This article in the 28 October 2005 issue of Science is only partly about the Neolithic (the last part), but readers might find it of interest nevertheless. Back to News
'Deviant' Burials Reveal Death on the Fringe in Ancient Societies
Bodies buried in unusual ways--decapitated, stuffed into caves, or set aside in special cemeteries--offer clues to how the ancients treated their misfits
CORK, IRELAND--From the numerous deep blade cuts on the back of the young man's skull, it seemed likely that the executioner had made a bad job of it. "It took at least four blows to get his head off," said Jo Buckberry, an osteologist at the University of Bradford, U.K. She added that the angles of the cuts suggest that the man had been kneeling with his head down when the blade fell.
Back in the 1960s, the excavators of this site of Walkington Wold in East Yorkshire had concluded that the skeletons they unearthed--nearly all decapitated males--were victims of a massacre during the late Roman occupation of Britain, around the 4th century C.E. But Buckberry's study of 11 of the skeletons, presented at a meeting* here last month, suggests that these were executions rather than war casualties. And recent radiocarbon dates on three skeletons show that they were buried at different times between 640 and 1030 C.E., during the Anglo-Saxon period and long after the Roman occupation. Thus Buckberry concludes that Walkington Wold was a special burial ground for criminals only.
Buckberry's talk was part of a daylong session devoted to "deviant" burials. Archaeologists have long analyzed elite burials, marked by opulent grave goods and dramatic monuments. But researchers recognize that in many societies, special burials were also given to outcasts and certain classes of people, including criminals, women who died during childbirth, people with disabilities, and unbaptized children. Investigating such burials can give insights into the "broader social and religious beliefs" of a society, says session organizer Eileen Murphy, an archaeologist at Queen's University in Belfast, Northern Ireland.
The session covered burials from 5000 years ago in Britain to 19th century Vienna and demonstrated some of the imaginative ways that humans have disposed of the corpses of people deemed to be different: Their bodies have been stuffed into crevasses in remote caves, tossed into peat bogs, and sliced into pieces, among other practices. Sometimes the motive behind such burials is clear. For example, in Catholic Ireland stillborn and unbaptized children were buried in isolated, unconsecrated burial grounds called cillini, beginning sometime after the 13th century C.E. and continuing as late as the early 20th century, says Murphy. But the reasons remain obscure for the relatively rare "charcoal burials" found across Europe between about 700 and 1250 C.E., in which the deceased was laid on top of or below a layer of charcoal.
Moreover, because burial practices change over time, they can be used to track changes in societal values. Archaeologist Andrew Reynolds of the Institute of Archaeology in London described a survey of some 30 sites that suggests that Anglo-Saxons began to bury executed criminals separately only after they converted from paganism to Christianity beginning in the 7th century C.E. Previously, criminals and other outcasts were buried along with the rest of the community, although their bodies were often treated differently. For example, they were often buried face-down, their limbs were sometimes amputated, and their bodies were weighed down with stones; contemporary writings suggest these practices arose out of fear that the bodies might run around at night.
The switch to burying outcasts separately probably reflects new Christian ideas about "cleanliness and uncleanliness," as well as a continuing fear of the dead from pagan times, says Reynolds. "It is the geographical separation of 'bad' people rather than the individual burial rites that marks the major change in behavior between the two periods," Reynolds concludes.
Yet isolated burial is not always an indication of outcast status, argued biological anthropologist Stephany Leach of University College Winchester in the U.K. Leach reported on her studies of human remains from five caves in a 16-kilometer radius in a hilly region north of Manchester. Her work is the first systematic study of the bones, most of which were recovered in the early 20th century. New radiocarbon dates revealed that the burials clustered tightly between 4800 and 5000 years ago during the Early Neolithic period in Britain, when most burials were in scattered graves or in artificial earthen mounds called barrows, a treatment possibly reserved for the elite.
Leach found that the cave burials were all either children or adults suffering from severe arthritis or serious injuries. The early excavation records showed that some of the skeletons had been deliberately packed into cave alcoves and crevasses with a mixture of limestone and plant material known as tufa. Where the burial conditions were poorly recorded, Leach nevertheless often found traces of tufa on the bones. She considered several hypotheses to explain these burials, including that the people were spiritually excluded from the community or that they were simply left behind when the group moved on. But in her view the tufa packing shows special care, and she suggests that the suffering of these people was acknowledged by their burials in a "special" place.
Other researchers find Leach's ideas intriguing but say more data are needed. "Her findings do suggest that these were special members of society, but we need to know more," says Murphy. New excavations of nearby caves may help establish whether the burials really were special or just "a normal part of the repertory of Neolithic burials," she says. One thing seems certain: Burials at the margins of a culture have much to say about the core values of the society that interred them.
* 11th Annual Meeting of the European Association of Archaeologists, Cork, Ireland, 5-11 September 2005.