Burial site, from Knüsel project

Funerary Archaeology: A Bioarchaeological Synthesis

Professor Christopher Knüsel 

With funding from a Leverhulme Research Fellowship (RF/6/RFG/2008/0253), this project centres on research for a book, entitled Funerary Archaeology: A Bioarchaeological Synthesis, which emphasises the synthesis of human remains and burial contexts from the Middle Palaeolithic to the Late Medieval period in the Near East and Europe to address the social and biological consequences of increasing social inequality as reflected in the elaboration of burials and indicators of health and well-being, the latter including specifically stature, population mortality profiles and longevity.

The first chapter defines bioarchaeology and funerary archaeology and reviews the development of the approach from its origins in the 1970s. The second addresses terminological use and l’Anthropologie de Terrain or archaeothanatology (enhanced field recovery), fundamental to distinguishing biological and behavioural aspects of burials from those that are due to natural processes before and after burial. The third chapter addresses ethology of modern peoples to develop models that link funerary behaviour with the social organisation of living populations. The subsequent chapters review burial from the Middle Palaeolithic to the late medieval period.

The findings provide a deep history for social difference based on age and sex groupings (Upper Palaeolithic in Eurasia, circa 20,000-30,000 BP) and social distinction based on attributes beyond those that are innate (by the Late Neolithic in Europe), but a relatively more recent advent of social differentiation accruing to those in prominent trans-generational lineages, which is perhaps only clearly indicated in the Bronze Age in Europe for the first time, when single burials of tall males make their appearance. The appearance of social distinction in the Near East may be substantially earlier, perhaps by the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B (PPNB), dating from roughly 9,500-9,200 to 8,000 bp (8500-6500 cal B.C.).

The greatest strength of the research is that it is demonstrates that the physical remains of the dead, when combined with their archaeological context, do provide insight into the social organization of the once living societies, an association that has been questioned on anecdotal grounds in the absence of skeletal analyses and consideration of the long-term funerary record and its regional coverage.