Taphonomy is the study of how organisms decay and become altered following their death. Understanding how this process manifests in human burials during the excavation is extremely important, and can lead to much improved interpretations of the burials if done properly. I’ve discussed before how careful analysis of taphonomic process is part of the archaeological excavation method known as archaeothanatology, and also some of the reasons why bone preserves differently due to taphonomic processes. In this post, the focus is on a new journal article that proposes a careful examination at the taphonomy associated with Pre-Pottery Neolithic burials from the Near East can reveal patterns in what was thought to be random variation of burials.
Burials from the Neolithic period in the Near East show increasing variation in burial practices as farming is slowly introduced. As the economy shifted towards food production, burials became increasingly associated with household structures, with humans buried within them and the practice of modeling plaster over exhumed crania. Overall, with the shift from Early to Late Neolithic, there appears to be a trend of variability rather than standard practices in this region. Ortiz, Chambon, and Molist (2013) examine the burials from Tell Halula in the Middle Euphrates Valley, a Pre-Pottery Neolithic B site. Their initial examination of the site’s mortuary assemblage seemed to support the general trend of variation of burial methods, with skeletons ranging from fully-articulated to completely disassembled. However, they employed a careful archaethanatological approach and discovered this variation is not due to social behavior but rather post-depositional processes. They propose that the culture living at Tell Halula did not follow the trend of variation, and had highly standard methods of burial.
The goal of archaeothanatology is to reconstruct the social behavior and attitudes towards the deceased by employing excavation and analytical methods that focus on taphonomic changes associated with the management and treatment of the human remains after death (Duday, 2009: 6). This includes interpretation and examination of the timeline of decay and disarticulation, the available space for decomposition and natural movement of the remains, and the original versus discovered position of the individual within the grave. This approach is well suited towards Ortiz, Chambon, and Molist’s (2013) study as they propose to examine seated burials, a unique practice that has high potential for disarticulation with decomposition. The discovery of these seated burials meant a new excavation strategy. The traditional horizontal burial can be completely revealed by the slow removal of layers, however a seated burial cannot be revealed in the same way and must be excavated in vertical layers to reveal the body position of the individual. By employing this method, they were able to add to the overall timeline of changes in funerary practices at Tell Halula.
Ortiz, Chambon, and Molist (2013) examine three burials in particular. The first is of a well preserved and articulated adult, deposited in an up-right seated position with the upper and lower limbs flexed into the torso. The remains were found with some stone beads and textiles. The second individual is a young adult female who is less well articulated though maintains overall anatomical position. The post-cranial remains have shifted downwards and away from the center of the individual, most disarticulated being the upper limbs and torso, with the vertebral column completely collapsed into the pelvis. The final individual is a completely disarticulated child. The skull was kept in its upright position, but the remaining bones are found at the bottom of the grave overlying one another though maintaining some anatomical coherence. The child was found with a pendant. It is thought that based on the presence of textiles and basketry materials that all individuals were in some type of burial container.
The archaeologists propose that all three individuals were buried in similar manners, and the difference in articulation is due to a number of factors including the type and size of container, the available space for decomposition due to the original volume of the body (larger individuals have more potential room for movement once the flesh is gone), and the presence of other objects in the grave. They argue that “While the preservation of skeletal articulation is generally considered a requirement to convincingly demonstrate primary burial, it is not correct to use the absence of articulation to exclude the possibility of a primary burial” (Ortiz, Chambon, and Molist 2013:4156). Disarticulation of these remains was not due to secondary handling, but rather is due to natural movement of the body during decomposition of the flesh and burial container. One of the major discoveries was that in all cases the skull and post-cranial skeleton became disarticulated due to natural processes and are not part of the widely documented Pre-Pottery Neolithic practice of skull removal. The archaeologists suggest therefore that it may be important to re-analyze previously interpreted isolated skulls and disarticulated bones from this region and period. It is possible that the practice of skull removal may actually be related to post-depositional changes associated with seated burials.
This is a very interesting and well done study that challenges both our methods of excavation and interpretations. By taking a different approach to excavating these burials, they were able to learn new information about the funerary process and introduce doubt into what initial interpretations of these burials were. I would highly suggest reading the complete article to read exactly how they did this study and the merit of the approach. Archaethanatology is a difficult but important approach that has the potential to reveal new insight into funerary practices and social attitudes towards death.