There is a joke among archaeologists about the use of the term ‘ritual’. Basically, it seems to be a common thing that when an archaeologist can’t understand a site, when behavior is unique or when something unusually is found it is commonly described as relating to some type of ritualistic behavior. So if we have a society that buries all their trash around their houses, and then we find a trash pit on the outskirts of the settlement- this trash pit is said to be part of a ritual due to its uniqueness. Of course, not all archaeologists do that, and many of us are highly aware that just because it is a new find, it doesn’t mean its unique- it may just mean we haven’t found the other examples yet. It is important to look at all the available evidence from the site and interpret the evidence on the specific local and regional context. What appears ritual may be something more common than you think.
A great example of this is discussed in a new journal article by Colard et al. (2014). In their study, they examine the skeletal remains of two individuals as well as some cattle bones that were found at the site of Duisans ‘La Seche-Ep ee ’ in France. The site dates to the ‘La Tene A’ period (500-400 BC). Pit burials are common in this region and time period, and the human remains were usually deposited with little artifacts. Burials in general during this period varied by the local context, and can be quite diverse- causing interpretation of the specific meaning of different types of burials to be difficult. The pit under investigation was three meters in diameter and 1 meter deep, and was the largest of the ones found at this site. Two sets of human remains were found in the pit, and both are incomplete and partially disarticulated (meaning their bones are separated at the joints and no longer lying as they would have in life). One skeleton was found lying face down, while the other was lying on its back.
D1, the face down skeleton, is a young male around 20-25 years old. His bones reveal a number of traumatic and taphonomic lesions (traumatic were caused in life, taphonomic were caused following burial). There was evidence of sharp force trauma in the lumbar vertebrae, suggesting that near time of death, the individual was stabbed in the lower back. Scratch marks and punctures from sharp teeth were found on the ends of the humerus and tibia. Unlike the damage to the back that showed sharp distinctive blade marks, the humerus and tibia showed rounded marks that were caused by canid teeth. D2, the individual lying on their back, is a mature male that was about 45-50 years old. There was no clear evidence for trauma. However, there are numerous puncture marks and scraping indicative of canine scavenging on the femur and hip bones.
The evidence from this raises some interesting questions about the nature of the burial and post-mortem activity. The presence of bite marks indicates the the loss of bones and damage of the skeleton by canines that were scavenging. It is highly likely this was done by hungry dogs, wolves or foxes. Often these animals when starving will eat the deceased remains of any living creature, usually taking parts of the long bones with them in the process. The question is whether this scavenging was intentional, as a sign of desecration and exclusion from the general society, or was it part of the normal funerary behavior? Colard et al. (2014) propose that the two individuals died of likely violent deaths, and were exposed in a temporary burial location over a period of months where their remains were scavenged by some type of wild dog. Whether it was intentional or accidental is unknown. Later, what was left of them, was reburied in a more formal pit. Most burials from this period are not disturbed and none show canine teeth marks.
Based on comparison with other contemporary sites, the presence of scavenging could be an accident that occurred during a ritual reburial, part of a deviant burial practice whereby these individuals were exposed to the elements as a sign of disrespect, or it could be that they died far away, were scavenged, and the society recovered what they could for a proper burial. It is important that we look at the full range of possible explanations for this type of behavior, and don’t assume it was a ritual of disrespect. Not all burials go according to plan, and the unique burial and bite marks may have been completely an accident.
Colard, T., Delannoy, Y., Naji, S., Rottier, S., & Blondiaux, J. (2014). The utilisation of carnivore scavenging evidence in the interpretation of a protohistoric French pit burial Journal of Archaeological Science, 52, 108-115 DOI: 10.1016/j.jas.2014.08.013