Deconstructing the Dangerous Dead: An Archaeothanatological Approach to Atypical Burial
AuthorWilson, Jordan A.
Late Antique Italy
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PublisherThe University of Arizona.
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AbstractThis dissertation explores the funerary taphonomy of non-normative burials across multiple contexts. Past research has demonstrated that mortuary contexts can offer specific insights into the social identity of the deceased, as well as the beliefs, hopes, and anxieties of the community that buried them. This insight is of special significance when an individual has not been provided the typical burial rites specific to their culture, including unique mortuary treatment or its complete absence. Such non-normative treatment can potentially indicate that the deceased held a special or unusual role in their society, that they had experienced marginalization during life, or that their death was perceived as untimely or unusual. These atypical or “deviant” burials have been documented as indicating periods of environmental stress, social upheaval, or a combination of these. This dissertation uses the archaeothanatological approach as a lens through which to consider how past intentional mortuary behavior can be separated from environmental alteration. As this dissertation demonstrates, the archaeothanatological method contains significant limitations, including a heavy reliance on experiments using nonhuman animal remains to construct the theory, a lack of studies exploring non-Western burial practices (such as exposure or excarnation), and limited consideration of how the approach may need to be modified based on local environmental conditions. Nevertheless, it can be a useful framework for bioarchaeologists to identify unusual treatment of the body and other ephemeral traces of mortuary ritual. The first study focuses on modern, unburied remains recovered from the Sonoran Desert and tests articulation relationships between joints in a specific environmental context. Results demonstrated that postmortem joint integrity is largely dependent not only on anatomical structure and function in life, but the impact of environmental factors such as weathering, temperature, ambient humidity, and most significantly, scavenger activity. The second study examines a burial population from the same geographic and environmental area (the Sonoran Desert) but dating to the Early Agricultural period (ca. 2100 BC to AD 50) and examines the non-normative burials of 21 individuals, with an emphasis on the burials of young females. These burials can be interpreted as a form of sexually antagonistic social signaling and may suggest the community was experiencing a period of significant stress involving resources scarcity, environmental change, or social transition. The final study examines a burial population of neonates and young children from a rural agricultural community in Late Antique (ca. 450 CE) Umbria, Italy. Results of my analysis suggest atypical mortuary treatment may be associated with necrophobia related to the untimely death of the infants, distress possibly heightened by a season of higher than usual infant mortality. More surprisingly, this analysis also indicates acts of mourning and a desire for remembrance, possibly enacted in secret, as such behavior would have been in conflict with cultural expectations regarding infant loss. My findings offer insight into a rural community’s shared stress surrounding sickness, child loss, and unique vernacular belief system in a time of significant cultural and social transition. The results of these studies demonstrate that the archaeothanatological method is limited in its applicability, as skeletal disarticulation, along with the effects of taphonomic processes, varies depending on the specific environmental conditions, and the degree to which the body is exposed to these. However, this research demonstrates how taphonomy can be used to better understand the application of social theory within bioarchaeology. Ultimately, this enables a more detailed analysis of individuals whose complex, reduced, or ambiguous social status—or potentially, the cause and manner of their death—may have precluded their access to normative and culturally appropriate funerary rites.
Degree ProgramGraduate College