Inequality in the Dead

Determining whether classes or inequality existed in the archaeological record can be difficult, especially without textual evidence. However, it is very important in the interpretation of mortuary processes and bioarchaeology. Social structure is one of the primary ways in which mortuary practices are differentiated, and is also one of the most highly debated attributes in the sub-discipline. Early arguments by Saxe and Binford posited that social structures and systems could be ascertained from the analysis of mortuary sites by direct correlation of energy and rank. The approach has become simplified and summarized as a direct relationship between rank and the energy invested in the grave. Since its publication, the approach has been critiqued and updated by Goldstein, O’Shea, Morris and others to now include spatial dimensions and cultural context in the interpretation. Burial as a proxy for social status continues to be used in mortuary archaeology. It is especially important when looking for hidden heterogeneity (diversity) in patterns of health and trauma that may be lost in generalized demographic analyses.

Redfern and DeWitte (2011) argue that health in Roman Britain was dependent on one’s social status. In a previous article the authors noted that overall population health declined in Roman Britain in the 1st century CE. In order to better understand how the Romanization of Britain affected the individuals, they investigated social status as a variable. They hypothesize that “people who are disadvantaged socially and economically have a higher risk of developing a serious illness and have a shorter life expectancy… the disadvantaged have higher morbidity and mortality risk because of the cumulative effects of inadequate diet and poor living conditions”. In Ancient Rome, status was dependent on age, sex and socioeconomic conditions. Older males with property were at the top, with young females without family connections at the bottom. Status is more clearly reflected in Roman burials than other locations, with textual evidence reasserting that more elaborate burials and expensive materials went to those with higher status.

Redfern and DeWitte argue that the burial container is the most important indicator in determining status. The lowest status could only afford the cheapest burials, and were often just placed

in the ground. Higher classes could afford more expensive coffins made of wood, terracotta, stone, and lead. However, determining the social difference between these coffins can be difficult since a
stone coffin may have cost as much as a quality wooden one that was more highly decorated. Slaves, the poor, and non-citizens received basic disposal in mass-burial pits. Redfern and DeWitte argue that grave goods are not a good indicator of status due to temporal and regional variation. My own research into Roman burial practices has shown that grave goods could be highly irregular depending on the type of burial (inhumation or cremation), and the current social environment. Grave goods often decreased more in the wealthy when there was a focus on being austere and a decline in conspicuous consumption.

The study itself is based on individuals dating from the 1st to 5th centuries in Roman Britain, primarily from sites in the South of England. 291 individuals from a range of ages and sexes were selected. The individuals were ranked based on their coffin and burial type, lowest to highest status: no coffin, wood coffin, lead-lined wood coffin, lead coffin, mausoleum unknown, mausoleum no coffin, mausoleum wood coffin, mausoleum lead-lined wood coffin, mausoleum lead coffin, and mausoleum stone coffin. They found that in the rural and urban/rural contexts status had significant effects on the risks of mortality for infants and children, but it did not significantly affect risks of mortality for adults. In general, regardless of status, adult males suffered a major decline in health with Romanization. They also noted that there was a higher mortality in general in urban populations than there was in rural ones.

Overall, they found that there was no clear relationship between health, mortality and status based on coffin type. This is important because it shows that correlations between these variables are not necessarily direct, and we must not make assumptions regarding them. By closely looking at the variation occurring we can create more nuanced interpretations. By including spatial location within the cemetery, and more information about the mausoleums themselves, Redfern and DeWitte may have been able to extract more information. Roman burial patterns are complicated. In death one can be considered elite and buried in a tomb because of the patronage of another and not one’s own accomplishments. There were also trends where the wealthy used less prestigious materials in order to show their restraint. Complex social processes need to be considered when examining inequality- it is more complex than equating burial type with status.

Works Cited

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.orgRedfern RC, & Dewitte SN (2011). Status and health in Roman Dorset: the effect of status on risk of mortality in post-conquest populations. American journal of physical anthropology, 146 (2), 197-208 PMID: 21826637

7 responses to “Inequality in the Dead

  1. Cool post! So, the effort put into a burial isn’t always directly related to the status of the buried individual, but I wonder if drastic differences in burial practices within a society are a good indication that social stratification existed in that society? Anyway, it seems like archaeologists need to look at lots of factors, including burial practices, but also architecture, settlement patterns, etc. to gauge social stratification in the past. There’s been a lot of really cool research along these lines about the development of social stratification during the emergence of the Zapotec state in present-day Oaxaca, Mexico, that begins to answer some big, philisophical questions like why does social inequality exist and where did it come from?

    • Drastic differences in burial practices are usually a sign of social stratification- although it doesn’t have to mean status. Sometimes occupation was the important marker, such as Norse warriors receiving a boat burial. There are many projects going on to address social inequality. What is most interesting to me are the societies which hide inequality in their burial practices! Some modern cemeteries in Greece have communal tombs where all individuals are placed regardless of their social class. Future archaeologists may incorrectly interpret sites like this as lacking stratification, when really we know that the community was highly stratified. Often what we see in burial is an idealized version of what the society wants their structure to be rather than a reflection of reality.

      Thanks for the comment!

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