Mortuary and Bioarchaeology at SAA 2011

Last week was the annual Society of American Archaeology Conference in Sacramento, CA. Over the three days of sessions that I attended there were a number of mortuary and bioarchaeology talks and presentations that occurred. In this post, I am going to briefly discuss some of the highlights of the conference.

On Thursday, the most attended session for mortuary and bioarchaeology was the “Sex and Gender in Bioarchaeology” symposium. Rachel Scott presented on multiple masculinities in early medieval Ireland. What made this paper unique, was that it addressed the problem of masculine genders, even though the traditional gender approach is to look at female gender, with male as the more universal one. Scott looked at the ideal Irish man as depicted in mythology; a heroic warrior. She then addresses whether this ideal is supported by the archaeological record by looking at male graves. She found a paucity of weapons in graves, low evidence of warfare related trauma, and a military association only with elite burials. Instead, males in this period tend to have farming related injuries, buried with few grave goods in more domestic settings. This suggests that males were primarily cattle herders and farmers, a contradiction against the warrior ideal. Scott concludes that the association of warrior to men was an elite symbol of status, and something only the wealthy could aspire to or at least mimic in death. She argues that we need to address all potential stereotypes of both men and women, and search for contradictions in the archaeological and historical records. Other presentations from this symposium included Hager’s analysis of gender being a dynamic identity that changed with age, Hollimon’s argument for looking at gender from a non-binary perspective to allow for third genders such as shamans to be classified, and was summarized by Joyce and Voss by addressing the future of gender in bioarchaeology.

Thursday afternoon, the bioarchaeology session focused on current research of the Maya civilization. Anna Novotny discussed stacked burials in the preclassic period as indicative of ancestor veneration. Through careful attention to the burial context, she argued that these stacked burials were done sequentially in order to honor ancestors and create a sense of continuity, instead of other arguments for stacking as a more convenient method of burial. This conclusion was supported by iconographic evidence of “standing” upon the ancestors as a way of creating ties to them. Alicia Donis, presenting for a larger group, dicussed another unique burial pattern. They found burials in which the individuals were face down. In Western culture, this usually is a sign of witchcraft or evil doings, with the individual face down to point them towards hell. However, the Mayan conception of the afterlife is within the earth, and requires diving into it. Therefore, Donis and colleagues argue that these downward facing burials are a way of pointing people towards the underworld to allow them to dive into it. The session overall did a wonderful job of combining bioarchaeology with the larger mortuary context and the iconographic evidence.

Friday morning for me consisted of attending the forum on tDAR, a digital repository for archaeological data. This is the other archaeological hat that I wear, the digital one- but for purposes of this post, being that this is my mortuary and bioarchaeology blog, I will not go too in depth on their arguments and discussion. However, digital repositories are extremely important to bioarchaeology and mortuary archaeology, and should be explored further.

That afternoon I returned to the mortuary sessions, attending the “Mortuary Archaeology and Bioarchaeology of Ancient Near Eastern Societies” symposium. Basak Boz and Lori Hager  presented on the burial practices at Catahoyuk. They questioned the various methods of burial, internment in the floor, dismemberment, secondary burial, in order to determine whether these represented acts of remembrance or simple and convenient disposal. They argued that the removal of bones after burial, and dismemberment practices are not indicative of a lack of respect for the deceased, but rather a series of rituals of ancestor veneration. This conclusion was supported through the use of ethnographic analogies, and while the analogy itself was tenuous, the overall message was beneficial: when interpreting the past we cannot put our own biases onto other cultures. Other presentations in this session looked at the differences between inhumation and cremation in Iron Age Phoenician burials as signs of identity by Dixon, and Gregoricka’s comparison of tombs from Bronze Age Arabia to assess changes in population demography due to immigration change.

My final day of the conference was Saturday, the highlight of which was the afternoon session on cremation: “Fire and the Body: Cremation as a Context for Social Meaning”. Not only are cremation burials a fascinating practice whose trends in use are extremely variable, but it is also an understudied area which deserves closer attention to both the methodological and theoretical aspects, as pointed out by Ian Kujit in his introduction to the symposium. He also discussed the challenges of studying cremation due to it being a multiple stage mortuary practice involving a number of locations for preparation, cremation, and burial. Lynne Goldstein (a paper I helped to do background research on) addressed the patterns of cremation in the pre-contact Midwest. She noted that cremation is highly variable in both its meanings and frequency from the Middle Archaic to the Mississippian periods. By looking at examples from various sites, she found that the meanings associated with cremation, such as a correlation to metalworking or regional community identity, changed through time as cremation became more or less popular. Jessica Cerezo Roman discussed cremation burials at Hohokham. She noted that the earliest cremations mimicked inhumation by being placed in coffins or cists, and that mortuary processing took place directly within the domestic site. Joanna Bruck presented on gender and cremation in the British Bronze age, arguing that the higher number of female cremations was not due to lower status. She noted that cremation takes more energy than inhumation, and by cremating the individual they are dismembered. This allows for their remains to be more easily transported, and used as a way to maintain kin ties and family networks. She concludes that female cremation may be due to their status as the maintainers of the family. Presentations by Quinn and Cooney stressed the importance of social identities and ancestral ties in different sites throughout Ireland. They both looked at different ways that the dead are remembered at the same sites, with earlier cremation burials becoming part of the fabric of the tombs, the ancestors literally as part of the soil for the incoming inhumation burials of more recent periods. O’Shea summarized the session by noting that cremation has many modern connotations which need to be addressed and explicit in order to make sure that they don’t bias our interpretations of the past.

Overall, the SAA conference was very informative on current trends in mortuary archaeology. One issue that I would like to see addressed in more detail is an increase in focus to the mortuary context. There is a tendency for burials to become separate from their context, and while there is in increase in awareness it is still not common practice. In future conferences I look forward to presenting my own work and adding to the common knowledge.

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