Systematic Anthropological examination of an Avar age

cemetery (Pitvaros-Víztározó)


Molnár Erika



Dr. Antónia Marcsik
Assistant Professor
Head of Department of Anthropology


Dr. Gyula Farkas
Professor of anthropology
University of Szeged
Faculty of Sciences
Department of Anthropology




In 1993-94 and 1996 during a rescue excavation at a site lying 1.5 km south-east of Pitvaros, an Avar period cemetery was uncovered under the direction of Bende Lívia, archaeologist of the Móra Ferenc Museum, Szeged. According to the archaeological finds the cemetery was dated between the last third of the 7th century and the second half of the 9th century. The excavated 225 graves contained altogether 226 human skeletons, which were housed at the Department of Anthropology, University of Szeged.

The purpose of the present dissertation was the overall anthropological study of the excavated 226 skeletal remains as well as searching for anthropological relationship with other Hungarian Avar period series.

The state of preservation of the examined skeletons is quite fragmentary as a result of taphonomical conditions (mainly the clayey soil). After the skeletal reconstruction altogether 220 skulls and 222 postcranial skeletons were available for anthropological examination.


1.) The age and sex distribution of the skeletal series of Pitvaros is the following: the ratio between the children (0-23 yrs) and the adults (23-x yrs) is 66:160 (29.2%:70.8%). Among the 160 adults, there were 81 males (50.63%), 76 females (47.5%), while in 3 cases (1.88%) the sex was undeterminable.


2.) For palaeodemographical analysis (Acsádi-Nemeskéri, 1970) 218 skeletons were suitable. During the analysis the following demographical characteristics were determined:

- The expectation of life at birth is relatively high: 32.44 years.

- The infant mortality between 0-5 years of age is low, while it is high between 5-14 years of age.

- The juvenile mortality is rather high. In all probability it is in connection with the childbearing problems of young women who reached the age of reproduction.

- Concerning the adults, the female and male mortality peaks differ from each other. Among the males it is between 50-54 years of age, while among the females it happens much earlier, between 25-29 years of age. The high mortality rate of young women can be explained possibly by complications during pregnancy, child delivery and confinement, or unfavourable sanitary conditions.

- The proportion of deaths is the most balanced between 35-44 years of age in both sexes, but above 45 years of age the male mortality rate is a little bit higher.

After the corrections for the 0-year-old infants according to the model life tables (East 5 and West 5) of Coale and Demény (1966), the infant-adult ratio as well as the ex0 value corresponded to the model life table values, while the distribution of the mortality rates in the different infant age groups remarkably differed from them.

The different age group mortality rates corrected according to the model life table 'East 5' were compared to six other similarly corrected Avar period series. In this comparison the skeletal samples of Pitvaros and Kereki-Homokbánya showed outstanding death rates in younger ages.


3.) For the metric study we determined 20 measurements on the skull and 22 measurements on the postcranial skeleton. However, as a consequence of the fragmentary state of preservation of the skeletons, in most of the cases (especially on the skulls) only some measurements could be made. From these measurements 10-10 indices were calculated both for the skulls and the postcranial skeletons. We evaluated the parameters and the category distribution of the absolute values and indices according to the systems of Martin-Saller (M) (1957) and Alekszejev-Debec (A-D) (1964). In several cases there was a difference between the two kinds of results.

According to the averages of the absolute values, the cranium of the males is medium long (A-D) or short (M), the base of the skull is medium long. The height of the cranium is medium high according to the ba-b, while according to the po-b it is very high. The cerebral cranium is wide (A-D) or medium wide (M), the forehead is medium wide. The facial cranium is short, the zygomatic arch is wide (A-D) or medium wide (M). The midface is medium wide, the face is medium high (A-D) or high (M), the upper face is medium high. Both orbits are narrow (A-D) or medium wide (M), and medium high. The nasal cavity is medium wide and high, the palate is long and narrow (A-D) or medium wide (M). The mandible is wide and medium high.

The cranium of the females is short, the base of the skull is also short. The height of the cranium is medium high according to the ba-b, while it is very high according to the po-b. The cerebral cranium is wide (A-D) or medium wide (M), the forehead is medium wide. The facial cranium is medium wide, the zygomatic arch and the midface are both wide, the face is medium high, the upper face is high (A-D) or medium high. Both orbits are narrow (A-D) or medium wide, and medium high. The nasal cavity is wide and medium high (A-D), or high (M), the palate is very long (A-D) or long (M) and medium wide. The mandible is medium wide and medium high.

According to the averages of the relative values/indices, the cranium of the males is brachycranic, hypsicranic and metriocranic. The forehead is metriometopic, the face is mesoprosopic, the upper face is mesene. Both orbits are mesoconch, the nasal cavity is mesorrhine (A-D),or leptorrhine (M), the palate is leptostaphyline.

The cranium of the females is hyperbrachycranic, hypsicranic and tapeinocranic. The forehead is metriometopic, the face is euryprosopic, the upper face is mesene (A-D) or leptene (M). The right orbit is hypsiconch (A-D) or mesoconch (M), the nasal cavity is mesorrhine, the palate is mesostaphyline (A-D) or leptostaphyline (M).

The stature of the males is large medium according to the average (168.36 cm), while a great number of the males (43.33%) are high if we take the distribution of the height values. The stature of the females is medium high according to the average (155.31 cm), while the distribution of their height values is almost uniform between the categories of small medium and high.


4.) The taxonomic analysis based on the morphological and metric characteristics was carried out according to the method of Lipták (1959, 1965, 1980, 1983). The fragmentary state of preservation of the skeletal sample of Pitvaros made the taxonomic analysis difficult; for this study 48 male and 48 female skulls (altogether 96 skulls) were suitable. The examined material is overwhelmingly Europid (92.7%) concerning both the males and females. Among these, the Brachycranic group is the mostly represented (53.1%). This group is heterogeneous: the undeterminable brachycranic-brachymorfic, the Pamirian and the Dinaric groups are its representatives. The Cromagnoid group is represented by 19.8%, the Mediterranean group (dominated by the Atlanto-Mediterraneans) by 16.7% and the undeterminable Europids by 3.1%.

The proportion of the Mongolids in the series is low (7.3%). Four different types can be differentiated in the examined material: the Sajan, the Central Asian, the Sinid and the undeterminable Mongolid types. However, especially among the Europids - particularly in the Pamirian group - we found some "moid" characteristics at the same time.

In the examined skeletal series the distribution of the taxons differs among the males and females. Among the Europids in both sexes the brachycranic characteristic is overwhelmingly represented. Among the males the proportion of the Cromagnoids is nearly the same as that of the brachycranic elements, however there is only one female Cromagnoid in the taxonomically examinable material. The number of the Mediterranean females is higher than the Mediterranean males. Among the Mongolids we found more females than males.

The series of Pitvaros was compared to 6 other Avar period samples. The series included in this comparison showed different taxonomic composition. Taking these samples altogether we could concluded that among the males we can find mainly the Cromagnoid and Nordoid characteristics, while among the females the brachycranic elements dominate. In all of these series the Mongolid elements were slightly represented, which proves them taxonomically different from the Avar period series excavated between the Rivers Danube and Tisza .

The absence of the Nordoid elements (although some Mediterraneans might belong also to this taxon) in the skeletal sample of Pitvaros makes it different from the other series, too. Furthermore, among the females the Cromagnoid type is also fairly slightly represented in this sample. As a result of the great proportion of the brachycranic components, the present series resembles mostly that of Szentes-Kaján.


5.) The chosen 45 non-metric traits (Berry and Berry, 1967; Finnegan and Marcsik, 1979; Hauser and De Stefano, 1989; Just, 1997 manuscript) were examined on the skulls of the sexually determined adults - 80 males and 74 females, altogether 154 skeletons.

After the calculation of the frequencies of each traits, the differences according to the sides and sexes were determined by the c 2 test (Sváb, 1973). The series was compared to 8 other Hungarian Avar period samples based on the calculated frequencies of 34 traits and using the Grewal-Smith method (in: Finnegan, 1972, manuscript).

The calculation of the biological distance between the population pairs was followed by their hierarchical, agglomerative cluster-analysis using the unweighted pair-group method based on arithmetic averages, of which result was illustrated by a phenogram (Sneath-Sokal, 1963; Finnegan and Marcsik, 1979).

In the series of Pitvaros the most frequent variations are the ossicle at lambda, the exsutural mastoid foramen, the exsutural anterior ethmoid foramen, the open condylar canal and the parietal foramen. The least frequent variations are the os japon, the os inca, the open oval foramen and the mandibular torus. Palatinal foramen and absent posterior ethmoid foramen were not found in the sample.

Among the frequencies between the sexes, on a 95% significance level, the frequency of the accessory lesser palatinal foramen was found to be significantly higher among the males. On a 99% significance level, the frequency of the foramen of Huschke was found to be significantly higher among the females. Several studies have pointed already to the sexual dimorphism of this later trait (Brasili-Gualandi and Gualdi-Russo, 1989; Finnegan et al., 1993; SjĆ vold, 1984).

Examining laterality on a 95% significance level, we found the two sides significantly different: the spheno-maxillary suture both among the males and altogether was found mainly on the right side; the frontal foramen was also found in a higher frequency on the right side.

In the phenogram representing the result of the biological distance calculation we can differentiate two subclusters. Six skeletal samples belong to the first subcluster, which, except one series, come from the region between the Rivers Danube and Tisza . The other subcluster is composed of 3 series (two from the region East of the River Tisza and one from the region between the Rivers Danube and Tisza ), which are separated from the first subcluster and get connected to it only on a high divergence level. The examined series of Pitvaros can be found in this second subcluster and it is separated from the other two constituents of this group.


6.) For the determination of the biological relations between the series of Pitvaros and other Avar period samples, we used the Penrose-analysis (Penrose, 1954) based on the skulls' metric characteristics. The skeletal series of Pitvaros was compared with 26 Avar period samples. The analysis was carried out concerning both the males and females. The generalised Penrose-distance, as the final result of the analysis, represents the biological distance between the examined series. We illustrated the connection of the series in a dendogram by using the unweighted pair groups method (Sneath-Sokal, 1963). These dendograms show that the generalised Penrose-distance is smaller in the case of the female than in the male series. The heterogeneity of the male and female subpopulations of the samples is emphasised by the fact that their representation in the two dendograms is different.

In the dendogram constructed by the male values we can differentiate seven units, while one sample is separated from the other groups. The last group (4 samples), which is dominated by Mongolid-Mongoloid characters, is rather separated from the others. The other clusters (23 series) are characterised by Europid predominance. In this group there is a separate cluster for the mainly Europid series coming from the region between the Rivers Danube and Tisza , and for the dolichocranic Europid series coming from the Transdanubia.

In the female dendogram we can differentiate several little groups, some of which can also be found among the males. This fact refers to the homogeneity of the male and female subpopulations of the samples.

The series of Pitvaros does not show close relation with any of the samples included in the Penrose-analysis. As a consequence of the present study, for the identification of the anthropological parallels of this sample, the following studies would be interesting in the future:

- the examination of other excavated but anthropologically not examined series from the region East of the River Tisza, and their involvement in the comparison;

- the extension of the examined region (the whole Carpathian basin) and period (also before the Avar period);

- and, finally, it would be important to use other biological distance calculation methods to confirm the results.


7.) The pathological alterations of the sample of Pitvaros were grouped as follows (Steinbock, 1976):

- developmental anomalies

- traumas

- infectious diseases

- nonspecific infections

- specific infections

- hematologic disorders

- metabolic diseases

- joint diseases

- other alterations.

The most frequent pathological alterations in the examined material were:

- joint diseases, most of all degenerative alterations,

- enthesopathies (among the other alterations) and

- traumas.

The fact that these alterations can be observed more frequently and in more localisations among the males refers to a probable division of labour in the series of Pitvaros, according to which it was mainly the men who did the hard physical work.

Beside the typical alterations there are some rare but palaeopathologically important cases in the sample of Pitvaros, such as:

- an alteration observable on the occipital bone of a young male (Grave 132), which is probably a developmental anomaly,

- congenital hip dysplasias (especially in the cases of Grave 204 and 214, where presumably kinship exists between the two graves),

- rare localisations of osteoarticular tuberculosis (e.g. alterations of the transverse process in Grave 12 and 217),

- the coexistence of an advanced stage SPA and pulmonary tuberculosis (Grave 215),

- a probable case of metastatic carcinoma (Grave 208),

- post-paralytic deformities of a young woman (Grave 13).

These special cases are important for their palaeopathological rarity and their differential diagnostic problems. Furthermore, they can contribute to a better understanding of the palaeoepidemiology of these diseases.


8.) The examination of the jaw bones and the dentition concerned the followings:

- jaw bones: normal variations, anomalous forms, pathological conditions;

- dentition: morphological variations, developmental anomalies, pathological conditions (tooth wear, dental caries, tartar, periapical alterations, periodontal disease).

Among these alterations, two rare cases of developmental anomalies are worth mentioning:

- the labial concrescence of the supernumerary lower left incisor and the canine of an mature man (Grave 21),

- the impaction of all the canines of an old man (Grave 102).

In the examined sample the pathological changes of the jaws and the dentition are not highly represented, which can be in connection with the alimentary conditions of this population. Moreover, the high number of young deaths can also explain the low representation of dental pathological conditions.

The importance of the anthropological examination of the series of Pitvaros lies also in the fact that it is one of the 36 Avar period cemeteries where niche-graves were found. These cemeteries can be divided into two groups, of which geographical localisation shows great differences. The early niche-grave cemeteries were discovered mainly between the Rivers Tisza and Maros, while in the later period the population using niche-graves lived mainly between the Rivers Körös and Maros, in the region of Szarvas and Orosháza (Lőrinczy, 1995). The series of Pitvaros-Víztároló belongs to this second group (containing 17 cemeteries, which started to be used in the second half of the Avar period), in which beside the skeletal sample of Pitvaros, the series of Rákóczifalva-Kastélydomb (Lipták and Marcsik, 1975), Szentes-Kaján (Wenger, 1955) and Szeged-Makkoserdő (Vámos, 1973) were examined from an anthropological point of view.

Among the early Avar period cemeteries with niche-graves (altogether 20 series) the anthropological study of the skeletal sample of Szegvár-Oromdűlő was partly carried out (Farkas et al., 1993). The excavation of the cemetery continued later, and the examination of the skeletal remains is carried out nowadays, so this series could not be included in the biological distance calculations.

The explanation of the fact that the skeletal sample of Pitvaros does not show close relation with any of the 26 series included in the Penrose-analysis might lie in the fact that the population of this region is relatively unknown. This result - in accordance with the comparison based on the distribution of the taxonomic characteristics of the series and with the results of biological distance analysis based on non-metric variations - might refer to the fact that the niche-grave cemeteries in the region East of the River Tisza characterised by special funerary customs and different geographical location represented anthropologically different groups, too.

The skeletal series of Pitvaros is remarkable among the other Avar period samples, since it contains one case of a rare custom at this period: the skull of a niche-grave (No. 72, Mature, male) shows an artificial fronto-occipital deformation. Concerning the Hungarian Avar period cemeteries, such skulls were found at two sites: in the early Avar period cemetery of Szegvár-Oromdűlő (several cases) and in the cemetery of Pitvaros (one case). The presence of artificial cranial deformation might refer to a possible relation between the two groups. The verification of this possible relation, further anthropological examination of niche-grave cemeteries and the investigation of their possible biological relationship can be the subject of future studies.

The palaeomicrobiological methods used for the detection of TB in palaeopathological studies are also worthy of mention. These new methods have great significance not only in palaeopathology for the identification of DNA fragments of infectious agents but also in the examination of human DNA fragments, which can also be suitable for examination in case of good taphonomical conditions. The comparison of the genetic information can be a new tool in the identification of biological relations between the skeletal remains and series.



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