A bunch of preschoolers stumbled on an incredible discovery that's become the subject of a study published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports – not bad for a day at kindergarten.
In 2006, a group of kids stumbled across ancient human remains in their kindergarten playground in the town of Saint-Laurent Médoc, southwest France. The following four years saw a big archaeological excavation in the playground, unearthing a complex burial mound that contained the remains of multiple individuals and their last worldly belongings.
Remarkably, the burial mound couldn’t be dated to one definitive time period; it had actually be used as a place of burial by numerous groups of people over a period of around 2,000 years.
“We now know people were actually coming back to this site and burying their bodies in there again and again, from the Neolithic to the Iron Age," Hannah James, archaeologist and PhD candidate at The Australian National University, said in a statement.
"We're looking at remains from around 3600 BCE, all the way through to around 1250 BCE.”
At first glance, the burial mound appeared to belong to people of the Beaker culture, a dominant culture that spread out across much of Europe from the dawn of the Bronze Age around 2800 BCE to 600 BCE. The culture is best known for its distinctive pottery, some of which was discovered at the burial site, alongside arrowheads and bone buttons also characteristic of the Beakers.
However, when it came to taking a deeper look at the skeletal remains using radiocarbon dating and isotope analysis, the team noticed something odd.
Isotope analysis of human remains, especially teeth, can be used to identify where a person lived most of their life. It does this picking up on the abundance of certain stable isotopes, which are incorporated into the body through eating. This can provide strong clues about the food this person grew up eating and where in the world this food was grown.
Not only did the radiocarbon dating show the skeletons dated across numerous cultures – between 3600 BCE and 1250 BCE – they were also found to come from elsewhere in Europe. One individual, for example, appears to have been born in a much colder climate, most likely the Pyrenees Mountains in the south. All of the other skeletons had "a very local signature."
Why this place remained a hub of funerary activities for millennia remains a mystery for now. Nevertheless, given the importance of death and burial practices in so many cultures across the world, it must have held some significance.
"It's unusual because it's not a really obvious or prestigious,” added James. “It's a mound about 50 centimeters deep. It's not on a hill or an obvious location, so there's something else about this site which caused people to come back and use it."