Representing Children in Excavated Cemeteries: The Intrinsic Preservation Factors

Article excerpt



The analysis of excavated human remains offers major rewards for archaeology and anthropology, bur is significantly affected by the preservation of the bone. Poor bone preservation inhibits the determination of age, sex, morbidity and mortality and distorts demographic profiles (Walker et al. 1988; Mays 1992; Guy & Masset 1997; Guy et al. 1997; Kamp 2001; Hopa & Vaupel 2002; Bello et al. 2002a & b, 2006; Bello 2005; Bello & Andrews 2006; Shea 2006). Poor preservation particularly affects the visibility of children in a community, even perhaps lessening the interest of anthropologists in their study (Kamp 2001; Shea 2006; Lewis 2007).

The degree of preservation depends both on extrinsic factors (the character of the terrain and type of burial) and intrinsic factors (the character of the bone). Extrinsic factors include the geological environment of a site, the nature of the local flora and fauna and human activities (Gordon & Buikstra 1981; Lambert et al. 1985; Henderson 1987; Garland & Janaway 1989; Klein 1989; Haglund & Sorg 1997, 2002; Karkanas et al. 1999; Nielsen-Marsh & Hedges 2000; Stiner et al. 2001; Tuller & Duric 2006; Smith et al. 2007; Lee-Thorp & Sealy 2008). Soil chemistry is believed to be the most influential extrinsic factor in bone diagenesis (Garland & Janaway 1989), in particular the acidity (pH value) of the local soil (Gordon & Buikstra 1981). In addition, preservation may be dependent on the burial rite (Henderson 1987; Klein 1989; Lewis 2007), and the subsequent processes of archaeological excavation, cleaning and curation (Henderson 1987; Klein 1989; Galloway et al. 1997; Tuller & Duric 2006; Lewis 2007).

Intrinsic factors have attracted less attention in preservation studies (Bouchud 1977; Von Endt & Ortner 1984; Lyman 1996; Willey et al. 1997; Bello et al. 2002, 2006; Duric et al. 2004). Authors often suggest that small size, high porosity, lower mineralisation and high organic content of children's bones make them more susceptible to taphonomic decay (Buckberry 2000; Bello et al. 2006; Lewis 2007). However, so far there has been no comprehensive study that addresses the influence of intrinsic factors on the preservation of skeletal remains of children.

In this paper we focus on how intrinsic factors influence bone survival. We use a case study to show what archaeologists can expect when excavating skeletons of children, and how to appreciate what may have been lost, given a similar terrain to that we encountered at Stara Torina.


Stara Torina is located in the lowlands of northern Serbia, near the city of Subotica. The late medieval cemetery excavated there provides our case study. The cemetery was associated with the ruins of a church dated to the period between the second half of the ninth and the eleventh century AI). Both were identified during the preparations for the building of highway E-75, and full excavation was carried out in advance of construction. In prehistoric times the area was swampy, given the vicinity of Ludosko Lake. Nowadays, although no longer waterlogged, the soil is relatively wet even during the summer and even at relatively shallow depth. In the excavation, the soil was sandy, loose, uniform and rich in humus, and there were no significant differences in soil composition across the site that could differentially affect the bones. Stratigraphically, all the burials belong to the same horizontal layer and were encountered at about the same depth below the modern day surface, generally between 0.4 and 0.8m. In the graves, skeletons were laid out horizontally, and there was direct contact with the soil (continuous infilling: Roksandic 2002). In the case of multiple graves, individuals were laid side by side, i.e. they were not in direct physical contact with other individuals in the grave. There were no coffins or grave goods. …