Was it

A special burial place

Some 5,000 years ago people of the so-called Salzmünder culture lived in the South of today’s Saxony-Anhalt. Overlooking the river Saale, researchers from the University of Halle discovered the remains of a large Neolithic fortification. In the immediate surroundings they come across further evidence of the Salzmünder culture. Even before the fortification was constructed, people had lived here and founded settlements – and they also buried their dead here.

Very little is known about the complex death cult of the Salzmünder culture. Usually, the dead were buried individually and their bodies covered with pottery shards. However, the archaeologists discovered a very unusual grave among the many that have found so far. The remains of nine people lying in a multiple grave – a collective interment, covered over with more than 10,000 pottery fragments. Four adults, all of them women, each clutching a child: one of the women was pregnant. Why were they buried together over 5,000 years ago?

Catastrophe or ritual?

Several different scenarios are imaginable; many questions left unanswered. Was this perhaps the ritual killing of an entire small family? Or did they die as result of a fire, the four mothers protectively covering their children from the unforgiving flames – the adults’ the bones of their skulls, spines and joints do show strong burns? Are they even really mothers with their children? Perhaps the children are not related to the adults at all? Were they members of a fringe group of society at that time, or did they belong to a special social class, who perhaps practiced an unusual occupation?

Susanne Friederich from the University of Halle and her colleagues have made up their minds to solve the mystery. The team is carrying out their research on the death cult of the Salzmünder culture in the State Museum of Prehistory in Halle (Saale) under the leadership of Professor Dr. Harald Meller and Professor Dr. Kurt W. Alt from the Institute of Anthropology at the University of Mainz. Beside archaeologists, anthropologists and ethnologists are also involved in the project, which is supported by the Volkswagen Foundation within the context of its funding initiative “Research in Museums”.

Archaeological detective work with criminological methods

The researchers make use of the most advanced scientific methods. For instance, they determine the familial relationships of the women and children by means of aDNA analysis. This is a procedure for investigating the remains of the gene molecules of dead organisms (aDNA) that are contained in teeth, for example. With the aid of isotope analysis the researchers hope to find out about the dead people‘s state of nutrition and the environmental conditions they lived in. Biogeochemical examinations are also planned: this is to find out if there are traces of fire in the soil samples, for instance.

Their investigations will also include another 25 individuals found in graves of the same period and 45 skulls discovered in the earthwork fortifications. In order to find out more about the highly complex death culture of prehistoric times, the results are then combined with forensic methods in an attempt to determine the exact circumstances of death. From the archaeological interpretation of all the data at their disposal, the researchers hope to uncover clues which will indicate the exact cause of death of the nine persons and whether they were related.

Book and exhibition

Once the project is completed, the results of the archaeological detective work will be exhibited as part of an interactive exhibition, where visitors will be able to follow the archaeological-criminological investigation and come up with their own ideas of what happened. The exhibition will open in November 2013 in the State Museum of Prehistory in Halle (Saale). The researchers filmed their work for several months to provide fascinating insights into this prehistoric mystery for the videoblog sciencemovies.

All Episodes


Nine bodies, lots of questions

Five thousand years ago, nine people died in Salzmünde – under mysterious circumstances. Were they burned alive? Or were they murdered? A group of researchers is investigating the historical mystery.

Catastrophe or ritual?

Investigations bear the first results: the researchers can now rule out a house fire as cause of death. Have they found evidence of some kind of death cult?

Broken fragments with a history

The researchers in Halle piece together a puzzle to see what they can find: they fit the huge number of shards together. Do the resulting jugs, amphorae and mugs reveal further clues to the mystery of Salzmünde?

Archaeological treasure trove

The dead people of Salzmünde go on a journey – safely packed in cases, for the State Museum in Halle wants to exhibit them. With this in mind, the researchers have thought up a very special exhibition technique.

Earlier find

Surprising photographic evidence: the researchers find photos of earlier found graves. At that time a number of mysterious multiple graves had also been discovered. Did the earthwork have a special significance for burials?

Hidden in the teeth

The criminal investigation moves to Mainz and the Institute of Anthropology: What can the bones and teeth of the dead people tell the experts about their age, origin, and family relationships? The results come as a great surprise to the whole team.

Speaking bones

The bones of the dead people of Salzmünde confront the anthropologists with yet another mystery: they have discovered a fracture in one of the skulls, possibly caused by an act of violence. So was it a crime after all?

Meeting of experts

The archaeologists from Halle and the anthropologists from Mainz come together to discuss the status of their research. Will they be able to solve the mystery of the nine-person burial?

Picture Gallery


Susanne Friederich

Gumboots are part of her work gear when Dr. Susanne Friederich goes out to inspect graves from the Young Stone Age. Most of the time, though, she works at the State Office for Monument Preservation and Archaeology Saxony-Anhalt in Halle (Saale), where our Young-Stone-Age specialist analyses archaeological finds – or acts as a guide at the State Museum of Prehistory, explaining to visitors the exhibits which are often more than 5,000 years old.
The Archaeologist Susanne Friederich from Halle examines a mysterious multiple grave dating back some 4,000 years BC.

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