2

THE NATURE OF AN ARCHAEOLOGICAL HUMAN BONE ASSEMBLAGE

There are many ways to dispose of a dead body. The great variety of funerary practices used routinely by human groups around the world bears witness to this (Kroeber 1927; Ucko 1969). Many of these, such as disposal in rivers, exposure in trees or on platforms, or abandoning the corpse to be eaten by wild animals, would leave little trace in the archaeological record. Only if ancient funerary rituals culminated in the burial of human remains beneath the soil or within a tomb would they usually survive down the centuries to be studied by archaeologists.

In many instances burials simply involve the straightforward interment of a corpse, so that when it is excavated by archaeologists it is found as a discrete, articulated skeleton. In other cases there may be some pre-treatment accorded to the body before burial. For example, provided there has been no post-depositional disturbance, commingled, disarticulated bones indicate that the flesh had been allowed to rot or had been otherwise removed prior to burial of the bones. As we shall see this type of burial treatment was practised by some earlier human populations. Archaeological finds of burnt human bone show that cremation was another funerary practice used at various periods in antiquity.

Before attempting to infer anything about a past human group from a collection of bones (often termed an assemblage) excavated from an archaeological site, we need to consider the relationship between the assemblage and the ancient human group from which it is derived. The aim of this chapter is to discuss some of the factors which affect the composition of an assemblage of human bones from an archaeological site. They can be divided into two groups (Figure 2.1). Firstly there are those over which archaeologists have no control, including the mortality patterns of the ancient human group and the nature of their burial practices, and losses of bones due to destruction in the soil. A second set relates to excavation strategy and techniques, and so can, to a greater or lesser extent, be controlled by archaeologists.

As we move down Figure 2.1 each successive factor potentially introduces another set of losses and biases into the assemblage, so that each stage in the diagram represents but a sub-sample of the preceding one.

Biases introduced as a result of the archaeologists’ strategy and excavation methods can be viewed as inconvenient ‘noise’ tending to obscure patterning in the remains which might otherwise tell us about ancient life-styles. The strategy of excavators should, where possible, be to try to minimise the effects of these biases on the assemblage.

The factors outside archaeologists’ control can likewise be thought of as sources of unwanted bias on skeletal data. However, as we shall see, bone losses due to poor survival in the soil to some extent follow predictable patterns, so can to a degree be allowed for in data analysis. Factors associated with ancient burial practices can, if recognised and given appropriate consideration, provide us with additional information from our assemblage.

The other factor listed in Figure 2.1 which is outside archaeologists’ control is that of mortality.

-13-

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The Archaeology of Human Bones
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Figures viii
  • Tables xii
  • Preface xiii
  • 1 - The Nature of Bones and Teeth 1
  • 2 - The Nature of an Archaeological Human Bone Assemblage 13
  • 3 - The Determination of Age and Sex 33
  • 4 - Metric Variation 74
  • 5 - Non-Metric Variation 102
  • 6 - Bone Disease 122
  • 7 - Dental Disease 146
  • 8 - Traces of Injury on the Skeleton 162
  • 9 - Chemical Analysis of Bone 182
  • 10 - The Study of Dna from Ancient Bones 197
  • 11 - Cremated Bone 207
  • Bibliography 225
  • Index 240
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