Around 2,000 years ago, grave robbers would place a wolf skull on top of a burial site, in a bid to protect themselves from the vengeful spirit of a deceased individual buried in a mound. No, this is not the premise of a new Netflix drama, but what archaeologists have stumbled upon last month in southeastern Romania!
The wolf skull, archaeologists believe, acted as a symbolic guardian against any potential retribution, opening up a Pandora’s Box of possible ancient practices and beliefs surrounding the deceased, that are yet unexplored and unknown.
The area of study of the burial mound in Cheia, Dobrogea. ( B. S. Szmoniewski/Science in Poland )
Examining the Burial Mound: Cultic Practice?
The burial mound, situated in a cultivated field near the village of Cheia in southeastern Romania, remains inconspicuous to the untrained eye. However, it has attracted the attention of researchers since 2008. In 2022, geophysical surveys unveiled a burial complex with a substantial diameter of 75 meters (246 ft), containing two graves concealed beneath the earth, according to a report by Science in Poland .
Moderately cleaned wolf skull found at site. ( B. S. Szmoniewski/Science in Poland )
“The closing of the robber’s dig was interesting and unusual. A few stones were placed there, with a wolf skull on top of them. It was probably a magical ritual aimed at closing the looted space to prevent the robbed spirit from exiting and taking revenge,” says Poland’s research leader Dr. Bartłomiej Szymon Szmoniewski, from the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnology of the Polish Academy of Sciences.
The primary grave, positioned at the center of the mound, featured a cremation pit where the body of the deceased was subjected to the intense heat of fire within a wooden coffin. The remnants of a wooden structure, adorned with bronze fittings and fastened with nails, were discovered within the pit—a testament to the intricate burial rituals of the time. However, due to the cremation process, few traces of the actual skeleton remained.
Primary grave with skeleton. ( V. Voinea/Science in Poland )
Following the cremation, wooden planks were placed over the pit before the grave was filled, creating a sealed resting place for the departed. Dr. Bartłomiej Szymon Szmoniewski from the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnology of the Polish Academy of Sciences drew parallels between this burial method and similar practices observed in Hârșova, a town known as Carsium during the Roman era along the lower Danube, reports IIFL Science .
“It was probably a wooden box that contained the body of the deceased and grave goods. It was burned on the spot, as evidenced by the strong burn of the walls and the bottom of the pit. Then, the pit was covered with wooden boards and filled in. Barrows with very similar cremation burials were discovered in Hârșova, known in the Roman period as Carsium, on the lower Danube,” Szmoniewski explained.
In addition to the fragments from the cremation, archaeologists unearthed a remarkable quantity of burnt walnut seeds, preserved within their shells, as well as fragments of pine cones and other plant material. These findings provide insights into the burial customs and offerings associated with the deceased.
“The presence of burnt walnut seeds in the presented burial is an interesting custom known from cremation graves from the early Roman period,” Szmoniewski said. “Walnuts in the sepulchral context are interpreted as a kind of grave gift – special food for the soul. In the Casimcea river valley in Dobruja, where we are conducting research, this is the first find of its kind.”
Burnt walnut seed from the crematory grave: ( B. S. Szmoniewski/Science in Poland )
Robbery in Antiquity: Dating the Grave
At some point during antiquity, the grave fell victim to robbery. Although the thieves did not manage to plunder everything, they left behind a striking sight—a wolf’s skull placed atop a pile of stones, effectively sealing the entrance to their illicit excavation. Dr. Szmoniewski suggests that this peculiar act likely served as a ritualistic and magical operation, aimed at closing the looted space and thwarting any potential retaliation from the disturbed spirit!
“The unusual find of a wolf’s skull at the exit of a robbery ditch […] may indicate that the theft was made by the Getae – a people who inhabited this area before the appearance of the Greeks and Romans,” Szmoniewski added. However, the researcher believes that those buried in the graves were likely Romans who arrived in the area during Roman colonization.
A second grave, situated at a distance from the central burial site, was also discovered within the barrow. Archaeologists uncovered a skeleton interred within a wooden structure, possibly a coffin, with remnants of wood found both above and below the remains, reports Heritage Daily .
Accompanying the deceased was a small glass vessel with a long neck known as an ‘unguentarium’, commonly used to store perfumes or cosmetics. Notably, a bronze coin from the reign of Emperor Hadrian , minted around 125-127 AD, was found placed within the individual’s jaw—an intriguing inclusion with potential symbolic significance.
“The coin in the mouth of the buried refers to the ancient custom of Charon’s obol, when a coin inserted into the mouth was to be used as payment to Charon for transporting the deceased’s soul across the River Styx in Hades,” Szmoniewski concluded.
These burials within the barrow date back to the mid-2nd century AD and mark a significant discovery for the region. Prior to this find, similar burial mounds had not been identified in the area. It will be interesting to learn what all the researchers find going forward.
Top image: A Representation of a wolf skull. Source: igor kisselev /Adobe Stock
By Sahir Pandey