Archaeothanatology, or anthropologie de terrain, is a 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. Previously, I’ve discussed the use of archaeothanatology to infer burial containers that were not preserved. By examining the configuration of the bones and the burial context, Harris and Tayles (2012) were able to determine the shape of the burial container, even though there weren’t any actual remnants of the wood left. A new study by Littleton et al. (2012) uses this method in order to better understand the role of khirigsuurs, a distinctive type of Mongolian burial mound.
The role of khirigsuurs has been heavily debated. They are distinctive stone built monuments found on the Mongolian steppe, and are associated with the practices of the late Bronze Age peoples (3500-2700 years ago). They are made primarily of local stone, and are highly variable in size and construction. There is usually a large central chamber, covering mound and a surrounding fence. It is unknown whether these were built purely as monuments or as symbolic burial places. A previous study by Wright (2007) compared these monuments across the region in order to determine similarities in structure and activities occurring at the monument. Looking at artifacts and skeletal remains inside the monuments showed that there was wide diversity of activities. Not all mounds had human remains found at them, though this doesn’t mean they didn’t have important funerary or ancestral meaning. He examined the footprint of the monuments as well as additional components in order to compare construction, finding that there were similarities despite external idiosyncrasies. He also found that they were regularly revisited and expanded, not individual construction events. Based on his findings, Wright (2012) concluded that these were meant to reaffirm group identity rather than commemorate elite individuals. However, this study doesn’t tell us the relationship of the skeletal remains found inside to the monuments or group identity.
Littleton et al. (2012) argue that the khirigsuurs’ primary function was funerary, and through a systematic analysis of the skeletal preservation this hypothesis can be proven. They excavated 35 khirigsuurs using the archaeothanatology method. Following this, they were careful to note any signs of disturbance in the mound, either human, animal or natural. All human remains found were exposed and carefully recorded in situ to note burial integrity, body orientation, and burial dimensions. The goal was to determine the relationship between external conditions and the preservation/articulation of the skeletal remains. The external conditions examined included intrinsic conditions (nature and location of the grave including slope and location in ground, biological traits of the individual interred) and extrinsic conditions (human or animal activity after burial, burning, burrowing, root disturbance). The preservation and articulation were numerically scored so they could be compared against the conditions.
Based on the results of the analysis between conditions of burial and preservation, they argue that the primary function of the khirigsuurs was as burial mounds. The reason that this conclusion had been previously disputed was a lack of human remains in the mounds. However, they found that preservation within the mounds is highly variable and correlates with certain conditions. Human remains were more likely to be recovered in khirigsuurs that were located on flat ground and had intact capstones. Conversely, when capstones were disturbed and the mounds were constructed on slopes it was less likely that the remains were intact. In addition to this, they found that the skeletal elements found in the mounds were those that were most likely to survive poor preservation conditions- adult long and flat bones with high amount of cortical (compact) hard tissue, rather than subadult cancellous (spongy) dominated bones.
By examining the taphonomy of the grave they are able to determine the reason that there is variation in bone preservation of the khirigsuurs as well as determine their primary function. Studies like this are important because they aim to determine the original context of the burial. It is quite easy to look at the archaeological site and interpret it as the final burial location, but this direct observation ignores the fact that over time the original context of the burial has changed. As a body decomposes it will shift its position in the ground. Over time the mounds will change, allowing for animals to disturb the remains or weather conditions to erode and shift soil. The goal of archaeology isn’t to interpret the site as we find it, but rather to determine what the original conditions of the burial were and interpret from there.
Wright, Joshua (2007). Organizational principles of Khirigsuur monuments in the lower Egiin Gol valley, Mongolia Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, 26 DOI: 10.1016/j.jaa.2007.04.001
Littleton, J, Floyd, B, Frohlich, B, Dickson, M, Amgalantogs, T, Karstens, S, & Pearlstein, K (2012). Taphonomic analysis of Bronze Age burials in Mongolian khirigsuurs Journal of Archaeological Science, 39 DOI: 10.1016/j.jas.2012.06.004