Upper Palaeolithic burial with skull cap made from hundreds of snail shells, Arene Candide, Italy. Remains of what might have been a shell bead cap atop the skull of a man buried at Arene Candide.

Kane Khanh | Archeaology
November 17, 2023

Prehistoric burial with rich grave goods

The “Young Prince of the Arene Candide” is one of the most important burials known from the upper Palaeolithic.

The Prince was a 15 or 16 year old boy, discovered in the Arene Candide Cave, who had died due to violent facial trauma and was buried with particularly interesting grave goods, form a ritualistic and artistic point of view, consisting of shell ornaments and mammoth ivory pendants, a long imported stone knife and some rare objects defined “staffs of command”.

The rarity, richness and prestige of the objects discovered close to the boy suggest that the boy could have had an important role within his group or could also be linked to the particular circumstances of his death.

 Young Prince of the Arene Candide

On the 1st of May 1942, within the Arene Candide cave, situated on the Caprazoppa promontory, Luigi Cardini and Virginia Chiappella, under the direction of Luigi Bernabò Brea, brought to light at a level of 7 m under the ground level of the cave, the Gravettian burial of a 15 – 16 year old boy, named by the archaeologists the “Young Prince of the Arene Candide”.

The boy who had died due to violent facial trauma around 28 thousand years ago was buried with unusually precious grave goods for the time.

The skeleton of the young boy lies in a supine position with his skull turned to the left and he was probably more than 170 cm tall, something unusual for someone of that age. Above his head there are many small pierced shells, probably belonging to what remains of a hat, that fell once the organic material deteriorated; around the neck bones there is still what remains of a necklace consisting in a row of small shells, all of the same kind, that end with cypreae shells: a larger shell that was frequently linked to female fertility.

The right arm leans on the hip and the hand bones still hold a long French flint blade; the blade that is only 1 cm thick doesn’t present traces of use and it can be likely that it was made specifically as a grave good.

The left arm is lying along the body and shows, around the wrist, what remains of a pierced shell bracelet that had a mammoth ivory pendant. This pendant represents a stylised female figure, extremely similar to the famous “Petersfels Venus” from southern Germany, and is one of the numerous Palaeolithic statues called “Venuses” that are generally represented as pregnant female figures and are universally linked to the symbol of fertility, abundance and life.

At the knees, on the sides, there are two bone pendants that probably belonged to shoes or to a piece of clothing.

At the time of the burial a subtle layer of red ochre was placed, probably over the body and, after the decomposition, it deposited onto the bones and thus giving the skeleton a red hue.

Around the chest there were four pierced objects, made from portions of elk antlers that had small linear decorative engravings, that the young boy was probably wearing on his shoulder during the burial.

Those tools are extremely rare and have an unknown function; they are, however, frequently linked with the activity of straightening arrow points and spears for hunting.

Of such objects, extremely rare and of such peculiar shape, only twenty exemplars exists in Europe and have symbolically been compared to royal sceptres, distinctive of power, and therefore called “staffs of command”.

The burial, for its unusual richness of grave goods and types of objects, allows to assume that the boy had a high social status and can be associated with skeletons of the same period discovered in Sunghir, Russia, highlighting a sort of cultural uniformity for the Gravettian period.