An accident at work? Traumatic lesions in the skeleton of a Yamna “wagon driver”

Interesting article posted now free at ResearchGate:

An accident at work? Traumatic lesions in the skeleton of a 4th millennium BCE “wagon driver” from Sharakhalsun, Russia, by Tucker et al. HOMO – Journal of Comparative Human Biology (2017).

Excerpts (emphasis mine):

The cemetery site of Sharakhalsun 2 is located approximately 160 km east of Stavropol in the north Caucasus region of Russia [see featured image]. It comprises a linear alignment of mounds situated on the right side of the river Kalaus near the Manych water reserve. This area was a focus of burial activity from the late 5th millennium BCE onwards, and is dotted with tens of thousands of mounds.

Burial mound 6 was 50 m in diameter and 3 m high and was initially constructed by communities of the Steppe Maikop culture in the late 4th millennium BCE (Yakovlev and Samoylenko, 2008). During the third millennium, the mound was reused by groups from the Yamnaya community, who added several graves to the centre (graves 4, 5, 16) and periphery of the mound (grave 3). Several construction layers of the mound embankment can be attributed to these Yamnaya communities.

The most intriguing aspect of mound 6 was the discovery of four burials with wagons or wagon parts. The oldest is grave 18, which was a narrow, deep catacomb-like shaft dug from the side into the existing mound. At the bottom of the shaft the skeleton of an adult male was discovered, buried in a sitting position on a four-wheeled wagon [see figure below]. Most wooden parts of the wagon were poorly preserved but it is obvious that they comprised a complete, assembled wagon that was squeezed into the burial chamber. No other grave inclusions were found. Due to the constant remodelling of the mound when new burials were added, the actual stratigraphic relationship to the central Yamnaya graves is unclear but wooden parts of the wagon have been radiocarbon dated to 4500 ± 40 BP (3356-3033 cal BCE, at 95.4%, OxCal 4.2.4; Bronk Ramsey, 2009), which links the grave to the early Yamnaya culture and specifically to a group that are in between the Maikop and Yamnaya.

Wagon burials are a well-known phenomenon in the Northwest and North Caucasian steppe zone and beyond. The dating of their archaeological contexts associates such graves with the Novotitarovskaya, Yamnaya and Catacomb Cultures (Gei, 2000; Häusler, 1982; Kaiser, 2007; Shishlina et al., 2013). There is a great variation in this type of burial, with some wagons being found intact and assembled within graves, wagons with dismantled wheels being found below burials, or wagon boxes being used as the grave ceiling. Assembled or dismantled wagons have also been found in specific chambers beside the burial pits (Belinskiy and Kalmykov, 2004; Gei, 2000; Häusler, 1982; Limberis and Marchenko, 2002).

Not only is grave 18 the oldest wagon burial in mound 6 at Sharakhalsun but the position of the individual is unique. Out of the approximately 280 wagon burials so far known from the Urals to the lower Danube (Kaiser, 2007), it is the only one where the associated individual was buried sitting on the wagon, in contrast to the typical supine burial position underneath the wagon box.

Various interpretations have been posited for the significance of wagons in funerary rituals of the period, with Kaiser (2003) arguing that their relative rarity in Catacomb Culture burials represents the beginnings of social stratification, while Reinhold et al. (2017) discuss whether they may have been related to ownership rather than active driving. Wagons may have started to be used as ceremonial vehicles rather than for purely utilitarian purposes, with their final function being as a hearse (Uckelmann, 2013), the corpse being laid out on the wagon bed. In cases where the wagons were dismantled, and therefore no longer able to serve a functional purpose, it has been argued that this represents either their symbolic disabling (Knüsel, 2002), or gives them a new ritualistic lease of life (Shishlina et al., 2014). The finding of partial wagons in some burials has been suggested to represent pars pro toto (Kaiser, 2003), with the symbolic importance of the vehicle overriding any practical use they may have had in the funerary rites.

(a) In situ photograph of the individual in Grave 18, showing the slumping of the skeleton as a result of burial in a sitting position and (b) plan of the burial, showing the relationship of the skeleton to the surviving wooden parts of the wagon.

The article goes on to enumerate the different injuries of the skeleton that are compatible with a wagon accident.


The burial of the individual, found in a seated position on a fully assembled wagon, is unique. When this form of burial is considered alongside the number and pattern of fractures found in the individual, which is also unique amongst the wider burial population, it has to be considered whether the individual could have been an active wagon-driver who sustained the majority, if not all, of the injuries in a severe accident whilst engaged in this activity.

There are some skeletal features recorded in the individual that could suggest heavy and unusual physical loading that may have been associated with habitual wagon-driving, although it must always be borne in mind that inferring specific occupations from activity-related skeletal changes is fraught with difficulties (see Jurmain et al., 2011; Villotte and Knüsel, 2013). The individual demonstrated heavy or abnormal use of muscle groups and ligaments involved in anterior and lateral flexion of the neck; elevation and stabilisation of the shoulders; abduction, adduction, rotation, flexion and extension of the arm; extension and flexion of the wrist; flexion, rotation and stabilisation of the thigh; and flexion of the knee (see Appendix for a more detailed description of these entheseal changes). All of these would be typical body movements expected in the action of sitting on a wagon and controlling the cart animals. The same pattern of entheseal changes was found in individuals examined by Molleson and Hodges (1993) and Kozak (2014), who also argued that this could suggest the presence of wagon drivers in their skeletal samples.

[Spondylolisthesis of the fourth lumbar vertebra and nonunion of the left ulna fracture] suggest that the individual recovered from his injuries, despite their severity, and continued with his former activities. However, the non-union of the ulna fracture may have resulted in some functional problems (dos Reis et al., 2009), while vertebral compression fractures often leave patients with chronic pain (Silverman, 1992). The individual had also developed severe secondary arthritis of the head of the first metacarpal and proximal phalanx as a result of the fracture to the metacarpal. Complications may also have arisen with the multiple rib fractures, especially those of the lower ribs, which are often associated with abdominal injuries (Brickley, 2006), while isolated fractures of the fibula can be associated with severe soft tissue damage to the ankle (Galloway, 2014b). Unfortunately, it is not possible to state with any certainty the degree to which the individual may have been affected by any complications in terms of loss of function or pain, as these are very specific to each individual (Petrie, 1967).

The majority of the suite of traumatic injuries suffered by this individual possibly relates to a single accident a number of months, if not years, before his death. The typical aetiology of these injuries would suggest that this may have been a fall from a wagon, with subsequent crushing by the vehicle landing on top of them, or “overrun” of a wheel across the chest of the individual, an accident involving their draft animals, or a combination of all three. The survival and recovery of the individual, despite the severity of his injuries, would probably have been a notable event in the community and it is interesting to speculate whether the unique positioning of the individual in his grave, sitting on a wagon rather than buried in a supine position underneath the wagon box, was some form of commemoration of the event.

Also, for those interested in research on the Northern Caucasus and its contacts with Khvalynsk/Yamna, especially due to David Reich’s opinion on a potential PIE homeland south of the Caucasus, and on connections with Maykop, I recommend you to take a look at Sabine Reinhold’s ResearchGate account.

General outline of the North Caucasian Bronze Age.

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