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Encountering Death Archaeologically (Week One)

by: Anne Amundson

Encountering Death Archaeologically (Week One) 0538

Marketplace > University of Pittsburgh > ANTH > 0538 > Encountering Death Archaeologically Week One
Anne Amundson
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About this Document

Includes notes from 1/12 and 1/14
The Archaeologist Looks at Death
Marc Bermann
Class Notes




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This 6 page Class Notes was uploaded by Anne Amundson on Monday October 3, 2016. The Class Notes belongs to 0538 at University of Pittsburgh taught by Marc Bermann in Spring 2016. Since its upload, it has received 4 views. For similar materials see The Archaeologist Looks at Death in ANTH at University of Pittsburgh.


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Date Created: 10/03/16
Week One 1 Anne Amundson ANTH0538: The Archaeologist Looks at Death Lecture: Encountering Death Archaeologically (Week 1)  Misconceptions about archaeology o Falling into a crypt is not common, it is actually very rare o Tombs and graves are typically avoided; they typically search for more ancient burials. o Mummies are rare—archaeologists usually find bones instead.  Before 1800s o The first people to dig up dead bodies were looters/tomb robbers  Searched for valuables  Searched graves because they were more likely to find intact pieces than in the trash or abandoned areas  Has been practiced since ancient times  Early archaeology (1800s-1960s) o Tombs targeted for museum pieces  Some museums commissioned excavations  Treated as likely place to find valuables o Little interest in human remains, archaeologists were similar to looters o Archaeology not used to study anthropology until recently  Where archaeologists find bodies: o Cemeteries o In/around/under houses  Burials in these areas were common in some societies o Mortuary monuments (mounds, pyramids, etc.) o Midders (trash/refuse heaps)  Why archaeologists look at bodies: o There are a lot of them, no matter how small the culture is o Graves/tombs are pretty unique  Filled with material that was deliberately placed in the ground, unlike trash heaps  Most direct link to belief systems  A product of ritual activities and ceremonies  Graves provide insight into biological history (health, diet, etc.) Week One 2 Anne Amundson  Osteological biographies: reconstructions of lives based on human remains  Deals with individuals, not objects left by collectives  Allows investigation of “personhood” o Key point  The dead don’t bury themselves  We can gain insight into the lives of others through how they buried their dead  Graves are the result of the activities of the living  Archaeology is interested in learning about their lives and culture through death  Deathways: o All funerary practices and activities  By studying deathways, we learn about the social dimension (social status, familial relations, etc) and symbolic dimensions (customs, religion, mythology, etc) o Every grave is the result of the deathways  Provides material clues into the society  Archaeologists are interested in discovering deathways, not finding bones or objects  Contemporary archaeological questions o Order of things put into the grave o Who buried them? o What social groups were involved in the burial o How does the treatment of the dead reflect symbolic/social aspects o What role did burial rites play in living society?  Excavation o Systematic, slow, careful  Everything is recorded  Tries to get a view of the entire grave without moving anything  Recorded through notes, drawing, and pictures o Expose and record things “in situ” (within its intended context)  See association between body and other objects  Extract as much info in this stage as possible Week One 3 Anne Amundson  Specialists help interpret what is seen in the grave and why o Soilmicromorphology  The makeup of the soil is studied at a microscopic level  Can tell when the burial happened (season, weather, etc.)  Can expose unpreserved grave goods (textiles, foods, etc) o Archaeo-entomology  Study of insect interaction with the dead body  Gives time frame for burial and decomposition (time of year, length of funeral, how long the body was exposed to air before burial, etc) o Gut contents  Even if there is no remaining gut, soil samples can be taken  Lasting remnants of food and drink from meals soon before death can get into the soil around the abdomen  Preservation o Correlated with amount of regional rainfall  Things will decompose faster in rain o Generally all soft tissue will disappear within a few years, regardless of rainfall o Bones will survive thousands of years o Desert conditions will preserve soft tissue for much longer  Preservation (cont.) o Teeth are the most durable body part o Preservation is improved by anything that inhibits decomposition  Discourages bacterial, microbial, fungal, and scavenger activity  Very, very dry conditions  Ex. Deserts and caves  However, exposure to full sun and air will increase speed of decomposition  Sometimes, hair is preserved longer than skin Week One 4 Anne Amundson  The dry conditions can naturally mummify bodies  Very wet, water-bogged sites  Organic material preserves well in still water  Material gets into the silt on the bottom of bodies of water, protecting the soft tissue from fish and new oxygen o Whole brains have been preserved this way  Anaerobic (low oxygen) conditions  Ex. Peat bog in northern Europe  The high acidity in bogs literally tans (think deer hide) the skin of dead bodies  Bog material can also squash the body and separate the skin from the bones, creating a flat body  Preserves the body so well that sometimes, you can take fingerprints and look at brain tissue  Freezing can preserve bodies for thousands of years  Otzi the Iceman o “good” preservation  bone  tissue  soft organic materials o “bad” preservation  no bone  bone “meal” (deteriorated bone)  only teeth o Differential preservation:  Some things preserve better than others  Ex: bogs preserve wool and leather well, but linen and other flax products deteriorate quickly  What the archaeologist sees is only what was preserved Week One 5 Anne Amundson  Quality of preservation can vary within the same dig site based on varying conditions o Preservation filters what aspects of the deathways the archaeologist finds o Keep in mind that bodies do move around within the ground  Decay analysis is how things decompose within the grave  Taphonomy: how things decay/decompose in the ground, has made significant contributions to decay analysis  Can indicate spatial relationships between various objects in the grave, season of burial (decay will become faster in warm/rainy seasons), what the body was wearing, and if the grave was ever reopened  Sequence of joint decay:  First: fingers and toes, cervical vertebrae (head and upper neck)  Next: elbow and thoracic vertebrae (upper back)  Last: hip and lumbar vertebrae  As the body decays, the soil moves to fill the new gaps, allowing other body parts to move within the ground  If the bones looked packed and precarious, the corpse must have been in a tight coffin or shroud (wrapping) o Called the wall effect o Important indicator of deathways  If the bones are spread out, there was probably not any sort of tight wrapping, or the corpse was in a roomy coffin Week One 6 Anne Amundson  Empty spaces within the natural articulation of the body can indicate a perishable grave good was at some point present o Caused the body to fall more out instead of just down  Connecting models: o Focus on deathways, not psychological reactions to death o Cross-cultural o Are general, abstract frameworks o Good at explaining the “weird” o Robert Hertz (1882-1915)  French sociologist  Interested in death as a protracted process in different cultures  “intermediary” period—when the individual is considered neither dead nor alive  secondary burial—the corpse is recovered after mortuary treatment and buried


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