The skeletons of five people with elongated skulls have been dug up in the Russian-annexed region of Crimea, sparking rumours of an “alien” grave.
The remains date from slightly less than 2000 years ago and are believed to be from the ancient Sarmatian culture.
A mother was found buried with a baby lying on her chest, with three more skeletons found under them in the grave.
All had distinctive deformed skulls, and previous similar discoveries have led to reports of “alien” graves.
But the Sarmatians considered such artificial reshaping of the skull as “beautiful” but also essential for warriors who famously included women.
Archaeologist Oleg Markov said the latest discoveries were made at the Kyz-Aul necropolis in Crimea.
“The burial contained five skeletons located one above the other,” he said.
“On the upper level was the skeleton of a woman on whose chest lay the remains of a child, and under her there were three more skeletons.
“The skull bones of all had been deformed during their lifetime.
“The so-called elongated skulls were traditional for the Sarmatian culture.
“This is not the first time at the Kyz-Aul necropolis when they find those buried with such deformations of the skull.
“Several years ago, a burial of a child with the same altered cranium was discovered, then journalists dubbed this burial ‘the burial of an alien’.”
In the unlooted grave there was also a jug with a zoomorphic handle shaped as a wild boar.
“Why five people were buried in one grave is not clear yet,” he said.
A study is now underway to understand if they were the victim of “a military conflict or deadly epidemic”.
The Sarmatian skull elongation process began early in childhood when the bones were still soft, and no surgery was needed.
Special wooden planks were tied to the skull, pressing the bones and gradually altering the shape.
Such deformations were seen as altering the character, and making warriors “more aggressive”.
Nikolay Sudarev, a scientist from the Archaeology Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences, said: “They thought this was more beautiful.”
The Sarmatians – who held sway in this region around two thousand years ago – were famed for their female warriors who helped to conquer Crimea in ancient times.
The prominent role of the group’s women in warfare was seen as an inspiration to the legendary Amazon female fighters.
The burial site in Crimea – annexed from Ukraine in a 2014 military operation – is close to a giant $A5.4 billion bridge to mainland Russia.