientation and placement on one or other side in the contracted position (as a part of the cultural engendering of the buried persons) is typical in this cultural setting and clearly seems to be the case in Holešov (Stloukal 1985). Studies of cultural groups in Central Europe dating from the late Eneolithic to the Early Bronze Age show an interesting pattern whereby grave orientations and body positions are reversed as each period succeeds the next. An overview of these conventions is presented (in chronological order with partial overlaps) in Table 1.

Table 1. Structural characteristics of normative burial at the turn of Late Neolithic (Eneolithic) and Early Bronze Age in Central Europe.
PeriodCultural affiliationMalesFemales
Head orientationBody positionHead orientationBody position
Late EneolithicCorded wareWestRight sideEastLeft side
Bell beakersNorthLeft sideSouthRight side
Early Bronze AgeNitra cultureWestRight sideEast Left side
Únĕtice cultureSouthRight sideSouthRight side

This table is slightly idealised as there is always some variation in the given cardinal directions and there may be exceptions in body positions. In addition, the contact zone between the Nitra and Únětice cultures where the latter eventually replaces the former shows an interesting aspect of cultural continuity; the graves containing artefacts of the Únětice type keep the orientation typical for the previous cultural group (Nitra). It is another indication that the cemetery of Holešov developed more or less continuously from Nitra to Únětice phases. It is unclear whether the same is true for the transition between the initial (Bell Beaker) phase and the Chłopice-Veselé/Nitra stage. Generally there is a 90 degree change in orientation and the layout of the body is reversed, as indicated in Table 1. There are four Chłopice-Veselé graves that contain pottery typical of this cultural group. However, a handful of other graves may represent the period of transition from Bell Beakers to Chłopice-Veselé. Unfortunately, these graves have a very poor inventory with badly preserved skeletons. Their content resembles more the Early Bronze Age burial assemblages than the quite distinctive Bell Beaker burials, but the orientation of their grave pits is in the north-south (Bell Beaker) direction and not east-west as we would expect it to be according to the general rule for the Epi-Corded Ware cultural complex (Chłopice-Veselé/Nitra). Moreover, these 'wrongly orientated' graves are usually located very close to the Bell Beaker graves. It is difficult to confirm that these graves follow the tradition of Bell Beakers in this aspect but it seems plausible (Šmejda 2001).

Figure 5
Figure 5: An example of male burial (no. 147) with grave goods (stone arrowheads and flake, cattle ribs). Image credit: L. Šmejda.

Such dualistic formal organisation of graves goes hand in hand with differences in burial goods distribution between males and females. Therefore we may speak about the true manifestation of culturally ascribed gender in the material culture (Arnold and Wicker 2001; Sofaer and Sørensen 2013). Males were frequently buried with stone arrowheads (Figure 5); a few of them were accompanied by polished stone artefacts (mostly bracers), copper daggers and knives, antler battleaxes/maces or boar tusks. Female burials typically possess antler/bone or faience beads and copper hair ornaments (in a limited variety of forms based on a wire ring: Figure 6). These relationships are not absolutely exclusive, as several burials determined as males had a limited number of beads or ring ornaments and a couple of female burials included boar tusks. These exceptions (however infrequent) may suggest that in some cases either the determination of biological sex might be questionable or that more complicated mechanism of grave goods selection for burial was sometimes applied, but overall the presented pattern is repeated in a number of excavated cemeteries of similar cultural affiliation.

Figure 6
Figure 6: An example of male burial (no. 7) with grave goods (faience bead, nacre beads, copper hair ornaments, cattle ribs). Image credit: L. Šmejda.

Whether certain specific rules also meant that children were treated differently from adults is unclear, but it seems that this question can at least be addressed by the multivariate analysis of large datasets where available (Šmejda 2003b). Graves of children are usually under-represented on prehistoric cemeteries and their preservation can be significantly worse than that of adults. This complex problem will therefore be treated only briefly here. The distinction between boys and girls has not been very pronounced in Holešov up to the age of sexual maturity, apart from the orientation and arrangement of the body, which corresponds with the prevalent gendered rules (but in the case of children it is not possible to check by osteological methods). During the reproductive years the observable differences in burial assemblages are the most marked, becoming again slightly weaker in old age. Interestingly, two categories of finds are frequent throughout the whole adulthood (adultus/maturus categories). The bone beads thus seem to have been an essential element for the cultural construct of mature femaleness, while the stone arrowheads in a similar vein expressed the idea of accentuated maleness.

In summary, we may proceed to the formulation of two basic hypotheses that will be tested by formalised methods:

  1. The cemetery of Holešov developed from a small group of burials in its north part through continuous spatial extension, mainly in the south and east direction.
  2. There is a set of gender-specific attributes, the combinations and relationships of which reflect the social structure of the buried population (gender and possibly also age groups).