New evidence for diverse secondary burial practices in Iron Age Britain: A histological case study

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Abstract

Iron Age (c. 700 BC-43AD) funerary practice has long been a focus of debate in British archaeology. Formal cemeteries are rare and in central-southern Britain human remains are often unearthed in unusual configurations. They are frequently recovered as isolated fragments, partially articulated body parts or complete skeletons in atypical contexts, often storage pits. In recent years, taphonomic analysis of remains has been more frequently employed to elucidate depositional practice (e.g. Madgwick, 2008, 2010; Redfern, 2008). This has enhanced our understanding of modes of treatment and has contributed much-needed primary data to the discussion. However, only macroscopic taphonomic analysis has been undertaken and equifinality (i.e. different processes producing the same end result) remains a substantial obstacle to interpretation. This research explores the potential of novel microscopic (histological) methods of taphonomic analysis for providing greater detail on the treatment of human remains in Iron Age Britain. Twenty human bones from two Iron Age sites: Danebury and Suddern Farm, in Hampshire, central-southern Britain were examined and assessed using thin section light microscopy combined with the Oxford Histological Index (OHI). Results suggest that diverse mortuary rites were practised and that different configurations of remains were subject to prescribed, varied treatment, rather than resulting from different stages of the same process. Practices that may be responsible for these patterns include exhumation followed by selective removal of elements and sheltered exposure prior to final burial. Only one sample provided evidence for excarnation, a practice that has been widely cited as a potential majority rite in Iron Age Britain.

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Booth, T. J., & Madgwick, R. (2016). New evidence for diverse secondary burial practices in Iron Age Britain: A histological case study. Journal of Archaeological Science, 67, 14–24. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jas.2016.01.010

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