Death – My journey so far

Hi!

As I am new to the project it seemed a perfect opportunity to write a blog post about my work so far, particularly my PhD research, which itself fits neatly into the themes of the COMMIOS project.

Why study the dead?

I have always been fascinated by the amount we can learn from human skeletal remains, and from the ways in which past societies treated their dead. Human remains are THE best and most direct link we have to past peoples, and to be able to study them, to work with them, and to tell their stories is something very special.

Why study the Iron Age?

The Iron Age is an enigmatic period in prehistory – it is a time of cultural shifts, of new practices and developments both in funerary rites and in societal structures. The Iron Age sees myriad changes in material culture, and in settlement forms, most notably the emergence of hillforts, and of monumental brochs in northern Scotland. Perhaps more so than any other period in the archaeology of Britain, big societal questions persist here, and there is a great deal of exciting work being undertaken to tackle them. I have also been a part of excavations on Iron Age sites across Britain, both in commercial and research contexts. I was part of the team that excavated Ham Hill in Somerset, the largest hillfort in the UK, and more recently, I assisted in excavating the first known Iron Age chariot burial in Wales.

My PhD – Death in the East: The Treatment of the Dead in the Iron Age of Eastern Britain

I completed my PhD at Cardiff University in 2021, funded by the AHRC. The project began as the result of reading regional research agendas for eastern Britain, which were calling for the synthesis of excavated Iron Age burials. Among larger published studies though there seemed to be an opinion that this part of Britain held little material (for example, Whimster, 1981 and Harding, 2016). I wanted to see just how much there really was, and whether I could help shed some light on an understudied region. Through extensive data collection, I identified over 1000 deposits of non-cremated human remains, ranging from complete inhumations to single bone fragments. This represented a huge increase in the synthesized data for eastern Britain, and excellent potential for regional analysis of the dead.

Map of the study region for my PhD research, encompassing eight modern county boundaries. Source: Author and Laura Hogg

Integrated methodologies

Much like the COMMIOS project, I wanted to approach this data from multiple perspectives, in order to be as holistic as possible and allow for a greater breadth of understanding. As such, I combined funerary archaeology and contextual data (burial context, position, grave goods etc.) with human osteology (age, sex, stature, trauma and disease) and macroscopic bone taphonomy (weathering, gnawing, trampling, cut marks, polishing etc.), allowing me to conduct cross-comparative analysis of the individuals.

I wanted to use this large-scale data to approach key debates within Iron Age funerary archaeology, namely:

  • The dead are found disarticulated and fragmented on sites across Britain. How is this happening, and why?
  • How do pit burials fit into the spectrum of ‘normative’ and ‘non-normative’ practices?
  • Are ideas of the ‘invisible dead’ in the Iron Age appropriate? If so, where are they?
  • Does eastern Britain exhibit formalized regional funerary rites and how do they compare to other regions?

Results of the study

I identified consistent, widespread evidence for element selection in fragmented human remains – isolated bones of the skull were by far the most commonly recorded, and they were frequently modified; turned into bowls, amulets, or other objects. Second to this were long bones, particularly femora, but they were comparatively much less frequent. There are certainly arguments to be made for the variable survival of different elements, but the presence of cranial fragments was so universal, and is echoed in other regions and on the continent as well (see, for example, Armit, 2012, 2017), that the pattern is convincingly real.

It was also noted that there was an absence of taphonomic markers that would suggest sub-aerial exposure/excarnation practices – very few bones were weathered, or gnawed, or trampled. Again, there are factors of element survival – some elements may be more likely to display taphonomic modifications than others and the weathered remains that survive may be those that were least affected in the assemblage (known as the taphonomic paradox). However, research on a macroscopic and microscopic level elsewhere in Britain (Madgwick, 2008; Booth and Madgwick, 2016; Bricking, forthcoming) is again consistent with the idea that the dead are decaying not out in the open, but in protected environments, where the decay process can be monitored and controlled. Being able to monitor the decay process would allow Iron Age people to more efficiently and successfully recover the bones they required (e.g. skulls) – if the dead were buried (inhumed) then recovery would require exhuming and risking disturbance, loss of bones, and encountering an unfinished decay process. Likewise with excarnation the risks of weathering damage, bone loss and animal scavenging would be high.

The identification of several deposits of partial skeletons suggested  that disarticulation may have taken place in open, but covered, pits. Storage pits are a ubiquitous feature across all southern Britain in the Iron Age, and the deposition of the dead within these pits is equally so:

Chart showing the contexts in which disarticulated remains were identified in the study data – pits make up over half of the total. Source: Author

Storage pits provide a readily available storage location for the decay of the dead, whilst also being controllable, and possessing an established connection to funerary activity (see below). Deposits of partial skeletons or single limbs could represent a stage in this decay process – either the ‘unselected’ remains were deliberately left in the pit, or the rite was unfinished, the partial skeletons representing an interrupted process resulting in the bones never being completely retrieved (see flow chart below). Individuals at sites including Harston Mill, Trumpington Meadows, Godwin Ridge, and Marshall ‘Wing’ (Cambridgeshire) were frequently missing skulls, individual long bones, or consisted only of hands or feet – the bones found most frequently disarticulated (skulls, long bones), and least frequently (hands and feet).

Flow chart showing the possible chain of events/rites leading to the deposition of disarticulated and partial human remains deposits on Iron Age sites. Source: Author

The chart above illustrates the possible multi-stage process that transformed the dead from complete, fleshed bodies, into disarticulated, curated, transportable fragments, turning the deceased from person, into object[1] [2] .  The green box highlights the most plausible and convincing explanation for the ‘invisible dead’ in Iron Age Britain – the dead, already fragmented, could be much more easily dispersed and leave little to no archaeological trace. As well as the findings concerning disarticulated bone, inhumation traditions were found to be structured, widespread and broadly consistent across the whole study region, and also with other parts of southern Britain. Burials in storage pits on settlement sites are easily the most common mode of inhumation through the Early Iron Age, and continue throughout the period (see charts below). The emergence of dedicated inhumation cemeteries and their spread across the region has been tracked both geographically and chronologically, existing alongside earlier pit burial traditions, but not entirely replacing them. These, and smaller regional patterns which were identified in the research, may suggest population movement at this time. Links in funerary rite were found with the Arras culture burials in Yorkshire, and with continental traditions also.

Charts showing the chronological shift in burial practices through the Iron Age, with the upper chart evidencing a proportional decline in crouched pit burials within settlements in the LIA, and the lower showing a related proportional increase in extended grave inhumation in cemeteries at this time. Source: Author.

The osteological data illustrated a representative regional sample. This was impactful for interpreting my funerary data and identifying demographic patterns, but also for ensuring sample validity, and for wider discussions of population health, social structure, and the prevalence of violence.

Publication and future potential

The finished thesis will be available on Cardiff University’s ORCA system later this year, and I am currently working on turning the main body into a monograph. Several additional, affiliated avenues of research will be published as separate articles (in prep).

COMMIOS – My role

It is exciting to be part of the COMMIOS team; I am working with some very accomplished and skilled researchers, and the project itself has unrivalled potential for a positive impact on our understanding of Iron Age peoples.  My role within the project expands on my PhD work, this time encompassing all of mainland Britain – finding out what material there is, where it is, and what potential it has for the wider project. As well as data collection, it is my responsibility to analyse and interpret the funerary data, and work with my fellow researchers to approach more complex questions. By utilizing the aDNA results for a particular site or area, we can cross-compare them with the mortuary record, explore the chronologies of particular practices or groups of people, or identify regional trends and connect them to these genetic groups – are practices changing due to population shift or cultural change? We can answer questions about ‘in-group’ and ‘out-group’ individuals in the funerary record – how are they related? Are they from different communities?  We can examine double or multiple burials and explore the genetic and isotopic relationships between them. The possibilities are enormous, and I am looking forward to each next step.

Thanks for reading!

Michael

Michael.legge@york.ac.uk

Bibliography

Armit, I. 2012. Headhunting and the Body in Iron Age Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Armit, I. 2017. The visible dead: Ethnographic perspectives on the curation, display and circulation of human remains in Iron Age Britain. In J. Bradbury and C. Scarre (eds.), Engaging with the Dead: Exploring Changing Human Beliefs about Death, Mortality and the Human Body. Oxford: Oxbow. 163-173.

Booth, T. and Madgwick, R. 2016. New evidence for diverse secondary burial practices in Iron Age Britain: a histological case study. Journal of Archaeological Science 67. 14-24.

Bricking, A. Forthcoming. Iron Age Mortuary Practice in Southwest Britain. Unpublished Ph.D. thesis, Cardiff University.

Harding, D. 2016. Death and Burial in Iron Age Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Madgwick, R. 2008. Patterns in the modification of animal and human bones in Iron Age Wessex: revisiting the excarnation debate. In O. Davis, N. Sharples and K. Waddington (eds.) Changing Perspectives on the First Millennium BC: Proceedings of the Iron Age Research Student Seminar 2006. Oxford: Oxbow Books. 99-118.

Whimster, R. 1981. Burial Practices in Iron Age Britain: A Discussion and Gazetteer of the Evidence c. 700 B.C.-A.D. 43. Oxford: BAR.

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