Getting a grip on Archaeothanatology

Just this week, news agencies have been reporting about a burial containing two skeletons purportedly holding hands.  See ABC’s news story here.  Determining if, in fact, these two individuals were buried with hands gripping each other requires precise and careful excavation and observation of the location and arrangement of the existing remains. Of course, the absence of bones of the hands in this photo makes such observations impossible as pointed out by Dr. Kristina Killgrove in her blog post on Powered by Osteons.  Dr. Killgrove has posted on this hand-holding phenomena before (see here).

PHOTO: Archaeologists from the University of Leicester Archaeological Services and local volunteers have uncovered the 14th century remains of a man and a woman outside the village of Hallaton in east Leicestershire, England.

As luck would have it, my Anthropology of Death class is reading (actually, they should have read by now) a wonderful article by Christopher J. Knüsel entitled: Crouching in fear: Terms of engagement for funerary remains (Journal of Social Archaeology February 2014 vol. 14 no. 1 26-58).  Knüsel’s article is an excellent discussion of the ambiguity in the terms bioarchaeologists use in describing the arrangement and in situ positioning of skeletal remains.  This ambiguity leads to uncertainty and difficulty in comparisons of funerary treatments between researchers, projects, etc.  Knüsel also does an excellent job introducing Archaeothanatology, an approach advocated by Henri Duday.  As Knüsel (2014: 3) remarks: “The basic premise underlying archaeothanatology is that the position of skeletal remains upon recovery does not reflect the original placement of the fleshed corpse at the time of burial.”  Archaeothanatology involves the careful excavation, recording, and analysis of human skeletal remains in order to identify signs of funerary behavior and taphonomic processes.  One might think that careful observation and excavation is a hallmark of bioarchaeology.  Well it certainly is when done right.  Where the archaeothanatology approach is useful, to my mind, is in focusing our attention to the sorts of things that our careful excavations and observations can tell us about the processes that happened from the moment of internment to the moment of excavation.  If we can reconstruct this process (which is mostly biological [decomposition] and taphonomic), then we can better reconstruct the moment of the burial (which has considerable cultural content).  Knüsel call for explicit and unambiguous descriptive terminology and the application of the archaeothanatology approach has a great deal to offer bioarchaeology.

Until such time as we get this sort of detailed and nuanced description of these skeletons, I’ll reserve judgement on the hand-holding conclusion.





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