In an archaeological discovery that could change the understanding of Bronze Age funerary practices in the Caucasus, an international team of scientists has unearthed the remains of two infants buried under a basalt monument known as a dragon stone at the Lchashen site in Armenia. This finding stands out not only for the peculiarity of the funerary context but also for the quality of the preservation of the remains and the genetic information revealed.

The dragon stones or Vishapakar are prehistoric basalt stelae carved with animal images, predominantly found in Armenia and its surroundings. These structures have fascinated archaeologists for years due to their mysterious iconography and their complex use and reuse over millennia. However, the precise dating of these monoliths remains a topic of debate.

The discovery in Lchashen offers a new perspective, as the three and a half meter tall stele with the image of a sacrificed ox was found over a burial dating from the 16th century BC.

Topographic map of the Lchashen archaeological site with the location of Lchashen Dragon Stones 1 and 2
Topographic map of the Lchashen archaeological site with the location of Lchashen Dragon Stones 1 and 2. Credit: P. Hnila

Lchashen is one of the most important archaeological sites in Armenia, known for its abundance of Bronze Age findings. Excavations at this site have revealed a rich variety of artifacts, from pottery and metal tools to complex funerary structures.

However, it is the first time a burial has been found directly associated with a dragon stone, something unusual in the funerary contexts of the region. This connection between a prestigious monument and the burial of infants suggests a possible ritual or symbolic importance that is not yet fully understood.

Ancient DNA analyses conducted on the well-preserved remains of the two babies, aged between 0 and 2 months, revealed that they were second-degree relatives with identical mitochondrial sequences, indicating a close relationship. Additionally, the genetic ancestry profiles of these individuals showed similarities with other Bronze Age individuals from the region, providing valuable data on the genetic composition of ancient populations in the Caucasus.

Conjectural reconstruction of the dragon stone tomb. The indicated position of the skeletons and pottery is based on field photograph evidence and parallels from other contemporary tombs in Lchashen.
Conjectural reconstruction of the dragon stone tomb. The indicated position of the skeletons and pottery is based on field photograph evidence and parallels from other contemporary tombs in Lchashen. Credit: A. Hakhverdyan

This discovery has multiple implications. First, the relationship between the dragon stones and the burials suggests that these monuments may have had a funerary or ritual purpose beyond the purely decorative or commemorative.

The presence of infant remains under such a monolith also raises questions about the funerary practices and beliefs related to death and the afterlife in Bronze Age society in Armenia.

The study was carried out by an international and multidisciplinary team of researchers from various institutions, including the National Academy of Sciences of Armenia, the University of Copenhagen, the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, and other prestigious universities and research centers.


Sources

Arsen Bobokhyan, Miren Iraeta-Orbegozo, et al., Burial of two closely related infants under a “dragon stone” from prehistoric Armenia. Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, vol. 57, September 104601. doi.org/10.1016/j.jasrep.2024.104601


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