What are we missing? – The importance of archaeothanatology for revealing funerary practices
Investigations into funerary practices applying a detailed analysis of bone positions and their relationship to the grave environment are seldom contained within the published reports for burials in England. This has resulted in a situation where potentially valuable evidence for funerary practices is being overlooked. There is the possibility that graves are frequently determined to be plain earth burials due to the absence of direct archaeological evidence indicating to the contrary, even where in many cases we would not expect this direct evidence to survive.
An approach known as archaeothanatology or field anthropology could present an opportunity to resolve this issue by using detailed observations of the differences in the positioning of skeletal remains to provide a proxy for the presence of a burial container in cases where there is no direct evidence of the container itself.
The question arises; are archaeothanatology methods accurate and reliable in providing reconstructions of original burial form and funerary practices applied to a body? This research then aims to evaluate of the principles underlying archaeothanatology. Firstly by testing the principles on burials where the form of the burial has been established via direct material evidence provided by a high level of organic preservation. Secondly by developing and then applying an archaeothanatological methodology sites containing burials where organic preservation has been poor and no direct archaeological evidence remains for the original burial form leading to burials designated as ‘plain earth burials’, in order to ascertain whether the use of archaeothanatology should have a prominent place in funerary archaeology.
The choice of the Middle to Late Anglo Saxon period was made as it provides both a large number of potential sites and numbers of burials within a site, beneficial for statistical analysis. The period is also known to contain a wide variation in burial forms. Photographs supported by excavation documentation will be examined in lieu of direct observation of in situ burials, allowing for the analysis of previously excavated sites. To only use the direct recording of in situ burials would be very restrictive, allowing only for the assessment of cemeteries that are being excavated right now, leaving all the previously excavated and published data unusable. Studies have shown that photographs and excavation documentation do provided suitable substitutes post-excavation.