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Revisiting funerary practices: A methodological approach to the study of funerary sequences and social organisation in the Neolithic Near East, integrating forensic experiments in archaeo-anthropology

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - ArchFarm (Revisiting funerary practices: A methodological approach to the study of funerary sequences and social organisation in the Neolithic Near East, integrating forensic experiments in archaeo-anthropology)

Reporting period: 2020-10-01 to 2021-09-30

In funerary archaeology, also called archaeo-anthropology, a major issue is the lack of method validation. To avoid wrong interpretations about past funerary practices, it is important to validate existing methods before they are applied. This has not been done so far.
By modelling mortuary practices at taphonomic research facilities such as mummification, methods to recognise these particular practices can be further developed and validated. Ultimately, this will help archaeo-anthropologist to with the interpretation of funerary sequences and hence with the understanding social differentiation in past societies, because certain individuals were treated differently than others.
The outgoing phase took place at the University of Wollongong (UOW) in Australia. The Centre for Archaeological Science (CAS) at the University of Wollongong (UOW) in Australia is the first archaeological department with a so called ‘Body Farm’: the Australian Facility for Taphonomic Experimental Research (AFTER). Controlled and repetitive experiments of human body decomposition from the moment of death, create the opportunity to expand the methodological principles of funerary archaeology.
Neolithic and delayed burial practices were modelled by intentional natural mummification and subsequent burial, by adding lime and gypsum to the burials, by adding lime to a surface deposition and by comparing the results to control donors. In addition, I sampled another 18 surface donors for bone degradation studies. This study shows that a broad knowledge base is fundamental in the field of archaeothanatology. Archaeo-anthropologists require knowledge about all stages of decomposition, factors that influence decay and bone movement, and about degradation of different materials. By observing and analysing the grave, its content, its site context and beyond, the archaeo-anthropologist should distinguish which phenomena have an anthropogenic cause and determine what that reveals about human behaviour. This interpretation should be based on multiple arguments. The experimental part of the study has highlighted that human remains should be analysed in their broader depositional context. It also emphasises a critical use of terms and methods, and the integration of interdisciplinary approaches such as forensic experiments and modern cemetery studies. The Neolithic part of the study added new insights into complex mortuary management of the dead. The observed associations between pigments, human remains and architectural paintings provide insights into pigment application methods, social relationships among inhabitants, and the existence of selective practices potentially driven by social differentiation within this community. This study highlights that dynamic mortuary actions were integrated into a variety of social practices as shown by the tertiary depositions and their significant correlation with buildings containing architectural paintings.
The results of this study were published in peer-reviewed journals and book chapters, presented at conferences and shared in organised workshops. This project also resulted in the publication of an edited book entitled ‘The Routledge Handbook for Archaeothanatology’ published by Routledge. Dissemination to the general public was covered through you tube videos, tweets, Science Events and workshops about past funerary practices.
Experimental work at AFTER led to an array of exploitable results from an interdisciplinary perspective. This actualistic study confirms that a specific combination of weather conditions and body placement is essential to promote complete natural mummification. Results relating to differential preservation, entomology, botany, disarticulation sequences, bone histological markers, bone crystalline structure, geophysics and volatile organic compounds will be published from an interdisciplinary perspective. Each of the results will aid in the development and validation of methods for the identification of mummification practices in the past.
The project has an impact on the principles and interpretation of funerary archaeology. Because of the lack of taphonomic facilities in Europe, this research is filling a gap regarding above ground experiments with human remains to solve archaeological problems. The project also enables to validate methods that are only based on archaeological data.
MSCA mentoring session 2021 at the University of Bordeaux
Showcasing MSCA during International Education Week 2018
European Researchers Night 2021: Pitching of MSCA project
Showcasing Eline Schotsmans at International Women's day 2021
An example of Neolithic funerary practices
The Routledge Handbook of Archaeothanatology
Eline Schotsmans assessing burials at the Australian Facility for Taphonomic Experimental Research