SAA2015: Bioarchaeology and Mortuary Archaeology of Europe

This past week, I’ve been at the Society for American Archaeology meeting in San Francisco, CA. Sadly, many of the interesting mortuary and bioarchaeology sessions overlapped with one another so I wasn’t able to attend as many of the talks as I was hoping, but I did learn about a wide range of new exciting research initiatives and interpretations. Today I’m going to share a selection interesting research from the “Bioarchaeology and Mortuary Archaeology of Europe” oral presentation session that took place Saturday, April 18 from 1-3:15 pm. While all the presentations were fascinating, I wasn’t able to cover each one so apologies to those who I couldn’t cover!

“Commingled, communal and complex: reconstructing Iberian Copper Age mortuary practices” by Jess Beck (also the fantastic author of Bone Broke Blog)

Beck discussed her ongoing research on the mortuary practices of the Iberian Copper Age, a coastal area of Spain. She examined three different necropoli within this region and period, and found that most of the material was commingled. Commingled means that the remains of different individuals were mixed together, either due to disturbance or secondary burial practices. Interpreted remains that have been mixed together like this can be very difficult, and it changes the way that we interpret the site. Of the three sites and over 700 lbs of material, Beck has analyzed two of the necropoli completely and the dental material at the third one (which is super impressive).

The questions Beck addressed for the presentation are 1) are sub adults included in same mortuary practices as adults, and 2) can we reconstruct mortuary practices using dentition alone? In regards to her first question, Beck analyzed the percentage of different bones found for both adults and subadults, and determined that the anatomical presence and percentage of bones found supports the interpretation that both subadults and adults received similar primary and secondary burial. To the second question, variation in dentition allowed for some preliminary conclusions to be drawn about these different populations from dental elements alone. She concludes that fragmentary and dental remains can tell us a lot about past populations and we need to create more methods to do this.

Being able to interpret burial practices from teeth alone is a huge methodological step for archaeologists. Due to preservation or destruction, we may only find fragments or teeth from a burial, and we need to know how to use this. Beck’s work will be an important step in creating these much-needed methods and I look forward to seeing the final dissertation!

“Early Medieval Landscapes of the Dead: The Monumental Pictish Barrows of North-East Scotland” by Juliette Mitchell and Gordon Noble

Mitchell and Noble discussed their ongoing research into the Picts. The Picts were a tribal confederation that lived in Northern and Eastern Scotland, and are ethnolinguistically Celtic (i.e. used Celtic type language). The Picts are best known through the texts written about them by the Imperial Romans, who described them as barbaric and war-like tribal groups, and most famously portrayed them as the painted or tattooed people. We also know that after the mid-9th century they begin developing kingdoms. However, there is little evidence of what the Picts were like from the 5th to 9th centuries CE. Mitchell and Noble argue that examining their burial structures could help to better understand the social and political structures in this period.

The Picts buried their dead in barrows. Barrows are mounds of earth and stone that are raised up over burials. Barrow type mortuary structures are not rare for the UK, but were only used in limited periods for specific groups of people. These types of burial take enormous amounts of effort and manpower to create, so it is thought that they were only used for elite members of society. Further, the remains found within them are not numerous enough to represent the full population.

Mitchell and Noble set out to establish the number and distribution of barrow sites within Northern and Eastern Scotland. Their goals are to create a gazetteer of the barrow sites (compilation of sites with descriptions and locations) which would help them to be recognized and protected, and further, they want to examine the landscape setting and organization of these barrows in order to understand why they were placed on the landscape in specific locations and what monumental role they may have played.

They examined 26 certain and probable Pictish barrows for their landscape study using Geographic Information Systems (GIS). The database included location of the barrow, information from the excavation, descriptions about shape and size, and photos of the barrows. Based on their relative locations on the landscape and proximity to one another, Mitchell and Noble argue that these were used to mark out territories and commemorate elite individuals. They argue that these cemeteries were important political statements on the landscape, likely were used to control trade routes, and marked control over land. Barrows were more than just burials, they were markers of authority.

“Till Death Do Us Part: A Bioarchaeological Investigation of Female Kinship Ties in Early Medieval Ireland” by Niamh Daly

    Daly compared the burial patterns of individuals against textual sources in order to better interpret the movement of women in the Early Medieval Ireland (400-1200 CE). She notes that during this period, the region was primarily made up of rural settlements that were enclosed for defensive purposes. These settlements were organized around kinship, and when the power structures expanded, there was still a focus on patrilineal heritage. With the focus so strongly on men, Daly hopes that by examining the burials, we can better understand the roles and behavior of women in this period.

Text from Early Medieval Ireland describes marriage rules, as well as what occurs in the event of a divorce or death. The focus in these documents is kin-based ties that are built through blood, not through marriage. A woman in this period was part of her father’s group, and at marriage, would become a member of both her father’s and her husband’s, although she would reside with her husband. At death, the husband and wife were not buried together, rather than were each buried with their own kin group. Women would be sent back to be buried with the people of her father.

Daly used stable isotope analysis in order to determine whether this movement of women would play out in the human remains. She examined a case study group in Kildare from Corbally. These included earthen unfurnished burials, a common form during this period. She found that from the stable isotope analysis that both men and women seemed to be moving across the landscape at different times in their lives. This means that women were buried in a different location from which they spent their married lives, but what does this mean for men? Daly argues that men would have moved in a process called fosterage, where men would be raised in another settlement in order to develop skills that were appropriate to their rank. The practice of fosterage in medieval Ireland is well-documented, and may account for this movement. It will be interesting to watch these results develop further as Daly continues her research.

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