A Good Day for Mortuary Archaeologists

Today was a good day for archaeological news relating to mortuary and bio-archaeology. First, a quick run down of some of the findings. Second, looking a little closer at one finding in particular.

In Vietnam an ancient crematoria was discovered. While over 70 had been found in the Cai River area, this is the first in Phu Yen. Burnt coal and bone has also been discovered at the site, confirming the identification of it as a crematorium (VNS 2010).

A 2,500 year old skull found in Heslington East in the UK has revealed the discrete process of death suffered by the individual due to the presence of brain matter within the skull. The brain matter survived because the individual’s head was chopped off and then immediately buried in dense anoxic mud. Given the presence of a headless deer and numerous antlers, archaeologists of University of York argue that this was likely a ritual based sacrifice(Lewis 2010).

The Wightman Burial Ground Association of Conneticut recently hired a archaeologist to conduct ground penetrating radar studies of the cemetery to find missing or unmarked graves. In the process they uncovered 12 wolf stones (Marteka 2010). These stones were placed above the grave in order to prevent wolves from digging up the newly buried corpses. They are also known as ledger stones, with earlier forms being mainly unadorned rectangles, and later ones intricately inscribed or decoratively shaped (Mytum 2004:29).

In Veracruz twenty skeletons were uncovered by Hurricane Karl. Excavations being done in the area by the Mexican National Institute of Anthropology and History had already revealed eight burials thought to be part of a Catholic cemetery. The bone and ceramic material dates from the 16th to 19th centuries, although it is primarily contact period artifacts. Some of the individuals have obvious signs of dental mutilation which points to their native ethnicity. This indicates that this may be a Catholic cemetery for converted natives, although further analysis of the skeletal material will allow more in depth analysis of ethnic identity (Artdaily 2010).

To me this is the most important find, and has the most research potential. What will be interesting to see as this excavation progresses, it the ethnicity of individuals and the associated burial goods. Social identity is a complex palimpsest, and in death it can be seen through a variety of ways. It is seen in the associated burial goods,the general location of the burial in relation to other sites, the specific location of the individual within the cemetery, the body’s position, and the pattern of grave goods and position in comparison to others interred in the cemetery. Specifically regarding the skeleton health, age, etheseopathies, trauma, self-mutilation, sex and the relation of these variables to the other skeletons is important to identity. By examining the remains of individuals during the 16th century, we can get a better understanding of how cultural contact between the Catholics and the natives affected not only their health, but their social identity.

Works Cited

VNS. 2010. VN’s First Crematoria in Phu Yen Region. Vietnam News. http://vietnamnews.vnagency.com.vn/Life-Style/205245/VNs-first-ancient-crematoria-tombs-discovered-in-Phu-Yen-.html

Marteka. 2010. Old Mystic Cemetery has Rare Wolf Stones. Hartofrd Courant. http://articles.courant.com/2010-10-31/community/hc-wrightman-wolf-stones-mystic-1030-20101031_1_stones-wolf-cemetery

Mytum. 2004. Mortuary monuments and burial grounds of the historic period. http://books.google.com/books?id=Ks8j9E2BI9sC&dq=%22wolf+stones%22&source=gbs_navlinks_s

Artdaily. 2010. Twenty human skeletons and fragments of colonial ceramics found. Art Daily News. http://www.artdaily.org/index.asp?int_sec=2&int_new=42220.

Lewis. 2010. Was death of Iron Age Man at Heslington East a ritual killing. The Press. http://www.yorkpress.co.uk/features/features/8487242.Was_death_of_Iron_Age_man_a_ritual_killing_/

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