On a recent trip to Germany, Mike Stuchbery came across the remains of a woman who lived some 8,500 years ago – astonishing, not only for the impressive manner in which she was buried, but the secrets that her bones contained.
It was in 1934 that they found her, during the construction of a park in the German town of Bad Dürrenberg, in modern Sachsen-Anhalt. Together with a child, around six to 12 months old, of indeterminate gender, the woman was buried in an upright, sitting position and packed in red clay.
Around her, were the remains of an extraordinary head-dress, created from the bones of any number of animals such as deer, crane and turtle, that would have roamed the forests of Mesolithic Europe.
The woman was also buried with arrowheads, painting implements and other tools of the common hunter-gatherer.
However, it was the presence of clay, restricted to the burial of individuals of great status – and the ornate head-dress – that told those who studied her who she was: a Shaman of her people; a bridge from one world to the next.
The Secret in the Bones
Of course, her bones were studied to try to tell the archaeologists more about the woman and her life.
Wear of the teeth, coupled with severe degradation of the upper jaw, underneath her nose, suggested that it was an infection that killed her, spreading from her teeth into her jaw. It is quite possible that she had passed the infection to her child through breast milk, resulting in their subsequent death.
However, it was a study of her skull and vertebrae that was to reveal the greatest surprise.
Changes to the base of her skull, and an abnormality of her cervical vertebrae, would have meant that she would have experienced significant physical effects in her daily life. At the least, she could have expected to have the sensation of insects crawling across her body, as nerves were compressed. She may have also experienced auditory or visual hallucinations.
At the other end of the scale, others have suggested that, by tilting her head, the Shaman could have effectively brought on a near instantaneous altered state of consciousness, as blood flow was slowed or temporarily halted.
In this World and Another
The Shaman was aged between 25 and 30 when she died, and had given birth to a child. It is clear that she was relatively well nourished and held a position of great prestige among her people.
While her skeletal abnormalities would definitely described as debilitating in some circumstances, it is clear that, for this particular woman, it was that which made her different, gave her a vocation, and a position of power.
Debates surrounding how we perceive disability are not new by any means. Many have had to fight for the right and the means to live with dignity over many decades. So it is heartening to be reminded that that which makes us different, was not always that which divided us. In fact, what we consider pathology – a diagnosis – was what this woman’s peers considered to be a link to the gods.
Today, you can find the Shaman of Dürrenberg at the Museum of Prehistory in Halle, Saxony-Anhalt, in a room meant to evoke the forests that she would have known during her lifetime. It’s a place of peace and tranquility, far from the cold sterile surrounds of many – I like to think she’s still capable of exerting her power.