Lepna mortuary house

2002-2003 archaeological excavations were carried out on a burial ground known in the local tradition as Lepna Pestilence Hole (“Lepna Katkuauk”). The site is situated near the lower reaches of the river Maadevahe on a higher hill by the Iron Age seacoast. Therefore, it most likely marked the location of a prehistoric harbour site.


Before the excavations, the “Pestilence Hole” constituted of hollow overgrown by a thicket. Inhumed human bones were found within the first test pits. During the archaeological excavations, the whole area with finds was unearthed and in part also the surrounding zone, but the latter had no additional items. As it turned out, most of the artifacts were uncovered inside the remains of a pit-house – the dimensions of the rectangular depression in the ground were 8,8 x 5,3 m, and the depth was 80 cm. Most of the bones and artifacts came from the same depression, or from the immediate proximity to it.


The depression was surrounded by low drywall of limestone slabs and it was sloping down at both ends – these were most likely places for entrances. In one corner a post place could be located, in another fireplace. The corner of the depression around that fireplace was lined with clay. The bottom was covered with a well-preserved floor made of limestone slabs.

Plan of the Lepna mortuary house.

About 1-1.5 m away from the depression of the building, it was surrounded by collapsed thin limestone slabs. These were most likely the remains of the roof that was once upon the building and had partly fallen under the eaves and in part fallen inside the house and in the surrounding area. A similar medieval pit-building has been excavated, for instance, in north Estonia at Angerja, though, that one didn’t have a stone roof.

Reconstruction of Lepna mortuary house.

Artifacts recorded in the Lepna mortuary house were abundant. A lot of jewelry was found (pieces of several dozen penannular brooches, neck rings, triangular-headed pins, spiral rings, etc.), as well as belt fittings, and weapons. A great part of the jewelry was made of silver, plated with silver or gold. Iron didn’t preserve well there, presumably because the items must have been in the open air for a long period of time. Among the iron fragments, pieces of socketed spearheads, shield bosses, and scramasaxes could be identified. Most of the artifacts can be dated to the 6th (or 5th-7th) century, but six 14C analyses taken from the bones indicated the period between the years 400 and 550.


Items from Lepna.

Most of the human bones were inhumed but fragmentary and completely intermingled. At least 25 individuals’ bones were found, 5 of whom were children. Additionally, at least one individual had been buried there cremated (Niinesalu 2020). It seems likely that the human remains belonged to one family.


14C samples from the charcoal taken from the fireplace were dated to the 13th-14th centuries. Because the remains of collapsed foundation and roof stones were found upon the fireplace, the building must have stood until medieval times. However, according to our present knowledge, no additional burials were brought there after the 6th (or perhaps the 7th) century. The long period of time when the building was open also offers an explanation for the fragmentary condition of the bones and the artifacts.

The reconstructed analogy to Lepna mortuary house.
Firepit in one of the corners of Lepna mortuary house.

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