Czech History Stone Age grave none the less queer for lack of ‘Gay Caveman’
The bustling Dejvice district of Prague is not where you would expect major encounters with prehistory. Just a few hundred metres from the transport hub at Vítězné Náměstí though, archaeologists are sifting through the millennia and finding ever more evidence of the fact that Prague and its environs have always been inhabited. In the case of the dig at Terronská Street, by the enigmatic Corded Ware culture some 5,000 years ago. My guide to the excavation is archaeologist Kamila Remišová Věšínová.
“The Corded Ware culture was an agricultural culture from the late stone age. They didn’t know metal yet. In some graves we can find copper jewellery, because that was probably the first metal that they came to know, but they didn’t use it for industry or tools, just for jewellery, as a precious metal as you use gold today. And we also know that they had quite strict differentiations in their burial rules. Usually the men were buried with their heads towards the west on their right sides, with vessels and weapons, and the women were buried in the opposite direction, with their heads towards the east on their left side, the result being that both were facing south, which probably had some symbolic meaning, but we cannot figure out what that was. And women were usually buried with some kind of necklace made of animal teeth, mainly teeth of domestic animals, sheep, goats, dogs, but also from wild animals.”
What can you say was happening at this site? Was there a settlement?
“We have found a settlement from two period of prehistory here. The older one is from the late Neolithic, the late stone age, the Corded Ware culture, dated to about 2800 to 2500 BC, so about 4500 years ago…”
Around the time the pyramids were being built.
“Yes. We have four or five graves from this time period – I say four or five, because there may be another grave over there, there are some bones there but we still don’t know about them – and the rest of the objects discovered, that means 190-something, come from the middle Bronze Age, from the middle Danubian culture, which is dated from 1500 to 1300 BC, very approximately. From this period we have a settlement here, mainly working areas and storage pits, because usually prehistoric settlements were divided; in one part there were houses – over there is one of house – and the other part was logically separated, because if you had pits around your house then your kids would fall in [laughs], so the storage pits were in this other part of the settlement where there was also some light structures. There people did their work, because the houses were very small and were mostly only for the family to sleep in; all the work – cooking, ceramics making – was done outside.”
Is it surprising to find settlements from these cultures in this location?
“No. both cultures, the Corded Ware culture and the middle Danubian culture were already documented from the area of Bubeneč. There were quite comfortable conditions for living here. About 100 metres to the north there was a stream, and there was another stream about 200 metres to the east, and the soil here was very good for agriculture.”
So what we see here are the remains of a house?
“Yes, this was a house, and its floor was a metre to 1.5 metres under the surface, which offered a climactic optimum throughout the year, because it the walls were very warm in the winter when they were heating, and in the summer it was cool. And sometimes they also had one-metre high walls above ground and an A-type roof.”
In the space of about a week, this humble archaeological site made news around the globe. The headline “Archaeologists Discover Gay Caveman” was read by thousands, if not millions of sensation seekers. There were of course no cavemen at this dig in Dejvice, for one thing, but early Europeans of steadily increasing sophistication, and the idea of one of them being gay is ridiculously anachronistic, to say nothing of unsubstantiated. What they did find there was an atypical burial unique for Corded Ware peoples, which I was shown by archaeologist Kateřina Semrádová.
“This is our atypical grave. There was one skeleton here, and this skeleton was surrounded by five ceramic pots and one flint knife. That was all we found in this grave. This was really untypical because the grave did not contain any male or female grave goods.“
The pottery found in the grave was untypical of either male or female burials?
“It was typical to both of them, male and female graves, but we didn’t find any of the typical male or female grave goods. For example, treasures or necklaces, which were grave goods typically left for female graves. And on the other hand, we didn’t find any weapons, which are typical for male graves.”
“The strange fact about this grave is that this man has an atypical position, because he is in the position of a woman; the Corded Ware culture had strict ritual rules.”
So what kind of explanation can you give for why this person would have been buried in this atypical way?
Věšínová: “Well if it was a man buried in the position of a woman there could be many reasons actually, and most of them we are not able to reconstruct today. But from ethnological and other archaeological data we can consider three main interpretations: either that it was a person of “third gender”, meaning any sexual orientation different than the norm. Or other possibilities are that, in a village of 40 to 50 people maximum, they could do this to someone who was different in some way – any way – maybe mentally retarded or psychologically ill, of another sexual orientation or gender identity, or who was for example left-handed, or did things differently.
They could have buried a left-handed person in a different way?
“It’s just an idea, but we do know from later periods of prehistory – and history, like from the early medieval times – that left-handed people, for example, were feared by some communities because it was not normal, they were different, they were often excommunicated.”
The person who was buried here doesn’t seem to have been feared though, having even more pottery buried with him than was usual.
“No I don’t think he was feared, but it is very strange, because the grave goods that “he/she” had in the grave were quite untypical. Five vessels is not a typical number for Corded Ware cultures, it’s usually two, three vessels per grave. And the grave goods are very neutral: there is no specific female artefact and no specific male artefact. So from the grave goods, we couldn’t tell if it was a man or a woman.”
And as far as the body is concerned, I assume you’re able to tell from the pelvis that it was definitely a man?
“Yes. Now the skeletons are in the National Museum and they will go under several analyses and after that we will be completely sure.”
What all can they determine from the skeleton?
“They can tell the age, some main sicknesses that leave traces on the skeleton, usually the cause of death… they can say quite a lot about the person. But it takes time. It will take several weeks I guess until we get the results.”
Well whatever result you do get is going to tell you something about the Corded Ware culture that you didn’t know before probably, is that right?
“I don’t think it will tell us anything about the Corded Ware culture, archeologically speaking, more about this member of that culture. Because with one skeleton you cannot do any analysis. You would have to have at least 20 skeletons to do some synthesis and the percentages of this type sickness or these types of injuries, average age… You would need to have many more graves. From this one grave we can find something out about this one person, but not about the community.”
Is this the first time that a Corded Ware burial has been found that differed from their ritual?
“I am not sure about the Corded Ware culture, because many such finds were not published. But I know that similar situations occur in earlier periods of prehistory, for example from the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic, and I also know of several cases from the Neolithic, but not from the Czech Republic, but from Central and south-eastern Europe.”
So this is not unique in the sense of the same thing never having been seen?
“No. It’s not a frequent find. You don’t find such graves very often, but since the Palaeolithic there are some. And from younger periods; we know similar graves from the medieval period and from the Slavs, like women’s graves with horses, like warrior graves with women.
So just like finding a Slav woman buried with a horse doesn’t mean she was zoosexual, finding this strange grave here doesn’t mean that this person was a homosexual.
“Yes, of course! You have to take it in the context of the culture, and from the Avar-Slav period it is usual to find male warriors buried with their horses, but not female warrior graves. But, you know, someone will sometimes find a graveyard where there are women buried with horses and men buried with horses. That’s the point, that in archaeology you never know anything for sure. Because you never know what’s left under the ground.”