Using Archaeothanatology to Infer Burial Containers

Archaeothanatology is a lesser known method in mortuary archaeology which is based on using taphonomy to infer unknowns about burial context. As espoused by Duday (2009), the method requires detailed recording during excavation including the identification of skeletal elements in situ, anatomical orientation, and spatial relationship to other elements. Archaeothanatology aims to identify and account for taphonomic processes which alter the original characteristics of the funerary deposit in order to determine the original burial context. While a number of studies have employed the method at various stages, there has been no complete use of the method for a large sample. Harris and Tayles (2012) use an archaeothanatological methodology that uses photographs and field drawings and applies it to a large sample of burials from a prehistoric site, Ban Non Wat, Northeast Thailand. The goal was to use the burial context to identify and compare burial containers over time.

Harris and Tayles 2012

Previous mortuary studies by Willis and Tayles (2009) investigated burial containers at the Bronze Age site of Ban Lum Khao. Of the 26 burials, 14 were interpreted as wrapped and 12 were interpreted as interred in a coffin. The variation is thought to represent differences in gender. They also investigated a nearby Iron Age site, and of the 35 burials all were found wrapped. However, archaeothanatological study of the Iron Age burials at Ban Wang Hai by Pautreau and Mornais (2003) found that many of them were made in hollowed out tree trunks. Since the wood didn’t survive, they had to infer the size and make from the burial context, but found that there was clear size differentiation based not on sex or age, meaning it was likely either status or rank. Given that burial context obviously varies throughout the area and over time, Harris and Tayles (2012) aim to look at the change in burial containers. They argue that “Ban Non Wat sits as an ideal case study, with its long chronology and the large number of burials excavated at the site (over 600) allowing burial context to be examined both temporally and within con- temporary groups”.

Excavations of the Ban Non Wat mortuary site were conducted in 2002. The site has been dated from 1750 BCE to 500 CE, and can be broadly grouped into the Neolithic, Bronze Age, and Iron Age. The initial excavation done by Highman and Highman (2009) only made basic observations of the burial context due to the poor preservation of the burial containers. However, Harris and Tayles (2012) argue that using the photographs and drawings from the site can be used to infer burial container if the archaeothanatological method is used. This means paying close attention to the interaction between the original funerary deposit and taphonomic processes like decomposition and bioturbation. They determined from 133 burials that there were 5 burial containers: loose non-durable wrapping, tight non-durable wrapping, tight durable wrapping, narrow coffin, and wide coffin. Loose non-durable wrappings are identified by a lack of space for movement of the body, but no constriction of the skeletal remains. Tight non-durable wrapping or durable wrapping leads to limited space for movement of the remains and the skeleton is pressed into a small area. The narrow coffin looks similar to the tight durable wrapping, except that it has box like walls. The wide coffin has no constriction and space which leads to disarticulation of the skeleton.

Harris and Tayles 2012

Previous arguments have noted that mortuary practices were extremely diverse during the Bronze Age, but became more uniform during the Iron Age. From the Neolithic to Middle Bronze Age there is extreme variation between burial contexts. After this period and until the end of the Iron Age the burials are primarily wide coffins made from rounded tree trunks and tight non-durable wrapping. During the late Bronze and Iron Age there was a transition to more intensified agriculture and the purposeful manipulation of waterways. Harris and Tayles (2012) argue that this change would have led to changes in social structure, and therefore mortuary behavior. They propose “that such a change was partially expressed through the homogenization of burial context, regardless of differences in emerging social classes, in order to foster this community identity, with social inequalities displayed by alternate mortuary practices such as grave goods”. However there is debate as to whether there was a hierarchy of social inequality during these periods. It is possible that the homogenization may represent kin groups or personal achievement. In order to determine this, a closer look at the sex, age and burials goods in conjunction with the mortuary context will need to be done.

I can see the potential for considerable improvement to this very
exciting method by widespread adoption by archaeologists.  Broadening
the data set to include a wider range of evidence will allow for
creating interpretations which were perhaps unavailable without it. Archaeothanatology is an important method which should be included in mortuary studies. While taphonomy is considered, it is not explicitly noted in many studies. If you haven’t already, you should read Duday’s (2009) book on archaeothanatology.

Works Cited
ResearchBlogging.orgHarris, N., & Tayles, N. (2012). Burial containers – A hidden aspect of mortuary practices: Archaeothanatology at Ban Non Wat, Thailand Journal of Anthropological Archaeology DOI: 10.1016/j.jaa.2012.01.001

Duday (2009) The Archaeology of the Dead: Lectures in Archaeothanatology. Oxbow Books, Oxford.

19 responses to “Using Archaeothanatology to Infer Burial Containers

  1. Duday is all kinds of awesome. Many Italian bioarchaeologists have adopted his methods, especially in Rome, but unfortunately they haven’t published much of anything. But I think Duday is involved in some of the Pompeii tomb excavations (at Porta Nocera). It’s nice to read that others are trying to apply his method and really test what it can tell us about the past.

    • I really like Duday’s method. I don’t think his principles apply to cremation so I won’t be able to test them first hand in my work this summer. I too would love to see more applications of the method!

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  3. My lecturer did a rather poor job of talking about archaeothanatology. A lot of what she talked about seems like it already was being (or at least should have been) taken into consideration. Surely, for example, osteoarchaeologists etc. would already be looking at the spine of a skeleton to see if the orientation of the head was the result of deliberate placement or taphonomy?

    Is archaeothanatology really adding anything new; or is it just rephrasing basic concepts in a way that hasn’t been done before (ala Dawkins with the Selfish Gene)? Or alternatively, does my lecturer just suck at explaining?

    Sincere undergrad questions aside, this is an excellent blog and I look forward to reading more of it.

    • Hey Adam,
      I would say a part of the problem is the environment of commercial or research excavation – not every site has, or need, a osteoarchaeologist. When bones or burials are found they are often recorded, excavated and lifted by a wide variety of individuals with different skill sets. It’s just not possible to train everyone to recognise specific in-situ burial and post-depositional changes.

      So the methodology is new in the way it pulls together the strings of various approaches in understanding the movement and position of the body in the depositional environment. It’s just not everyone will know about the method or will note the disturbances (which can be hard to see) in their field notes!

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  9. Liv Nilsson Stutz’s book/thesis “Embodied Rituals and Ritualized Bodies” might be an interesting read. It explores Mesolithic burials primarily through the lens of archaeothanatology. If I’m not mistaken, she was a student of Duday, and I believe that much of her work deals with the methods of archaeothanatology and it’s applications. She teaches at Emory University.

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