SAA Session Summaries and Overview

Over this past weekend I was attending the Society for American Archaeology conference in Memphis, TN. Other than the symposium that I was a part of on unique burials and mortuary contexts, there were a number of great mortuary related presentations throughout the rest of the weekend.

Symposium: Mortuary Practices in the American Southwest

Watson and Byrd discussed mortuary practices of the early agricultural period in the Sonoran Desert. They argue that there are increasing changes in identity with the introduction of agriculture which are reflected in burial practices. The burial forms for this period are fairly similar, with a few deviant ones. The common burial format and similar grave goods is support that there was a common communal identity which aided in creating solidarity. Agriculture means increased competition over land, so solidarity within the corporate group was important.

Cerezo-Roman examined identities in the Hohokam Area of Southern Arizona during the Preclassic and Classic transition. She argued that by using the bioprofile, treatment and context of burials we can better understand the identity of the individuals. The most common form of treatment is secondary cremation. She proposes that this was a way of creating inalienable possessions, which would create ties between networks of mourners. Over time this process of distributing remains to create a community declines.

Rakita discussed the mortuary practices at Casas Grandes. He takes a long term perspective in order to understand the diversity and modes of burial. Looking at 512 burials over 12 sites, he determines that location is extremely important. The biggest change in practice is in the handling of remains, with secondary handling increasing drastically in one period. Overall, his analysis reveals the trends in this area and how burial changed over time.

Session: Stone Street Excavation

This was an interesting session discussing the excavation and reburial of a Native American cemetery in Flint, Michigan. During a construction project to create new housing, a number of human bones were found while dirt was being removed to make the basements. The bones were analyzed by a forensic anthropologist who determined they were Native American. Due to this, the Saginaw-Chippewa were called in to handle the removal and reburial. Over a number of years they removed dozens of burials that were found with artifacts dating from the middle woodland to historic period. Newspapers believed that this was a burial ground from a battle between tribes during the 17th century, however the analysis showed no signs of war trauma, a demographic representative of a normal population, and was used over centuries. What was so interesting about the project is that there was constant interaction and collaboration between the archaeologists and the descendant tribe. Throughout the talk this collaboration and community involvement was consistently referred to.

Session: Research on the Maya in Belize

Stewart, Herrmann and Wrobel take a geographic information systems (GIS) approach towards examining skeletal remains from the Caves Branch Rockshelter. Instead of doing traditional mapping of the commingled remains or just counting based on skeletal elements, they use GIS to map the bones. By doing this they are able to determine how many types of each bone and the number of individuals. Comparing it against the traditional methods showed that overall it was slightly less accurate, but still provided a new and more dynamic way of addressing commingled remains found in caves.

Michael, Harvey, Burbank, Hanson and Wrobel discussed the mortuary patterns and use of space at the Sapodilla Rockshelter in Belize. They examined the remains of individuals based on spatial location to the different areas of lightness in the cave. Burials were labeled as light, liminal or dark depending on the amount of natural light that was given to them. For the most part, the full burials were in the light area, and the dark contained no cultural or biological material. Based on the use and grave goods, they argue that this site was a formal burial area used by non-elites.

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