Headless Skeletons Found in 2,500-Year-Old Burial

The heads of the bodies were found placed by their knees -- but why?

Archaeologists in Siberia have unearthed a 2,500-year-old tomb containing two skeletons, a teenager and an adult, with their heads severed and placed by the knees.

Remains of fur garments in the grave suggest the headless couple were warmly dressed for the afterlife against the Siberian cold.

Found in the Altai Mountains, the burial belongs to the Pazyryk, a Scythian Iron Age culture that inhabited southern Siberia between the 6th and 3rd centuries BC.

According to excavation director Nikita Konstantinov, at Gorno-Altaisk State University, headless burials are quite common from this period, as the Pazyryks beheaded their defeated enemies and made bowls from their skulls. In fact, eating from the skulls of enemies was their ultimate victory celebration.

"But this is obviously a different case," Konstantinov told the Siberian Times.

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The heads were included in the burial, and the two individuals do not appear to be enemies.

They were lavishly dressed -- gold foil found in the grave was likely part of their fur coats -- and accompanied by grave goods such as bronze mirrors and ceramic vessels. Remnants of "organic stuff" was also found in the burial.

Konstantinov told Discovery News that robbery appears to be the most likely explanation for the puzzling burial.

"The robbers broke into the tomb before the bodies decomposed. For some reason, they beheaded the corpses. Perhaps they feared the dead could resurrect and revenge ," he said.

Although the heads were severed, they were placed by the knees of the dead.

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Konstantinov believes the couple is related.

"They were probably a parent and a child, but for now we can just assume that the adult is a female," he said.

Further research on the remains will determine the age and sex of the individuals and whether "the heads were cut off or separated in some other way."

According to Adrienne Mayor, a research scholar at Stanford University's departments of classics and history of science, the burial might not be so bizarre. The severed heads might be just part of a mummification procedure.

"The common Pazyryk mummification process included removing the head from the body and then set in place after removing the brain," Mayor wrote in a comment posted on the Siberian Times.

"Probably later grave robbers disturbed and displaced the heads, which had already been severed for mummification," she said.

The author of "The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women across the Ancient World," Mayor noted the "organic stuff" found in the burial could be the processed internal organs, "which were also replaced after removal and treatment during preparation of the bodies."

The mystery may be solved by January, when the first results of the analysis will be available.

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