Czech scientists reveal striking look of a Bronze Age woman from Bohemia

The member of the Únětice culture was buried with a unique amber necklace, but her DNA is the real treasure when it comes to recreating her appearance.

Raymond Johnston

Written by Raymond Johnston Published on 25.05.2022 15:18:00 (updated on 25.05.2022) Reading time: 3 minutes

You can now see what a woman who lived near the Czech city of Pardubice in the Bronze Age looked like.

This image is not an artistic guess. New forms of DNA analysis plus unusually well-preserved personal items allow us to now make a highly accurate picture.

The woman, estimated to have died at around age 35, came from the upper social strata. Her grave in Mikulovice in Eastern Bohemia is one of the richest in Europe from her era.

She had fair skin, brown hair, widely spaced brown eyes, a prominent chin, and a petite figure adorned with bronze and gold jewelry and a beautiful amber necklace.

Bronze Age woman from the Únětice culture. Photo: MZM.
Bronze Age woman from the Únětice culture. Photo: MZM.

Bringing her back to what she looked like took the combined efforts of experts in several fields. The model was completed by anthropologist Eva Vaníčková and sculptor Ondřej Bílek from the Laboratory of Anthropological Reconstruction of the Moravian Museum (MZM) in cooperation with archaeologist Michal Ernée from the Institute of Archaeology of the Czech Academy of Science (AVČR) in Prague.

Her grave is the richest one for a woman Únětice culture, a group that lived in Central Europe from about 2300 to 1600 B.C. The culture is named for the village of Únětice, near Prague. A large burial site was found there in 1879. Other sites have now been found across Central Europe.

Radiocarbon dating places the Mikulovice tomb between 1880 and 1750 BC. The woman was buried with five bronze bracelets, three bronze pins, two golden earrings, and a three-row amber necklace with over 400 beads and at least five spreaders.

The necklace is unparalleled among finds from this period, according to AVČR’s Ernée, who was the head of the reconstruction project.

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The precise anthropological reconstruction was possible thanks to the almost completely preserved skull and also thanks to DNA extracted from the bones. The analysis not only confirmed the skeleton’s sex, it also revealed information about the color of her skin, hair, and eyes.

“This precise and scientifically based information takes the whole reconstruction to a qualitatively much higher level, and allows us to get an idea of her original appearance that is much closer to reality,” Vaníčková said.

The replicas of the amber necklace and gold earrings were made by AVČR’s Ludmila Barčáková, while metalworker Radek Lukůvka made the bronze bracelets and pins, and the clothing accessories were by archeologist Kristýna Urbanová.

This method of anthropological reconstruction expands the possibilities for presenting findings to the general and professional public. People increasingly want realistic three-dimensional representations.

“I think that this allows the current generation growing up in the digital environment to perceive the results of archaeological research in a holistic and comprehensible form,” Vaníčková said.

Between 2007 and ’09, archaeologists from AVČR’s Institute of Archaeology and the East Bohemian Museum in Pardubice examined several groups of Bronze Age graves in the Mikulovice area.

Grave site at Mikulovice. Photo: Jarmila Švedová.
Grave site at Mikulovice. Photo: Jarmila Švedová.

“It soon became apparent that the local burial site is a veritable gold mine, not only in terms of the richness of the burial adornments of the local dead, but especially in terms of the wealth of completely unique information about this period,” Ernée said.

Graves of this era in Bohemia have a large occurrence of amber, which makes them unique compared to other sites in neighboring regions. The amber comes from the Baltics and proves there was transregional contact among the local inhabitants in the Bronze Age.

The burial site in Mikulovice had almost 900 amber objects in 27 graves, making it the richest site for amber in the entire Únětice world and one of the richest in Europe at the time. “Amber necklaces, which are typical female jewelry, have been found in more than 40 percent of all female graves here, which is an extreme amount,” Ernée said.

Human skeletal remains have become a very promising source of information for scientists thanks to new fields like archaeogenetics. It is also now possible to track nutrition and mobility based on analyzing isotopes in bones. Details on what the woman ate, though, have yet to be released.

The Únětice culture in Bohemia was one of the most advanced in Europe at the time, along with areas of southern England and south-eastern Spain. Its inhabitants set the tone for the social, economic, and political development of the whole of wider central Europe for several centuries, according to the AVČR.

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