When we do paleopathological studies, we come up with a differential diagnosis for the what caused the disease or deformity. That means that we use the list of symptoms of the pathology and determine what possible diagnoses would fit those symptoms. By using the evidence, we slowly eliminate those diagnoses which don’t fit, whether it is due to lack of symptoms, incorrect spatial context, or wrong time period. This same type of procedure works for mortuary archaeology studies when trying to determine the meaning behind a burial pattern. The way that archaeologists arrive at conclusions is also determined by biases of their context and the theories they choose to comply. While the process of working through possible meanings of a site is usually done in private, or only mentioned in the discussion, a recently published article discusses this process in their publication.
Huglin and Spicktig (2011) researched the site of Basel-Gasfabrik, a Late La Tene settlement that dates from 150 to 80 BCE. The site is an unfortified settlement on the Rhine in Swtizerland. The site was primarily timber built, so little remains of the domestic structures. Next to the settlement are two cemeteries that are contemporary with the settlement, and consisted of primary inhumation burials. While this type of burial is common for societies in Switzerland today, the custom in the Late La Tene period was cremation. It is because of this contradiction that archaeologists have focused on this cemetery for the past 100 years since its excavation. Since the original excavation there have been a number of explanations for the inconsistency due to changes in theory, and changes in the moral and emotional implications within society. They argue that the changes in European history and archaeology have caused the changes in interpretation of this mortuary site.
The earliest excavations at Basel-Gasfabrik were conducted by the Historical and Antiquarian Society in 1898. These archaeologists were more individualistic pioneers, but had local connections to the region. Their conclusions were based around pre-conceptions of the area and their ancestral history. The excavation reports focused primarily on documentation instead of conclusion, and supported nationalist sentiments. Based on the 11 burials he found, he ascribed the burials to accident, death from sudden illness, and death coinciding with abandonment.
The second generation of archaeologists was more educated instead of just having a historical interest in the past, but was not local. This means that they lacked the ancestral ties to the site. This period dates from the early to mid 20th century. By this period another dozen skeletons had been found. They ascribed to social evolutionary schemes which meant that the site was seen as part of barbarism. They argued that the pits were dug for storage and garbage purposes, and that the inclusion of the skeletons was a sign of their being considered ‘waste’. They believed that the combination of a barbaric culture and the presence of bodies in a waste pit meant that the individuals interred within it were victims of war.
The third phase consisted of all professional archaeologists, including women for the first time, which begins in the late 20th century and continues to the present. Archaeologists had found a higher number of burials at this point, so they had a better idea of the burial pattern. Comparison between the burials in the pit excavated earlier, and a new cemetery of single burials showed that the pit had a high number of grave goods which could indicate a higher status. There was also testing to see if gender played a role in differential burial.
However, no final conclusion has been reached. The authors, Huglin and Spicktig (2011), also note a major change from a focus on human nature to a more scientific approach. While they agree that this new interpretative scheme is less baised, the loss of the ‘human element’ is problematic. In order to create better interpretations of the site, Huglin and Spicktig (2011) argue that the burials need to be studied more within the broader archaeological context, and there needs to be a more direct comparison between the two cemeteries and other cemetery sites.
What is interesting about this paper, is that it shows how much ones context can bias the interpretation of archaeological sites. The interpretations of the contradictory cemetery practices have been viewed as both signs of warfare and elite status, changing due to personal bias, theoretical inclination and the overall mode of the discipline. What does this mean for us? It means we have to continue to acknowledge our own worldview and preconceptions, and make sure not to let them bias our analyses.
Huglin and Spichtig 2010. Late La Tène Settlement Basel-Gasfabrik, Basel, Switzerland War Crime or Élite Burial: Interpretations of Human Skeletons Within the Late La Tene Settlement Basel-Gasfabrik, Basel, Switzerland. In European Journal of Archaeology 13.