Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Prehistoric Czech-Mates

Is this the world’s earliest known threesome?

This is really one of those stories where you need to make your own mind up. Most of what archaeologists know about the past comes from evidence. However, where evidence is difficult to interpret that’s when differences of opinion arise. Take the case of this Stone Age triple burial. Archaeologists have several theories and have changed their minds several times since the skeletons were discovered in 1986.

This triple burial was discovered near the village of Dolni Vestonice in the Czech Republic. The site was destined for industrial redevelopment but the discovery of a major archaeological site put a stop to that. Archaeologists found a settlement dating back 28,000 years or so. Pottery, bones and charcoal fragments were carbon dated and proved this to be the site of the world’s first pottery kilns. But it was the triple burial which created the most discussion among scientists.

My stylised diagram below shows a how the skeletons were positioned when they were discovered. It wasn’t unusual to find a multiple burial like this but it was unusual, even unique, to find them in these positions.

Carbon dating of charcoal found in the remains of a nearby hearth dated the burials to the same date as the rest of the site. The skeletons were of teenagers, certainly not of anyone older than their early 20s. The two outer skeletons were easily identified as male, healthy and well-built, the sort of young man you’d find in that era hunting for mammoths around the swampy settlement. The middle skeleton was more difficult to identify. It was smaller than the other two and frail and it was believed at first to be a female.

Several theories were made to explain why these three were buried together. A young woman who died, buried with her executed husband and shaman who failed to save her life? A bit fanciful. Perhaps a tribal queen and her two husbands? Still quite fanciful without other supporting evidence. Or perhaps siblings who died at the same time from an inherited ailment? Medical examination of the bones provided more evidence of this theory than the other two. But further examination of the middle skeleton produced others.

The middle skeleton has always been difficult to sex. It shows evidence of disease, a curvature of the spine, a fused hip joint and a shortened leg. It could easily belong to a disabled teenaged youth. It would explain why it was smaller and less robust than the others. Several respected archaeologists have suggested this was a young man, which led to even more theories about three skeletons. The unusual positions of the bodies and of remains of items in the grave have given rise to the queerest theory of them all…

Is this a gay threesome?

Here’s the thinking behind that theory. See what you think. I’ll refer to the skeletons as Leftman, Middleman and Rightman.

Middleman was buried first, probably indicating that he also died first. Rightman was buried next with his left arm deliberately intertwined with Middleman’s left arm. Rightman was also buried face down, perhaps the most unusual aspect of the whole scenario. Other burials are face up. Rightman’s face was also turned away from Middleman.

Leftman was buried last. Some archaeologists have even suggested he was buried alive, or at least still breathing at the time but incapacitated. They also suggest that the people who buried him turned his head towards his hands, which they positioned over the groin of Middleman. There’s no doubt in the archaeologists’ minds that all three were placed in these positions deliberately. Most burials are placed on their backs, not touching any other. If you had come across these young men today, sleeping in a bed like this, it would be easy to assume they were all lovers. But why would they bury them like this if they weren’t?

Red ochre, a common mineral in the area used a lot ritually in burials, covers all three skulls. There’s also red ochre underneath Leftman’s hands over Middleman’s groin. Again, historians and archaeologists have given several interpretations for this – the remains of a small ceramic vessel, or, more sensationally, the remain of a pottery dildo (several of them have been found as ceremonial objects). In addition it appears that Leftman had a stake thrust into his groin, or even up his back side. This has been given a sexual interpretation.

Archaeologists think that the way Leftman was impaled by a stake, and the way Rightman’s head was turned away from the others indicates some sort of shame the society attributed to these two. Was it sexual shame?

Did prehistoric man engage in gay threesomes? Is there any reason to suppose they didn’t? Sexual expression was much more overt in their culture, as evidenced in their pottery. It’s an amazing burial, and we can only imagine the type of relationship these three young men might have had, and the manner of their deaths.

And yet the mystery remains. I’ll let you decide – a gay threesome; a woman and her two husbands; or even three brothers who died tragically together. The gay man in me likes to think it is the first of these, but only more archaeological finds and research may help fully explain the strange burial of these Czech-Mates.

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