Bones Chewed by Canids as Evidence for Human Excarnation: A British Case Study

By Smith, Martin | Antiquity, September 2006 | Go to article overview

Bones Chewed by Canids as Evidence for Human Excarnation: A British Case Study


Smith, Martin, Antiquity


Introduction

The possibility of corpse exposure as a component of earlier Neolithic mortuary practice has long been suspected, although specific evidence for such a practice has been slow to emerge until quite recently. Scott's (1992) survey of possible excarnation structures argues convincingly for the existence of raised platforms at a number of sites in Britain both close to and sometimes later incorporated within, more substantial funerary monuments. He cites several examples where such structures may have collapsed, after which human remains fell to the ground. Scott further notes that such remains are frequently incomplete, particularly as regards the small bones of the hands and feet and argues this to be consistent with excarnation. Several further identifications of possible excarnation sites have since been made in various parts of Britain including Balfarg (Barclay & Russell-White 1993), Longstone Edge (Archaeology Review 1996-97), Bannockburn (Rideout 1997), Berstness (Denison 2000), and Langford (Garton et al. 1997). Conversely the skeleton found beneath the outer bank at Windmill Hill (Whittle 1990) provides clear evidence of corpse exposure at ground level. This adult skeleton had apparently been deposited in an articulated state. The scattering of certain elements (notably the bones of the left leg) led Whittle to conclude that the corpse must have lain exposed at least until the soft tissues had decayed, before being later sealed beneath the enclosure bank.

More recently, human bone from this period exhibiting damage consistent with scavenging has been noted at several sites. Amongst the assemblage from the Cotswold-Severn monument at Parc le Breos Cwm, Glamorgan, approximately 50 per cent of the material from the transepts exhibited destruction consistent with scavenging by large mammals (Wysocki & Whittle 1998). The scavenged material was weathered, as opposed to material from the passage, which was neither weathered nor scavenged. This was taken to suggest differential treatment of these two samples (Wysocki & Whittle 1998). Certainly, the apparent differences in the taphonomic history of these two groups would suggest that the scavenging was related to funerary practice, rather than animals simply gaining access to the chambers. Gnawing by canids was also noted on a quantity of the human bone from Hambledon Hill, some of which appears to have occurred whilst material was still in articulation (Mercer & Healy 2004). At the causewayed enclosure at Etton, more than 50 per cent of the human bone found in the ditch fills had been scavenged by carnivores, suggested to be either dogs or foxes (Armour-Chelu 1998). The material illustrated from Etton (Armour-Chelu 1998: fig. 242) exhibits similar damage to that observed at Adlestrop. This contrasts with animal bone from the same site, of which only four per cent bore evidence of canid gnawing. Again, this suggests some differential form of treatment being given to the human bone, also implying that if people had not been 'willing' for such scavenging to take place, access to corpses could easily have been prevented.

In this investigation, bones from a Neolithic barrow in Britain were examined to elucidate their post-mortem history.

Adlestrop Barrow

Adlestrop Barrow is an earlier Neolithic funerary monument of local (Cotswold-Severn) type, excavated between 1935 and 1938. During these investigations a quantity of human remains was recovered. Re-examination of this skeletal material during 2003 has produced a variety of new data which have provided fresh insights into funerary practice both at this site and for other Neolithic funerary contexts. A particularly significant aspect is the large proportion of material that appears to have been scavenged by carnivores. Dogs may have been among such carnivores, and the bone assemblages in local mortuary practice also commonly include the remains of dogs. …

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