Death, Decay, and Discovery (2011)

An interdisciplinary workshop on taphonomic approaches to understanding burial practice

To be held at the Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology and the Ancient World
Brown University
April 8 – 10, 2011
The mirror that does not deceive - Tomas Mondragón
The mirror that does not deceive – Tomas Mondragón

Most archaeologists excavate and study desiccated and skeletonized human remains in the hopes of understanding what a living person or society was like.  We may aspire to understand the human actions that create a burial context – such as graveside feasting or placement of funerary offerings.  But, we often ignore the gritty process of decay after death that creates the deposits that we excavate.  In order to correctly identify the human practices that may include multiple phases of funerary treatment, archaeologists must build a detailed understanding of how human actions and natural processes contribute to recovered mortuary contexts.

A taphonomic approach to burial archaeology can address both facets of this problem.  This workshop will bring together mortuary archaeologists and taphonomists (from anthropologie de terrain, forensic anthropology, and medicine).  Through conversations across disciplines, we hope to build a stronger approach to recovery and analysis of human burials at archaeological sites.  Through discussions, we will explore the utility of using taphonomic approaches to answer questions about social structure, identity, the experience of death and dying, and other social issues in diverse societies around the world.



5:30-6:30 Student poster session and reception
7:00 Dinner for out of town speakers


8:45-9:00 Coffee and muffins
9:00-9:10 Welcome remarks and introduction
Susan Alcock and Allison Davis Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology and the Ancient World, Brown University
9:10-9:40 Crouching in Fear: Terms of Engagement for Funerary Remains
Chris Knüsel Department of Archaeology, University of Exeter
9:40-10:00 Response paper
Joanne Devlin Department of Anthropology, University of Tennessee, Knoxville
10:00-10:10 Discussion
10:10-10:40 Talking Bones and Ephemeral Bodies: Thick Archaeology of Gestures in Burial Context
Mirjana Roksandic Department of Anthropology, University of Winnipeg
10:40-11:00 Response paper
Liv Nilsson Stutz Department of Anthropology, Oxford College of Emory University
11:00-11:10 Discussion
11:10-11:20 Coffee
11:20-11:50 The Excavation of Mycenaean Chamber Tombs at Barnavos and Ayia Sotira in the Nemea Valley
Angus Smith Department of Classics, Brock University, Mary K. DabneyDepartment of Classical and Near Eastern Archaeology, Bryn Mawr College, Jim Wright Department of Classical and Near Eastern Archaeology, Bryn Mawr College, Eva Pappi, Panayiotis Karkanas, Sevi Triantaphyllou
11:50-12:10 Response paper
Maria Liston Department of Anthropology, University of Waterloo
12:10-12:20 Discussion
12:20-2:00 Lunch Break
2:00-2:30 Taphonomy and Prehistoric Violence in the Puebloan Southwest
Ann Lucy Stodder Department of Anthropology, The Field Museum
2:30-2:50 Response paper
Andrew Scherer Department of Anthropology, Brown University
2:50-3:00 Discussion
3:00-3:30 Burial Ritual on the Colonial North Coast of Peru: Archaeothanatological Reconstructions and Methodological Reflections
Haagen Klaus Department of Behavioral Science, Utah Valley University
3:30-3:50 Response paper
Elizabeth Laposata Department of Pathology & Laboratory Medicine, Brown University
3:50-4:00 Discussion
4:00-4:10 Coffee
4:10-4:40 More than Pretty Pictures: The Use of Three-Dimensional Modeling in the Documentation of Funerary Remains
Jessica Nowlin Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology and the Ancient World, Brown University
4:40-5:00 Response paper
Vera Tiesler Autonomous University of Yucatan in Mérida
5:00-5:10 Discussion
5:10-5:20 Closing remarks and presentation of the Student Poster Prize
Allison Davis Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology and the Ancient World, Brown University
7:00 Dinner for workshop participants


9:00-11:30 Round table discussion (invited participants only)Coffee and light breakfast



Burial Ritual on the Colonial North Coast of Peru: Archaeothanatological Reconstructions and Methodological Reflections

Haagen Klaus

Mortuary ritual integrates politics, social organization, ideology, identity, economy, and history – yet funerary contexts often are not conceptualized, excavated, or interpreted with attendant methodological and interpretational sophistication. Archaeothanatology can open compelling windows on human behavior and engender paradigm shifts in mortuary archaeology and beyond. I interweave archaeothanatological problem solving techniques and data (from the last seven years of excavations by the Lambayeque Valley Biohistory Project) with detailed regional contexts including archaeological data, ethnohistory, ecology, and population health to characterize changes to social identity and religion that followed European conquest on the north coast of Peru. To date, our findings reveal an unexpected and completely unknown diversity of historic native mortuary rituals. Archaeolothanatological excavation of some 1,250 Muchik individuals in four contemporaneous church ruins in Mórrope and Eten (A.D. ~ 1533-1800) reveal at least two regional traditions. In Mórrope, extensive syncretism or hybridization between Catholic rituals and 2,000 year-old pre-Hispanic funerary practices included prolonged pre-burial curation of dead bodies and a variety of ritualized post-depositional manipulations of bones. In the nearby community of Eten, various burials also had the appearance of purposeful manipulation at first glance, but archaeothanotological analysis identifies mostly non-ritualistic alterations produced in the deposition of mass graves associated with epidemic disease. In addition to underscoring how little we know about the diversity of Andean cultural responses, negotiations, and engagements with the colonial world, I will also consider the role of two-dimensional anatomical/scientific illustration as a form of data gathering and the potential and challenges in the development of portable three-dimensional scanners that may revolutionize data collection from human burial contexts.

Crouching in Fear: Terms of Engagement for Funerary Remains
Christopher J. Knüsel

Descriptive terms used in burial archaeology often ignore the standardized anatomical terms that derive from the body and its constituent parts. Since the body represents the central focus of past death ritual, this is an unfortunate oversight that has led to the use of multiple terms (and in many languages)- some contradictory and others uninformative- to describe burials. The desire of early workers to equate burial traditions with distinctive past peoples relied on universalizing principles linked to a notion of distinctive burial traditions for presumed ethnically distinctive groups. The same can be said for the 1960s New Archaeology, also a generalizing model, but which shifted the focus of research from ethnogenetic models to social distinctions based on subsistence practices and the increased social complexity associated with the advent of agriculture. More recently, the emphasis has shifted to the reconstruction of funerary rites from burial remains, a form of description that has been less clearly linked to an over-arching theme, but one which is often associated with the elaboration of beliefs and practices. What is most sobering is that even with these paradigmatic shifts, often focussed on burials, human remains and the funerary realm remain poorly synthesized in interpretions of past social change, often used anecdotally, if at all. Aside from disciplinary boundaries that tend to create their own question universes, this anecdotal use may relate, in part, to a lack of standard terms to unravel the often complex taphonomic histories and skeletal patterning associated with what were multi-phase funerary treatments. The ‘norms’ have been abstracted from far more variable patterns. Standard descriptive terms for burials, rather than universal intepretive schemes, should form an indispensable complement to broader social questions.

More than Pretty Pictures: The Use of Three-Dimensional Modeling in the Documentation of Funerary Remains
Jessica Nowlin

In a taphonomic approach to funerary archaeology, a highly detailed and thorough documentation of the human remains and their surrounding contexts is critical. Many digital techniques have been developed over the past thirty years to provide a more rapid recording process that also maintains the high level of accuracy needed in funerary analysis. Most of these techniques, however, are two-dimensional and are insufficient for understanding taphonomic processes. At the multi-period urban site of Gabii, Italy, a photogrammetric documentation technique has been used not only to create the familiar digitized two-dimensional plans of the skeletal remains, but also to produce three-dimensional, georectified models of the skeleton and surrounding context that fit within the site-wide GIS. By exploring the efficacy of this technique in a series of inhumation burials from different chronological periods, each with their own contextual challenges, this paper demonstrates that three-dimensional modeling can be transformed from a purely aesthetic visualization to an analytical tool. The digital model allows for post-excavation analysis of the skeleton in situ, its anatomical orientation and its relationship with other elements of the grave, so that burial taphonomy can be studied even after the remains have been excavated.

Talking Bones and Ephemeral Bodies: Thick Archaeology of Gestures in Burial Context
Mirjana Roksandic

Death is the only rite of passage that leaves direct archaeological traces (through burial and mortuary rituals) providing us with a rare opportunity to move beyond material culture and goods and glimpse the cognitive, ritual, and ideological aspects of a past human group. By emphasizing the interpretative potential of human skeletal material, “Anthoropologie de terrain,”best rendered in English as “dispositional taphonomy,” has helped refocus our collective attention from grave goods to the mode of disposal and post-burial activities. Yet once we collect a vast amount of spatial data and painstakingly interpret the position of every bone and bone fragment, the fun part is over and we face the much more difficult “what next” question. My paper will concentrate on the interpretative value of information derived through dispositional taphonomy and its possible role in interpreting social, ritual and cognitive aspects of past human groups. Since we cannot assume an easy equation between burial gestures and their meaning in any particular group, the interpretation has to rely on proper conceptualisation of burial practice that holds true for all humans, on essential quality of the body, on “thick archaeology” approach and detailed contextualisation. I will use examples from my work on Portuguese Mesolithic shell-matrix sites of the Muge valley, Serbian Mesolithic burials from the Iron Gates Gorge and Cuban Pre-Contact site of Canimar Abajo

The Excavation of Mycenaean Chamber Tombs at Barnavos and Ayia Sotira in the Nemea Valley
Angus Smith, Department of Classics, Brock University, Mary K. Dabney, Department of Classical and Near Eastern Archaeology, Bryn Mawr College, Jim Wright, Department of Classical and Near Eastern Archaeology, Bryn Mawr College, Eva Pappi, Panayiotis Karkanas, Sevi Triantaphyllou

Since 2001 as a part of the program of the Nemea Valley Archaeological Project and in collaboration with Brock University, Bryn Mawr College and the Canadian Institute in Greece, we have conducted a program of excavating and developing new methods for understanding the history and attendant mortuary practices of burial in Mycenaean chamber tombs. This paper focuses on novel recording methods for chamber tombs, and offers some preliminary results. For example, we introduced baulks in the entrance corridors and chambers, and systematically sampled the baulks for thin sectioning and microstratigraphic analysis, employing microphotographs to distinguish floors from dumped fill and to accurately determine the number of times in a tomb’s history that it was opened and closed. Such sampling in the chambers revealed not only floors that were invisible to the naked eye but also the use of lime plaster. In addition, careful recording of the location of finds enabled the recognition of spatial differentiation that relates to different aspects of mortuary customs, especially with respect to the deposition of grave goods and rituals carried out by the burying group. In one instance our careful mapping of both undisturbed deposits and the looters’ soil heaps from a robbed tomb enabled a near total reconstruction of the number of openings of the tomb and demography of the burials, despite the complete looting of the chamber. In other cases, systematic sieving and flotation of soils recovered evidence for defleshing of bones and enabled the recovery of hundreds of nearly invisible beads from burials with no trace of bone that may have been neonates.

Taphonomy and Prehistoric Violence in the Puebloan Southwest
Ann Stodder

The archaeological record of Ancestral Pueblo life and death in the northern Southwest is punctuated by skeletal assemblages indicating episodes of violence from the Early Agricultural into the Contact period. Our understanding of these assemblages is hindered by the adaptationist paradigm in which processed human remains and “unburied bodies” are variously interpreted as the result of cannibalism, warfare, raiding, or witch execution, but always attributed to ecological stress. This reductionism reflects a legacy of environmental determinism, but also our limited ability to infer social behavior from quantitative taphonomy when the bone fragment is the unit of analysis. Methods that allowed us to go beyond a strictly quantitative approach to the Sacred Ridge assemblage include extensive conjoining, use of anatomical location zones for recording bone modification, and use of clinical fracture types in classifying perimortem trauma. Of equal or perhaps greater importance than methodology is the political context of bioarchaeology today: the excavation and study of human remains is legislated, consulted and contested. The legitimate concerns of descendant communities (heightened by lurid headlines in the media) promote self-censorship in reporting on human remains and impact the language, epistemology, and venues in which we interpret the results of taphonomy studies.

Posters by Students of the Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology and the Ancient World

Anglo-Saxon Inhumation Bone Movement

Allison Barker

This Anglo-Saxon cemetery at Worthy Park, Kingsworthy, Hampshire, lies 5 km north of Winchester (a town near the southern coast of England). The cemetery appeared to have been used for a maximum of two centuries. My question on these burials is on the movement of bones due to body position. I chose six inhumations to answer my query due to the quality of their excavation pictures. Each of these six burials is in different positions, which helps to document the movement of each bone. They are all primarily buried in a filled space. This question is important to answer, because it will help others when documenting burials and understanding post burial movement. It is in this poster then, that I will see in which position do certain articulations or bones decay, and how and why bones are able to move within their burial.

The Archaeothanatology of Wotton Cemetery: Roman Burial Technique and Corpse Treatment at Gloucester
Nick Bartos

Excavations at Wotton Cemetery have revealed one of the largest burial deposits in Roman Gloucester containing numerous inhumations, cremations, and a mass grave dating from the Neronian Period to the 4th century AD. Focusing on a selected sample, this poster explores Wotton burial practice through an archaeothanatological analysis of some of the best preserved remains. Despite a few discernable patterns, the sample demonstrates great variation in corpse articulation, position, and treatment. The results at Wotton are also further contextualized within known Roman burial practices in Gloucester and the methodology of archaeothanatology as a whole.

The Predynastic Cemeteries of Maadi and Wadi Digla
Danielle Candelora

The settlement of Maadi is considered one of the most important Predynastic sites in Egypt, and the namesake for the Predynastic Maadi Culture. The archaeothanatology of cemeteries affiliated with this site will provide constructive new information concerning the mortuary rites of this living culture which has been well documented. Using thanatological methods I examined 10 of 550 burials, and determined that the traditional mortuary practice of these people involved a primary burial of the deceased in the fetal position shortly after rigor had relaxed. This indicates that the Maadi Culture was relatively egalitarian in death, and had already established significant burial traditions.

The Pre-Classic Burials at Cuello, Belize: What They Tell Us about Ritual, Society, and the Classic Period
Kaitlin East

In the imagination of many modern people the Classic Maya hold a special place, and their burials, especially of their well-endowed kings, have attracted much attention. The Maya in Belize, however, had a long history. Unfortunately, the burial practices of the pre-classic Maya remain poorly understood. While most burials received similar treatments, there was also great variation among the burials at Cuello, Belize offering insight into their beliefs surrounding death. By examining these remains it is possible to better understand the rituals that lead to the inhumation of bodies and the society that interred these individuals and, by extension, the Classic Maya society that came after.

Archaeothanotology in the Shahr-i Sokhta Graveyard
Madeleine Heil

During the Bronze Age in the Shahr-i Sohkta settlement of Sistan, Iran, inconsistencies and variations found among grave good quantity, value and distribution indicate the possible transference of wealth and age disparities present in mortuary rituals and practice. A database of grave location, body position and orientation, grave goods discovered, gender, age and the type/depth of grave was created in order to begin an initial comparison. By using this database to compare one hundred burials in two separate areas of burial sites in the graveyard and the lithic and pottery remains found within, this gathered data can look to find the correlations between grave goods and the potential societal implications of wealth and age.

New Life along Port au Choix: Evidence for the Existence of a Boreal Archaic Culture
Mari Mendez

Most of the evidence found for the existence of life within the Newfoundland area of Port au Choix supports the presence of the Native American culture of the Dorset Eskimos. However, later excavations of the area suggest the existence of another Native American culture distinct from the Dorset Eskimo culture. By analyzing the skeletal remains and comparing the mortuary practices of these more recent excavations with the burial sites of the Dorset Eskimos, we can conclude that a separate culture, specifically a Boreal Archaic culture, once inhabited the area. Based on the evidence, inferences can be made about life in Port au Choix during the second millennium B.C.

The Ilipinar Excavations: Burials in the Neolithic Cemetery
Susana Ortega

The excavation of Ilipinar, a prehistoric settlement in Northwest Anatolia, is a fifteen year project that centers on cemeteries, inhabitants, houses, and remains. This dataset contains final reports of cemeteries dealing with the Neolithic, Late Chalcolithic, and the Early Bronze Age. My focal point will specifically be on the Neolithic cemetery. This cemetery has a collection of about 48 burials containing adults and children. The remains were not preserved properly, however, information was still gathered such as sex, age, and pathology. My analysis will be on the archaeothanatology of these burials as well as compare and contrast skeletons by their position, bone loss, and remains left behind.

Archaeothanatology of the Roman Cemetery at Lankhills, UK
Eleanor Smith

The site of the Lankhills cemetery is located just outside of the town of Winchester in southern England. The cemetery contains approximately 450 graves, dating to the late Roman period of England (approximately 310-360 AD) and served the Roman town of Winchester. I investigated what information could be determined about the burial rituals of the people of Winchester from the bodies that remained. My findings demonstrated that there was a common tradition of burying the dead in coffins, no apparent secondary burial practices and no difference in burial practices based on age or gender.

A Town through the Centuries: The Graves of Barton-upon-Humber, Lincolnshire
Alyssa Thelemaque

Archaeological excavations in Barton-upon-Humber, Lincolnshire, undertaken from 1978-1984 yielded the largest collection of human remains in the UK, with evidence spanning the late tenth to mid-nineteenth century. As Barton-upon-Humber developed from a small farming community to a commercial town attracting a foreign population, did their mortuary practices change? And do these bodies provide evidence for class stratification? An analysis and quantification of the grave goods and coffin usage in each burial (and even a closer look at pathology reports) and a search for larger trends throughout the site reveals that while the town grew and diversified, the population remained stable and heterarchical. The excavations of the burial site for Barton-upon-Humber can provide insight into the socio-economic culture of a small, developing town.

Il-Mewt Isewwi Kollox (Death rights everything): Archaeological Interpretation and Recovery of Looted Burials in Ta’ Qali, Malta
Clive Vella

Landscapes with extensive diachronic occupation tend to exhibit overlapping construction, use, and belief. Mediterranean islands, such as Malta, share an intensive land-use that often intersects in an abusive manner, which encompasses the use of spoil from older buildings and the looting of burial contexts in search of antiquities. Looted burials have often been deemed as limited in archaeological worth. This is especially true in salvage archaeology when professionals are faced with limited time and funds for excavations. At the site of Ta’ Qali, the discovery of a small Late Roman burial ground was initially seen as a limited excavation, particularly due to extensive modern quarrying and previous burial looting. However, through careful excavation with a landscape-oriented approach, the burials at Ta’ Qali were found to be at an old rural crossroad that had previously experienced use between the Bronze Age and the Late Roman period.