First mother-daughter burial from the Roman period found in Austria

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Ancient grave find in Wels provides new insights through interdisciplinary research.

Fig. 1: Documentation photo of the two individuals at the time they were uncover
Fig. 1: Documentation photo of the two individuals at the time they were uncovered. Source: Stadtmuseum Wels

When a grave was discovered in Wels 20 years ago, the find was thought to be the early medieval double burial of a married couple together with a horse due to its unusual characteristics. Only now has it been possible to clarify the biological sex and relationship of the buried persons using the latest archaeological technologies. Under the leadership of anthropologist Sylvia Kirchengast and archaeologist Dominik Hagmann from the University of Vienna, the scientists were also able to date the grave to the 2nd to 3rd century CE. The results were recently published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.

In 2004, an unusual grave was discovered during construction work in the area of the so-called eastern burial ground of the ancient Roman city of Ovilava - today’s Wels in Upper Austria. The grave contained the remains of two people embracing each other and at least one horse. Due to these unusual features, the find was initially thought to be an early medieval double burial. A comprehensive re-examination, in which the latest bioarchaeological and archaeogenetic methods were applied, yielded surprising findings: The grave is 500 years older than previously thought, dating from the 2nd to 3rd century CE and can therefore be assigned to Roman antiquity in Austria.

"In Roman times, burials in which humans were buried next to horses were very rare. What is even more extraordinary, however, is that this is the first burial from Roman antiquity in Austria in which genetic analyses have clearly identified a biological mother and her biological daughter, who were also buried at the same time. This makes our results particularly exciting," explains Dominik Hagmann, first author of the study.

Sum of modern technologies delivers result

Osteological examinations and ancient DNA (aDNA) analyses revealed the biological sex and also suggested a familial link between the two human individuals. Radiocarbon dating finally enabled a more precise chronological classification of both the human skeletons and the horse skeleton. The detailed examination of the golden grave goods also enriched the understanding of the new dating of the site, just as archaeozoological examinations of the buried horse expanded the understanding of the entire burial context.

"All in all, our investigations revealed that the burial involved two biological women - probably a mother aged around 40 to 60 and her daughter aged around 20 to 25 - from the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD. The grave is therefore around 500 years older than initially assumed and clearly dates from the Roman period," says study director Sylvia Kirchengast.

The exact background to the double burial is not clear, according to scientists: Possibly both died of an illness at the same time and were buried together with their horse according to a tradition from the late Iron Age - the older person has skeletal features that could indicate frequent horseback riding.
Ultimately, this investigation shows the enormous potential that the application of modern scientific methods in combination with traditional research approaches offers for archaeology in Roman Austria.

Original publication:

Hagmann, D., Ankerl, B., Chernoet, O., Greisinger, M., Kirchengast, N. I., Miglbauer, R., & Kirchengast, S. (2024). Double Feature: First Genetic Evidence of a Mother-Daughter Double Burial in Roman Period Austria. Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, 55, 104479.
DOI: 10.1016/j.jasrep.2024.104479