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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 1 - 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: 2018-10-01 to 2020-09-30

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. During this first study period I also observed ten donors continuously on disarticulation patterns. So far, the results show that the interpretation of taphonomic assessment of bone degradation have to be treated with care. It also showed that the division between labile and persistent joints, as defined in archaeothanatology, should not be made.
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.
Showcasing MSCA during International Education Week 2018
An example of Neolithic funerary practices
Eline Schotsmans assessing burials at the Australian Facility for Taphonomic Experimental Research