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.
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.
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.
Harris, 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.