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The Social Archaeology of Funerary Remains

July 2007 (111.3)

Book Review

The Social Archaeology of Funerary Remains

Edited by Rebecca Gowland and Christopher Knüsel. Pp. xiv + 312, figs. 114, tables 45. Oxbow Books, Oxford 2006. $120. ISBN 1-84271-211-5 (cloth).

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In a recent review of Sofaer’s book, The Body as Material Culture (Cambridge 2006), Hamilton observed (American Journal of Physical Anthropology 132 [2006] 161–62) that the “British tradition” in osteoarchaeology was “shaped by different influences than American bioarchaeology.” The four-fields approach to anthropology in the United States, where human biologists commonly are integrated within departments of anthropology, enjoys a somewhat longer history of effectively incorporating human bone studies into the process of archaeological analysis.

Today British archaeologists are enjoying increasingly fruitful relationships with biological anthropologists, many of whom have recently found posts within departments of archaeology at British universities. Yet researchers on both sides of the pond still enjoy varying degrees of input from archaeologists and social anthropologists. Full integration of data sets remains an important shared goal, as is demonstrated by the papers in this collection.

Gowland and Knüsel have here assembled 19 papers by 25 contributors, some of which were “aired” (viii) at the 2004 meeting of the European Association of Archaeologists in Lyon, France. Their intent was to integrate data from all aspects of burial activities with relevant skeletal information to enhance our understanding of the social and cultural processes involved in mortuary practices. The resulting collection provides a number of useful overviews, many with a strong focus on British contexts. Space limitations, unfortunately, permit me to write only a few lines for some of the many notable papers in this volume.

The important first paper, by Bello and Andrews, effectively sets the stage. Their review of patterns of preservation of human skeletal remains from archaeological contexts assembles data from a number of well-preserved medieval and post-medieval French sites, as well as from the important Spitalfields excavations in London. Their conclusions are applicable to findings from every type of site and in all parts of the world (cf. M. Becker, “Archaeology of Infancy and Childhood: Integrating and Expanding Research into the Past,” AJA 110 [2006] 655–58). Variations in patterns of disposal of the dead are addressed by Andrews and Bello in the second chapter, where they examine human activities that complement natural taphonomic processes as seen at Neolithic Çatalhöyük in Turkey. In the next paper, Duday expands on the opening chapters with a review of taphonomic processes, illustrated by unsurpassed line drawings depicting skeletons in situ. Duday points out that processes of skeletal alteration differ in significant ways depending upon the structure of the grave. For example, bones from bodies interred in large open chambers have distinct patterns of movement after soft tissue decay. Duday does not note that demineralization of skeletons within open chamber tombs often yields bones resembling those found in cremations. The overly literal translation from the French of Duday’s contribution does not enhance its value.

Chapter 4, by Beckett and Robb, provides a useful collation of studies at Neolithic sites in Britain and Ireland. The authors focus on what can be achieved through computer modeling of the evidence, a methodologically important contribution.

The significance of animal remains found among human bones from Anglo-Saxon and Viking cremations in Britain is deftly summarized by Bond and Worley in chapter 6. This often neglected aspect of archaeological research includes the note that “terminal phalanges of brown bear are recorded in cremations from all over Europe from the Iron Age onwards” (95). They suggest that these derive from bear skins included with offerings. The possibility that other vectors may account for these finds, or that these bear bones may relate to parallel rituals involving human phalanges, should be noted (cf. M. Becker, “The Contents of Funerary Vessels as Clues to Mortuary Customs,” in J. Christiansen and T. Melande, eds., Proceedings of the Third Symposium on Ancient Greek and Related Pottery [Copenhagen 1988] 25–32).

Le Huray and his colleagues contribute an excellent paper on dietary variation in central Europe during the La Tène period (ca. 475–415 B.C.E.). Unfortunately, the dates for the period are not offered, and “La Tène” is not indexed. The following paper by Montgomery and Evans, who apply similar analytical techniques to a Scottish example, is even more successful.

In chapter 9, Gowland addresses the evaluation of human age at death and discusses the problematic use of age groupings. Her discussion of variations on how “age” is defined should consider allowing the data to suggest culturally established categories (cf. M. Becker, “The Cazzanello Perinatal Cemetery,” StEtr 70 [2004–2005] 255–67). Gowland’s note that the skeletal anatomy of the skull (146) provides useful indicators of sex works best, I believe, in northern Europe. Italian samples from the past 3,000 years are far less distinct in craniometric variation or sexual dimorphism (cf. M. Becker and L. Salvadei, “Analysis of the Human Skeletal Remains from the Cemetery of Osteria dell’Osa,” in A.M. Bietti Sestieri, ed., La Necropoli Laziale di Osteria dell’Osa [Rome 1992] 53–191).

Mays’ summary of the osteology of medieval monasticism (ch. 12) carefully distills data from several of his important works. Fay (ch. 13) focuses on the presentation of mortuary evidence from lepers buried in Norwich, England, during the Late Medieval and Tudor periods. Knüsel, in chapter 14, offers an important cautionary tale regarding the interpretation of data from royal burials from the emerging states of continental Europe. His fine review of the literature covering what is known about these contexts, and what is known about relevant elements of cultural dynamics during this period, provides valuable suggestions on how to evaluate these tombs.

Schulting (ch. 15) crafts a concise overview of evidence for violence as revealed in skeletal injuries dating from the European Mesolithic and Neolithic. Knüsel and Outram offer a perceptive study of analyses of fragmentary human remains and possible evidence for cannibalism. Their discussion of the many reasons why people might consume human flesh is particularly insightful.

In chapter 19, Pettitt examines data relating to burials with associated “Venus” figurines from the middle Upper Paleolithic in Europe. What appears to be remarkable cultural uniformity through time and space assumes the accuracy of evaluations of sex, which suggest that males represent two-thirds of this small (50+) sample.

This well-illustrated volume demonstrates the vibrant contributions of physical anthropologists everywhere to archaeological attempts at understanding the past. Largely absent, however, are references to parallel developments in research taking place on the Continent or in the Americas. Included here are many outstanding line drawings. But some computer-generated plans are not particularly useful, and others employ costly color that detracts from the presentation. Speedy publication of conference papers is a laudable achievement, but the process requires more effective editing, indexing, and proofreading. As is generally the case with volumes loosely organized around a theme, some of the papers have not found a comfortable home. This collection, however, demonstrates that archaeologists in Britain are increasingly using sophisticated methods by which human remains can be interpreted, and are enjoying increased cooperation with human biologists.

Marshall Joseph Becker
Department of Anthropology
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19104

Book Review of The Social Archaeology of Funerary Remains, edited by Rebecca Gowland and Christopher Knüsel

Reviewed by Marshall Joseph Becker

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 111, No. 4 (July 2007)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1113.Becker

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