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A new room for a special woman

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A new room for a special woman

The 30 to 40-year-old woman was buried around 9,000 years ago in a sitting position with a child around six to twelve months old. A possible headdress made of deer antlers and animal tooth pendants show the dead woman’s special position as a “shaman”, the spiritual leader of her group.

Re-examination of the grave pit

The grave was discovered by chance in 1934 during excavation work in what is now the spa gardens of Bad Dürrenberg and was recovered in just one afternoon. The redesign of the spa park in the run-up to this year’s State Garden Show opened up the opportunity to examine the site again. The subsequent excavations by the State Office for Monument Preservation and Archeology (LDA) of Saxony-Anhalt from December 2019 yielded impressive new findings. The exact location of the grave was located. In addition, remains of the grave pit, which was riddled with red chalk and which had not been completely excavated in a hurry in 1934, were even found. These were recovered in the block and examined under laboratory conditions in the workshops of the LDA Saxony-Anhalt. Numerous new finds were recovered that underline the important position of women within their society and significantly expand the known grave furnishings. At the same time, the excavations provided new insights into the grave architecture and the appearance of the grave pit.

Archaeogenetic studies on “shaman” and child

Through extensive archaeogenetic investigations, important aspects of the “shaman’s” appearance were clearly determined. She was dark-haired, had light eyes and darker skin tone. The already iconic life image of Karol Schauer’s “shaman” was changed according to these new findings. The updated appearance is typical of Western European foraging groups. Other Mesolithic individuals of this phenotype are known, for example, from what is now Luxembourg, Spain and England. It was only with the switch to predominantly plant-based food in the Neolithic period (around 5,500 to 2,200 BC) that light skin became an advantage. It supports the production of vitamin D during the long periods of darkness in the northern hemisphere winter.

Furthermore, in the course of the investigations, the family relationship between the woman and the child as well as the gender of the child – a boy – were clarified. The double burial is not, as long assumed, the burial of mother and child, but rather the two individuals are only 4th or 5th degree relatives. Deposits on the right upper arm bone (humerus) and on the inside of a fragment of the child’s skull are the result of bleeding under the skin. The causes are unclear. These may be traces of a vitamin C deficiency disease (scurvy).

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New discoveries support their position

The discovery of another pit, which was uncovered just one meter away from the grave of the “shaman”, can be seen as a surprise. In addition to a sandstone worktop with clear traces of processing and work tools made of quartz and flint, the remains of two real red deer antlers were discovered. The two antlers showed clear traces of processing, which support their appearance as masks. The pit in which they were found was dug about 600 years after the “shaman” and child were buried. This suggests that the important woman’s burial was marked and was still visited centuries after her death. This is also evidenced by the valuable gifts that were placed at her grave during this time and which once again underline the outstanding importance of the “shaman” for her time and far beyond.

The radiocarbon dating places the laying of the antlers in the area of ​​the so-called 8.2K event: from around 6,350 BC, the climate deteriorated within a few years. The annual average temperature fell by two to three degrees Celsius. It is possible that in this situation the grave of the “shaman” was visited in the hope of help and the masks were deposited.

The totality of these new, outstanding results made it necessary to redesign the exhibition room on the “Shaman” in the Halle (Saale) State Museum of Prehistory, both visually and in terms of content. In addition to her updated picture of life, the panorama above the grave’s display case, also redesigned by Karol Schauer, allows visitors to immerse themselves in the time over 9,000 years ago. A 3D replica and a film animation explain anomalies in the “shaman’s” vertebrae and occipital hole, which caused a paroxysmal rolling of the eyes (nystagmus) when certain head movements were made, which must have seemed to her contemporaries like a sign of contact with the spirit world. The new finds from the subsequent excavations at the site in the spa park of Bad Dürrenberg are now also shown in the ‘Shamanin’ display case. For example, 14 pierced fossil Gyraulus snail shells that are only around five millimeters in size are outstanding. They could have been part of a chain, braided into hair or sewn onto clothing and come from the Steinheim Basin in what is now Baden-Württemberg. The delicate objects not only testify to the dexterity of Mesolithic people, but also to amazing long-distance contacts 9,000 years ago.

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