10 monumental tombs discovered in Sasiny(Podlaskie), initially believed by archaeologists to contain Neolithic burials, were found to be less than 1,000 years old and made by Christians.
The cemetery in Sasiny is situated in north eastern Poland. In the 11th through to the 13th centuries, the area regularly changed hands between the Piast princes and the Rus princes.
“All members of the local community were buried in the study graveyard – both poor and rich, including the elite. Funeral rites were common to all.
Each of the deceased was placed in a large burial structure, the edges of which was marked by big boulders,” explained Dr. Michał Dzik from the Institute of Archaeology, the University of Rzeszów, who heads the unearthings in Sasiny.
The graves examined by archaeologists have almost rectangular outlines.
The space surrounded by boulders, some of which weigh over half a ton, was filled with several layers of unworked stone, which covered the deceased, who was placed in a wooden coffin or covered with a shroud.
Structures of this type have extensive size – on average 5 by 3.5 m.
According to Dr. Dzik, the cemetery served the local community and the unusual graves are the result of the evolution of the local burial customs.
According to another hypothesis, the form of these graves could have been introduced to the area by settlers from Mazovia, or by warriors of Scandinavian origin who came via Rus.
“Most of the tombs we discovered were partially destroyed, but research results turned out to be very interesting. The burials in their graves have not been disturbed,” explained Dr. Dzik.
The cemetery is unique because very few similar sites survived to our times.
This happened because the local population in Mazovia and Podlasie (where they occurred) acquired stones from them for building material.
“It is also surprising that the Christians were buried here, although the form of graves could suggest otherwise – flat cemeteries with the pit graves dominated in Wielkopolska or Malopolska at that time,” said Dr. Dzik.
According to the researcher, although Christianity had already been introduced in the Polish-Rus borderland in the 11th/13th centuries, many old pagan customs had still been retained. One of them could be the form of graves.
“In the second half of the 11th-century cremation was quickly becoming less common. At the same time, barrows with stone structures underneath were no longer built.
We believe that the reason was the prohibitions introduced with the spread of Christianity. In the same period tombs in stone enclosures became popular, but without burial mounds,” said the archaeologist.
During the examination of individual graves, archaeologists discovered traces of burial customs from pre-Christian times – such as bonfires made within the tomb before backfilling, or fragments of smashed vessels placed next to the deceased, possibly vessels used during the wakes.
Dr. Dzik doubts that Christian priests were present during funeral ceremonies at similar cemeteries, which could also contribute to the persistence of the old customs.
Various ornaments discovered next to the deceased caught the attention of archaeologists – including dozens of glass beads, silver, and silver-plated temple rings, pendants in the form of a crescent moon with a cross (i.e. lunulae). Discovered items indicate that at least some of the dead were buried in a rich, probably festive attire.
“Some of the ornaments were made very precisely, using complex jewellery techniques. Some might find it surprising that the community considered to be living on the edge of the world had such a high material culture,” noted the researcher.