Burials, Bones and Behaviour: Integrated Approaches to Mortuary Archaeology

Burials, Bones and Behaviour: Integrated Approaches to Mortuary Archaeology

Elizabeth Lawton-Matthews (University of Groningen, e.lawton-matthews@rug.nl)

Karla de Roest (University of Groningen, k.de.roest@rug.nl)

Archaeology has focused on mortuary contexts since its inception. Prominent burial monuments were a focus point for the earliest antiquarians, and formed the basis for our understandings of how past societies approached death and burial. Moreover, mortuary contexts not only provide information on how people dealt with death, they also form a valuable resource for reconstructing the ways in which people lived.

Today, technical advances made in the study of osteology and forensic archaeology allow for more detailed study of past peoples and their lifestyle than ever before. While there is a long history of engagement with burial remains and material, less emphasis has been placed on the importance of the integration of these approaches and the theoretical implications of such an integrated approach.

In this session, we aim to encourage discussion between researchers interested in cultural, cognitive, and emotional aspects of burial practices and those scholars using human remains as a data source for lifestyle and population studies. We argue that advances in mortuary archaeology are best served by the integration of both ‘traditional’ funerary archaeology and recent developments in lifestyle and population studies. We invite researchers from these different backgrounds to explore the possibilities, but certainly also the limits, of combining forces in gaining a better understanding of life and death in the past.

Keywords: mortuary archaeology; funerary studies; integrative approaches



The ‘Scientific Revolution’ Eradicates Simplistic Behavioural Explanations. Or Not? Analysis of the Renewed Migration Debate in Archaeology

Karla de Roest (Groningen Institute of Archaeology, University of Groningen, k.de.roest@rug.nl))

Migration has always been a key topic in archaeology. Seemingly, we have come a long way from diffusionism to aDNA and isotope studies. Recurring questions whether pots, people, or ideas travelled, can now be approached by examining human remains in ever more detail. However, it seems that with this ‘scientific revolution’, questions raised in interpretive archaeologies (post-processual approaches) are put on hold and the outcome of integrated studies often lacks theoretical concerns.

In this paper, some of these theoretical and conceptual issues are demonstrated with the aim to seek explanations and possible solutions for the apparent divide between the two types of research(ers). One of the underlying problems is that archaeologists do not always fully understand scientific approaches and, conversely, scholars working in laboratories are not thoroughly trained in archaeology; creating a gap that regrettably widens as a result of having to publish in specialist journals.


Deconstructing Dichotomies: New Questions on Burial Practice in Iron Age Britain

Reanna S. Phillips (University of Chester, 1621079@chester.ac.uk)

In response to the wide diversity and apparent ‘invisibility’ of Iron Age burial practice in Britain, previous scholars have established a convention of definitive categorizations regarding mortuary contexts (i.e. crouched/extended, native/continental). These rigid, dichotomized approaches continue to pervade and restrict modern interpretations. Mortuary archaeologists must break beyond conventional categorizations, analysing each burial context as an individual event and interpreting the entire funerary process, treatment of the body, and roles of the mourners. Burials were not passive reflections of cultural ideals, but active negotiations of identity, relationships, and social memory.

This study questions previous analyses, deconstructs conventional dichotomies, and advocates for integrative, dynamic approaches to burial practice in Iron Age Britain. Using specific examples of burial contexts, this presentation will examine the location, body positioning, and manipulation of remains, exploring the relationship of funerary performance, social memory, and identities of the living and deceased.


2018 – A Spatial Odyssey: An Assemblage-Methodology of Early Medieval Mortuary Rites in Practice

Abigail C. Górkiewicz Downer (University of Chester, 1619549@chester.ac.uk)

Spatial context is certainly not new to mortuary archaeological research with its primary emergence from the post-processual paradigm of the 1980s. This has been explored by early medievalists Ellen J. Pader (1982), Heinrich Härke (1992), Nick Stoodley (1999), and Sam Lucy (1999) while Joanna Brück and Laurent Olivier have explored these topics in prehistoric European mortuary. However, these publications have failed to consider the importance of internal grave spatial context fully and apply methods that can illuminate spatial difference underlining its importance in illuminating past funerary practices. My research has developed a revised and novel way of approaching spatial context that expands from these publications. My approach emphasises the nuanced spatial positioning of internal grave elements and relationally-informed identities of material culture that illuminate similarities and differences in burial artefacts cross-regionally through correspondence analysis and cluster analysis.

Humanity in a Period of High Juvenile Mortality. Personalised Burial in a Secular Medieval Graveyard in Poulton, Cheshire

Kevin Cootes (Liverpool John Moores University, K.V.Cootes@ljmu.ac.uk or kvecootes@hotmail.co.uk)

In 1995, a student training excavation was founded at Poulton, Cheshire, in response to the discovery of decorated Medieval floor tiles by the landowner. Historical research established the presence of a short-lived Cistercian Abbey during the 12th/13th century, offering the unique opportunity to reveal such a structure in its initial form. Archaeological investigations, however, revealed a small rural chapel with associated secular graveyard; comprising the burial ground of the farmers and their families who worked the land for the monks.

Over 900 skeletons have been excavated over the past two decades and analysed at Liverpool John Moores University, revealing approximately 50% of the population died before adulthood. Even with such high mortality and strict Christian burial practices, five examples deviate from the norm, all of which comprise children. This paper explores those individuals and seeks to explain the reason behind such differences.


Dead Competitive: Social Memory and Heirlooms within Early Medieval Burials

Brian Costello (University of Chester, b.costello@chester.ac.uk)

From the 5th-7th centuries AD, Anglo-Saxon inhumations were furnished with grave-goods to either display or idealise the identity of the deceased. While grave contexts demonstrate generally rigid adherence to social protocols in aspects of grave good inclusion and body positioning, the inequality of the number and type of objects created individuality within a socially competitive environment.

Previous discussions have demonstrated that the objects placed in the grave acted as mnemonic devices and enhanced collective remembrance of the mourners attending the funeral. In some burials, objects with extended biographies, such as heirlooms, were included within the grave assemblage. The visual presence of these curated objects amplified the social remembrance of the mourners participating in the funeral. Using examples from 5th-7th century AD Kentish cemeteries, this paper interprets and compares graves containing curated objects to other burials within cemeteries to interpret their individual effect on social remembrance.


Burials, Bones and (Un)Ethical Behaviours in the Public Archaeology of Death

Howard Williams (University of Chester, howard.williams@chester.ac.uk

Mortuary archaeology faces multiple new ethical challenges in the era of ‘fake news’ and popular pseudoarchaeology. Debates focusing on the ethics of fieldwork, displaying and curating human remains and mortuary contexts have burgeoned. Yet wider questions about how we talk about, write about and envision mortuary remains, in both traditional and digital media, for both academic and popular environments, remain to be extensively evaluated. I suggest that many reasonable and well-intentioned museum and academic archaeologists are exhibiting flagrantly uncritical, and sometimes deeply unethical, behaviours in literature aimed at both specialists and popular audiences. While wishing not to ‘name and shame’, I suggest challenges are particular acute at the interface of ‘scientific data’ and archaeological inference. I therefore illustrate my argument with recent instances from the field of early medieval archaeology, which isolate some of the key challenges faced in our variegated endeavours to communicate our research, including creating demonstrable ‘impact’, and serving as public intellectuals in the early 21st century.


Discussion on Integrated Approaches

Elizabeth M. Lawton-Matthews (University of Groningen, e.lawton-matthews@rug.nl)