Ernest Oberländer-Târnoveanu,
Irina Oberländer-Târnoveanu

The neolithic settlement and cemetery of Sarichioi - La Bursuci (Tulcea county)
[1978 Campaign]
Preliminary Report
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Search the National Archaeological Record for the sites of Sarichioi commune

Ernest Oberländer-Târnoveanu,
Irina Oberländer-Târnoveanu

The neolithic settlement and cemetery of Sarichioi - La Bursuci (Tulcea county)
[1978 Campaign]
Preliminary Report

(pdf version)

By Ernest and Irina

      First published (in Romanian) in the Journal „Materiale şi cercetări arheologice - A XIII-a sesiune anuală de rapoarte privind rezultatele cercetărilor arheologice", Oradea, 1979, p. 59 - 70.

The site

      The Neolithic site of Sarichioi (commune of Sarichioi, Tulcea county) is situated in the location of "La Bursuci" ("Na Bursuki", in local Russian language, meaning "At the Badgers"), about 2.5 km in a straight line from the south end of the village. In the local toponymy, the name of "La Bursuci" designates the end of a peninsular area, which stretches between lakes Razelm (Razim) and Babadag, former marine bays in antiquity.
      The end of that peninsula has the appearance of a promontory, rather high (+12 m) situated in front of the Grădişte island and on the opposite side of the fortress of Enisala (about 2.5 kilometres in a straight line). In ancient times, the promontory of "La Bursuci", together with Peştera hill, on which is the medieval fortress, guarded the entrance to the former bay of Babadag.
      The east bank of the promontory of "La Bursuci" is steep 75º - 80º, but until 15 years ago it was united with the island of Grădişte by a low earth strip. After closing the Mouth of Portița (Gura Portiţei), the narrow strip of sand between the Razelm Lake and the Black Sea and opening the Dranov channel, the water level of the lake rose and due to the influence of the strong winds from NE, the saddle between Grădişte and Bursuci was broken. That meant the return to the situation in antiquity, when the two points were separated. To the South the shore runs down smoothly.
      All around there are marshy areas, floodplains, covered with reed.

      In the summer of 1976 we conducted a rescue survey in the location of "La Grădină" (At the Garden), situated about 600 m from the south end of the village of Sarichioi, on the lake shore. On that occasion we found an open Getic settlement dating to the 4th - 2nd centuries BC, for the most part destroyed by water. Also in that area we found a few Dridu sherds, and Noua culture pottery and bone tools (the latter in a non-stratigraphical position).
      Because the findings were interesting, but in that location the settlement was almost entirely destroyed by the erosion of the shore, we continued the surveys throughout the area south of the village of Sarichioi, in order to detect a place where the archaeological layers have been better preserved.
      While conducting these surveys, we noticed the promontory of "La Bursuci", where in the steep bank we found a thick occupation level of 1 - 1.5 m, containing Getic and Greek sherds dating to the 4th - 2nd centuries BC, as well as a Dridu half-sunken floored building. Above the plateau, we discovered similar traces, as well as Hallstatt (Babadag culture) sherds, and Neolithic flints and sherds.
      Although we already knew before having started the excavations that it was possible to uncover Neolithic finds, the discovery of the settlement and cemetery from that period was a surprise, since the purpose of our investigation aimed at the Getic settlement. The investigation was conducted in the summer of 1978 in two stages: the first one between June 21st and July 1st and the second one between August 1st and August 20th. In the first phase of the investigation also the students Elena Marin and Maria Chihaia from the Faculty of History - University of Bucharest took part.
      During the first stage we opened a section of 30 m long and 2 m wide, oriented E - W.
      It was located 2 m north from the topographic landmark and 9 m from the entrance to the stables of Sarichioi agricultural production cooperative. In this site the plateau was higher and we could not see any trace of modern ditches or pits; at the same time, the section comprised a large part of the slope and plateau. The section was marked with the codes SCHIOI-B-78, SI and it was squared every 2 m, from W to E. During a later phase, out of the need to clarify the situation occurred, we drew one more section, 18 m long and 2 m wide, parallel to squares 1 - 9 of the first section. Between the two sections we left a 0.75 m wide profile. Also this section, marked with the codes SCHIOI-B-78, SII, was squared every 2 m, from W to E.
      Subsequently, because the majority of the finds occurred in the west part of the sections, the two sections were extended westward by 5 squares of 2 m each, marked with the codes SI, P 1 - 5, and S II, P 1 - 5.

The stratigraphy

      In the area excavated in 1978 the archaeological depositions are not very thick, as they measure 1.20 - 1.40 m at the most, except for the pit no. 5, in section SII, where they go down to 2.70 m. On the slope the layer is thicker, coming from the leaks.
      The humus layer is thin, averaging 0.25 m, sometimes even less. The entire humus layer is full of archaeological remains driven by the plough. Right below it start the archaeological layers undisturbed by modern works. They belong to a culturally uniform habitation layer consisting of recurrent and successive departures, probably at short intervals, followed by coming backs.
      Between 0.25 and 0.50 m on the average in both sections we found a layer of unburned debris, yellowish grey, with no particular consistency. It contained pottery and bones belonging to the transition phase from the Boian to the Gumelnița cultures (Neolithic Period). The top layer had a lighter colour and was dusty. In this layer of debris, at 0.28 - 0.40 m, we excavated a number of inhumation graves, forming a cemetery, and some pits, which in some cases perforated previous layers and levels, right down below the ancient floor surface. The pits are filled with dark earth containing sherds from the same period with the aforementioned, as well as bones, charcoal and ash. The debris layer, found evenly throughout the area of the sections, overlapped a level of beaten, yellow pure clay, found on the average 0.50 m deep. The level is separated from the debris by a grey fine dust layer, up to 1 cm in thickness, which stuck out very clearly. This dust probably came both from ash and from the remains of some straw or reed roofs fallen or rotten after the desertion of the homes. In S I, P 5, and in S II, squares 3 and 8, we also found on this level the remains of some fireplaces made of clay and carefully polished.
      On this level, in S II, square 6 and square P2.we discovered a few human bone remains (humeruses, tibias, calotte fragments, and mandibles) from two graves, M4 and M5. In S I, squares 5 and 6, as well as in the similar squares in S II the amount of sherds, bone fragments, flint and bone tool fragments, as well as the ornaments uncovered was much larger than in the rest of the sections at the same level, which together with other observations makes us think that in this area we deal with the flooring of above ground dwellings.
      The level described above overlaps some other debris, similar in degree of preservation and composition to the first one, but having a thicker consistency. This second debris layer measures 0.30 - 0.40 cm on the average. Under it we could find another level, also consisting of well beaten clean clay, found 1.00 m under the current level on the average.
      Like in the previous level, in some locations we could find a fine grey layer between the level and the debris.
      In S I and S II, in squares 5 and 6 we remarked a remake of the flooring by the application of a new claying, 2 - 3 cm thick. On this lower level we found a few circular or oval fireplaces, polished. That in S I, square 3, was better preserved and measured 1.10 x 1.00 m; a fireplace fragment was found also in the square 6 - 7, as well as in S II square 6, and square P1.
      The finds consisting of sherds, bones, tools and ornaments, especially shells, was more abundant in the trench S I square 3 - 6 and P1 - 5, as well as in the similar squares in section S II. Also in this case we presuppose the existence of dwelling flooring.
      They were built directly on the ancient humus, 0.10 - 0.30 m thick, brown coloured. From this ancient humus, making up the initial floor surface, there go deep into the loess a few circular pits (No. 2, in S II, 1.20 m in diameter and 1.30 m in depth) or oval ones (No. 3, 1.70 m x 1.10 m in diameter and 0.60 in depth, and No. 5, 1.90 m in diameter and 0.60 m in depth). These pits filled with domestic waste, adobe, ash and sherds from reconstructible vessels are all overlapped by the claying of the level. Also under this level, in S II, square P5, at -0.80 m we uncovered "in situ" a reconstructible vessel, laid with the mouth downwards. Under the vessel there was a small burn, as well as a few bone fragments and small sea snails.

The setlement

      In conclusion, from the data presented above it results that in the location investigated in 1978 of the settlement of Sarichioi, "La Bursuci" there were two actual habitation levels, preceded and followed by a phase in which the area was used as a deposition site for domestic waste of some dwellings in the proximity, as proven by the numerous pits uncovered. In a last phase, the area was no longer inhabited and was used as a cemetery.
      We specify again that the two habitation levels, as well as the anterior and posterior pits do not constitute distinct cultural phases. There are no sterile levels between them, and the material uncovered is extremely unitary, belonging to the transition phase from the Boian culture to the Gumelniţa culture, as defined by the researcher Eugen Comşa.
      The habitation in the investigated site is confined in time to a relatively short period, a few decades, probably throughout the same generation, taking into account that the new dwellings are rebuilt almost in the same place with the previous ones that were deserted. The dwellings identified in the survey were above ground, rather large-sized, probably built of adobe. Although we did not succeed in uncovering entirely none of the four presupposed dwellings (two in level 1 and two in level 2), nevertheless based on stratigraphical observations we think that they were oriented to the NW or NE to SW, backing the north wind. As the investigated area is small, and the dwellings were deserted, the debris spreading evenly around and being made up of the same loess like the rest of the soil, we could not specify the form and sizes of the dwellings.
      Except for the fireplaces, we could not find other structures. The fireplaces, both those found "in situ" and the numerous fragments uncovered in pits were polished, usually being round in shape, with the diameter about one meter. They do not have traces of long usage. It is interesting that on the same level there are more fireplaces, but unfortunately, the lack of a clear cut delimitation of the dwellings prevents us from asserting that they are common dwellings, with several fireplaces.
      In a later phase, after the area ceased to be inhabited, it was turned into a cemetery.

The cemetery

      The inhumation graves are dug into the debris of the last level, at only 0.30 - 0.40 m under the current floor surface.
Overall we discovered 7 skeletons, 4 of which were whole, undisturbed (M1, M3, M6 and M7), one disturbed by the pit of an animal (M2) and two fragmentary groups of human bones, M4 and M5, already mentioned above.
      The fact that M4 and M5 were found on the floors of a dwelling makes us think that we do not deal with an actual burial, but that we might have come across some ritual practices or cannibalism.
This last hypothesis is sustained also by other numerous finds of human bones, especially phalanxes, both on the habitation levels, and in the pits.
      Out of the actual graves, four lay at somewhat regular intervals, from east to west, in two rows, as they are very similar as ritual and orientation.
      The skeletons were laid in a crouched position, with the knees strongly flexed and the hands under the head, lying on the left side, oriented to the N - NE (facing east).
      Only in two cases we found the outlines of the pits, which were oval, a little bigger than the skeletons.
      The grave goods were scarce or lacking altogether in some cases.
      The grave M1 had laid near the basin a horn tip, bearing traces of long usage; near the head, on the left, a triangular flint tip, retouched; and between the ribs, we found two perforated circular pendants, one of green diabase, and the other of stag horn.
      In the case of the skeleton in the grave M1 we can specify that, probably, death was violent. Between the vertebrae of the backbone we found the broken tip of a flint blade.
      The grave M2 had grave goods including a half-moon pendant with unequal arms, made of stag horn.
      In the grave M6 we found a grave good consisting of a small globular vessel, made of rough paste, having as degreaser pebbles and straw, grey-blackish in colour. The vessel was laid by the mouth. Near the feet we found a fragment from a stag horn under processing and a few flint blades, but due to the fact that we could not delimit the pit of the grave, we cannot be certain that the artifacts belong to the grave goods.
      The grave M2 lacked grave goods, but this grave had a surprise for us. Under the skull of the skeleton we found a second skull, also of an adult, having the same orientation like the main skeleton. Next to the skull there were also a few vertebrae and ribs and a humerus fragment. From the observations made it is clear that we do not deal with an earlier disturbed grave. Under the current stage, however, we cannot forward any assertion on the significance of this find, as we wait first of all for the result of the anthropological investigation.
      Due to the scarcity of the grave goods, it is difficult to specify a precise dating of the graves. The only more important clue is the vessel in M6, which belongs to neither Boian nor Gumelniţa cultures, but may be attributed rather to a culture from the end of the Neolithic and the beginning of the Bronze Age. The lack of the decoration or of other clues prevents, however, its being included in one of the cultures of this period.
      The common ritual elements might constitute a clue as to the fact that also the other grave belong to the same age, or anyway, to a close one (perhaps M1).
      We mention that the grave M2 differs in rite and orientation from the others. It is laid in a stretched position, on the back, with the arms by the body, which are oriented to SE - NW. Although it is laid at the same depth, it is not aligned like the other graves. The complete lack of any grave goods makes it difficult to date and attribute it.

The Finds

      The archaeological material discovered in the settlement of Sarichioi - "La Bursuci" is very rich and varied, consisting of sherds, bone, stag horn, flint tools and tools of other rocks, ornaments, animal bones and other organic remains.
      The pottery is considerable, but, unfortunately, extremely fragmentary, as from the deserted dwellings everything that was usable was usually taken away as well. Only in a few cases, especially in pits, we found reconstructible vessels.
      The pottery is chronologically and typologically unitary, almost all of it belonging to the transition phase from the Boian to the Gumelniţa cultures. Most analogies can be made with the pottery published by Dumitru Berciu from the phases IV and V of Boian Culture and Gumelniţa phase 1 Culture from Tangâru.
      One cannot make a separation by levels between the typical late Boian elements and the early Gumelniţa ones (technique, decoration, shapes), as they occur together in all the levels and in pits, which we think illustrates once more the transitional nature of the age, the organic genesis of the Gumelniţa culture within the Boian culture and       the long lasting persistence of the late Boian elements.
      The finds equally include the categories of fine and rough pottery.

a) Rough pottery

      It is represented by large and medium sized vessels, usually oxidizing fired. The degreaser consisted of crushed sherds, rough sand and even dust.
      The biconical or globular forms with a flat bottom prevail. The walls are covered with rough barbotine, irregularly deposited, or with vertical or horizontal channelling.
      In some cases the decoration is completed with finger-impressed bands applied right under the rim or on the body, simple knobs, perforated or with middle channelling, or simple incised lines.
      Many vessels have perforated orifices on the body and rim.
The rough pottery includes a special category, namely the sieves, rather numerous in the settlement of Sarichioi.

b) Fine pottery

      It includes two special groups due to their paste and decoration processing technique.
      Usually it bears a strongly polished verniss.
The first group usually includes large vessels, with excised decoration, filled with white paste.
      The decoration consists of excised bands of 2 - 3 cm, zigzags, rectangles, meanders, circles, and in a single case the decoration consists of small triangles („wolf’s teeth").
      The excision alternates with polished bands, with channelling and with red ochre painting.
      The biconical shape prevails.
      Also this group includes the vessels that have the upper part polished, painted or excised, and the lower part with barbotine, finer.
      Two interesting elements can be remarked: the intentional firing of the vessels at the same time in two colours, red and black, oxidizing and reducing, for each face separately. That denotes a very good handling of the firing techniques and probably also a special preparation of the paste or verniss.
      A series of vessels reducing fired are painted before the firing with ochre that after passing through fire, becomes brownish, as the combination between grey and brown gives a pleasant colour effect.
      The second group includes very fine pottery of very good paste, oxidizing fired, black or grey, strongly polished.
      This pottery category often presents very frequent channelling applied on the necks of the vessels. Most vessels are biconical jars with flat bottoms, more rarely bowls and globular vessels, with narrowed necks. The "umbo" bottoms are frequent and the circular ones rather often encountered. The decorative elements include sharp and perforated knobs, the painting with graffiti or ochre inside the rim. We seldom come across deep excision or the alternation of the areas covered by verniss and polished, black in colour, with grey areas, with incised lines, rectangular networks, triangles, etc.

c) Tools and other artifacts

      Another important category is represented by stone and bone tools. The most common are the flint ones, especially blades and scrapers, more seldom tips, usually retouched.
      In the humus we discovered a spear tip, carved on both sides, in the shape of a leaf. At the same time we uncovered a round flint core and a percussion tool.
      For saving reasons, they used both chips and blades, preserving the limestone cortex or reused the broken ones. In some cases they used also blades of crystalline limestone brought from Enisala. Also flint was used to make a tool probably used for polishing pottery, shaped like a parallelepiped, having the sides strongly polished. Another group includes axes, adzes and chisels made out of tough volcanic rocks, especially diabase. Out of five axes uncovered, three are perforated. We discovered also a heavy axe, channelled for attaching a handle. The hand mill remains, as well as the scrapers are also frequent, as well as various rectangular sandstone fragments, used to crush some substances, especially ochre.
      Upon the excavations we uncovered a large number of bone and horn tools: thrusters, awls, daggers, knives, spatulas, hoes, as well as a series of bones carved as a nightingale tail, probably used for weaving. The most frequent ornaments include beads made of perforated cardium valves, some of them preserving painting traces with red ochre, sea snails, and river shell bracelets. For the time being there are no Spondylus ornaments.
      Next to shell ornaments there are white quartzite beads, carved and polished, rhomb pendants of the same rock, circular diabase and stag horn pendants, and stag horn half-moon pendants.
      The religious artifacts are scarce. We discovered a single idol foot, undecorated, and probably a foot from a small cult table.
      An interesting find, probably relating to some religious practices, consists of an Iceland spat crystal, a mineral that due to the double refraction produces the turning over of images. On Romanian territory it can be found only in Maramureş, in the north part of the country, almost 1,000 km far. We found also ochre balls and balls of a white substance used for decoration.


      The inhabitants of the settlement of Sarichioi used to practice agriculture, moving constantly from one place to another, deserting or returning to the same settlement, depending on the exhaustion or remaking of the soil fertility. The large number of domestic animal bones, as well as those of Carpathian stag and buck, wild boar and birds show that an important share of food was provided from animal sources. At the same time, they used to practice fishing, including that of sturgeons and mollusc gathering. The trades included pottery, stone and bone processing, weaving and knitting. Some vessel bottoms bear traces of rug impressions. A number of products - diabase, ochre, Iceland spat crystal come from more remote areas, being obtained upon exchange. The finds from Sarichioi bring in fresh data on the Neolithic in Dobrudja. They prove that the Boian culture bearers lived, during the late phases of the culture, in Northern Dobrudja up to the Black Sea shore. In this sense, the earlier isolated finds from Tariverde, Gura Dobrogei, Cheia, Palazu, Constanţa, Costineşti get a clearer significance.
      Interesting seems also the situation as regards the relations that went on between the bearers of this culture and those of the Hamangia culture. In the settlement of Sarichioi we did not find but two sherds that hypothetically may belong to the Hamangia culture. Instead, we discovered by chance a beautiful fragment proving the influence of the Precucuteni culture upon the Hamangia culture.
      Within the excavation we uncovered also a spherical button of black paste probably belonging to the Karanovo III culture. The finds from Sarichioi prove once more that the transition from the Boian culture to the Gumelniţa one was gradual, during the same phase occurring, in parallel, Boian 5 and Gumelniţa 1 cultures elements.