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Bell Beaker Chieftain from England found buried with his Shaman

A chieftain

Indo-European Cowhide

The probable chieftain or prestigious leader – a man in his thirties or forties – had been interred underneath the centre of a large funerary mound which had been constructed specifically for him inside his own personal 20 m diameter ditched enclosure.

He had been buried in around 2200 BC with a 20 cm long copper dagger (with a pommel made out of whalebone), an amber bead, a flint knife, an iron pyrites and flint fire-lighting kit, four special cowhide “rugs” and an extremely fine archer’s wrist guard made of a particularly valued stone quarried or gathered near the top of a mountain in the Lake District.

What’s more, dark staining in the gravel surrounding his skeleton shows that he had been buried in a wooden plank coffin (or possibly just wrapped in animal skins), says archaeologist Andy Hood of Foundations Archaeology, the Wiltshire-based company carrying out the archaeological investigations near Lechlade, Gloucestershire.

Some early Bronze Age high-status individuals were buried with one or two cowhide “rugs” – but this very prestigious communal leader had a total of four, a number not known to be paralleled anywhere else in Britain. Each “rug” would have been an impressive and valued possession – an entire cowhide complete with the animal’s hooves at its four corners and its skull.

A shaman

Significantly, this high-status Lechlade leader was interred looking Southeast – gazing directly towards a second buried man, just two metres away. That second individual had been buried probably at or immediately after the chieftain had been laid to rest.

That individual – an older man, perhaps in his fifties or sixties – had not been buried in the normal manner. Instead, he had been interred sitting on an earth and gravel “seat” with his legs descending into what would initially have been a pit.

Beaker culture burial with a whalebone

In Bronze Age Siberia, shamans were buried partially sitting up.

Some early mediaeval Germanic seers (priest-like divination practitioners) were also buried in a seated position – and, from at least the fourth century, many Christian bishops in Eastern Europe were buried in a similar fashion. In ancient Thrace (Bulgaria), acolytes initiated into the Orphic religion are thought to have been buried in a seated position.

In ancient India (and indeed, sometimes still in modern India) some holy men were buried in a cross-legged seated “lotus” position. In death, they were seen not as having died in the conventional sense, but to be in an eternal yogic state – a state in which they were perceived to have abandoned their body and to have merged with the eternal essence or soul of the cosmos. The earliest written reference to aspects of that concept dates from 1000 BC but the concept itself is likely to be far older.

The Lechlade Beaker chieftain and his potential shaman wielded their power around 300 years after their culture had first arrived in Britain – and were by then the dominant group.

Created on 26th of April 2020