Talking in Thessaloniki: Broken bodies-addressing the dynamics of postmortem depositions in Neolithic settlements from the Balkan area

The workshop in Thessaloniki has just ended (Ritualizing Funerary Practices in the Prehistoric Aegean and viewing the human body acts of transforming, organised by Sevi Triantaphyllou, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, and Diamantis Panagiotopoulos,  University of Heidelberg). It’s been a full day of talks on various practices of body disposal in the Aegean area, from cremation burials in Neolithic Macedonia to Mycenaean  collective tombs. It’s been good to hear a lot of young Greek researchers talking about their research in N Greece, and to see some of the local trends in this kind of research. With this workshop I also took the opportunity of raising for debate a couple of issues which I find with the study of human remains discovered in Neolithic settlements, from terminology, to the scale of analysis we use.


In short, what we see is that from the appearance of (quasi)sedentary life in Anatolia & the Balkan area (and then in the rest of Europe), a staple of settlement life are…the dead, who are found among/beneath/on top of dwellings, in ‘waste areas’ (among animal bones, pottery sherds, figurines, shells etc). They can take the form of ‘graves’ which are traditionally labeled as primary inhumations- that is usually whole skeletons deposited in a pit-, or that of scattered/fragmentary deposits, from heads to hands, from unidentifiable tiny bits of bones to parts of the skeleton (these being interpreted either as ‘secondary depositions’, which start from the assumption that there was an initial grave, which was opened, some of the bones then taken out, and re-interred/thrown somewhere else or as scattered bones).

Throughout time there have been a series of attempts to interpret these depositions, either osteological/statistical inferences looking at them as Big data, searching patterns among larger geographical areas/time spans – are certain age groups/sexes/body parts preferred? is there a depositional rule? etc- , to anthropological type of inferences, such as John Chapman’s attempt at reading these bones as traces of practices of building social cohesion through breaking down/reuniting dividual (fragmentary) bodies (following on theories such as Marilyn Strathern’s).  However, there are still important questions which need to be answered, and methodological aspects to be debated, as the fragmentary nature of the evidence, alongside the way data has been collected, often hinders certain lines of inquiries.


For example, at Cascioarele, a Neolithic tell in Southern Romania whose discoveries have been roughly dated between 5th-early 4th millenia, were discovered 11 children’s skeletons and a dozen of scattered bones. The tell was firstly investigated in 1925, and then during the 1960s by a team led by Vladimir Dumitrescu. During these campaigns the children’s graves were discovered at various depths, under the floor level of the daub dwellings, with the bodies lying in ‘extreme croutched poistions’ on one or the either side. 4 of these were analysed in 2010 (1), and their ages ranged from neo-nates to 5-7 years old. However, such discoveries also pose a challenge for those revisiting old data sets, as in order to be able to link them to other discoveries to obtain a broader picture of what might have happened to these individuals, one misses important information: were the pits posterior to the dwellings, or before them? Where are the rest of the skulls? (have they been lost due to taphonomic processes? post excavation? or they were missing and not deposited in the pits?). Where all children from the same time horizon, or in various moments of the occupation of the tell its inhabitants have deposited children in the living areas? These kind of questions, closely linked to methodological issues, are a common feature of research of this topic, and raising them can also improve future research.

Thus, more on the topic on a future post.

Source:  Ion A. 2010
(1)  Ion A. 2010. Analiza antropologica a scheletelor a patru copii descoperiti in situl neolitic de la Cascioarele-Ostrovel [Anthropological analysis of four skeletons discovered in the Neolithic Cascioarele-Ostrovel site]. Peuce S.N. 8: 27 – 36.

This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Sklodowska-Curie grant agreement No 701230

[Workshop 6 April 2017] Ritualizing Funerary Practices in the Prehistoric Aegean: acts of transforming and viewing the human body

This is a quick mention of an upcoming workshop on Funerary Archaeology in the Prehistoric Aegean: Ritualizing Funerary Practices in the Prehistoric Aegean: acts of transforming and viewing the human body. The event is organised by Sevi Triantaphyllou (Aristotle University of Thessaloniki) and Diamantis Panagiotopoulos (University of Heidelberg)on April 6 at the Aristotle University of Thessalonik. Full program here.

“The scope of the workshop will be to disentangle different acts of transforming and viewing the body in the prehistoric Aegean based on archaeological evidence and paradigms derived from the funerary domain. Emphasis will be given on the integration of methodological approaches applied by osteoarchaeology but also of modern ideas of visualization and the archaeological theory of the human body.”

I am looking fwd to taking part in the event with a talk on: Broken bodies: addressing the dynamics of postmortemdepositions in Neolithic settlements from the Balkan area. More details to follow soon.


Pe data de 6 aprilie, la Universitatea Aristotel din Salonic, va avea loc workshop-ul de arheologie funerara din zona Marii Egee in preistorie: Ritualizing Funerary Practices in the Prehistoric Aegean: acts of transforming and viewing the human body [Ritualizarea practicilor funerare din zona Marii Egee in preistorie: actele de transformare si privire a corpului uman]. Evenimentul este organizat de Sevi Triantaphyllou (Aristotle University of Thessaloniki) si Diamantis Panagiotopoulos (University of Heidelberg). Programul poate fi accesat aici.

“Scopul workshopului este acela de identifica diferitele acte de transformare si privire a corpului in zona Marii Egee in preistorie, pe baza descoperirilor arheologice si a paradigmelor derivate din studiile funerare”

Ca parte a proiectului curent de cercetare, voi participa cu o comunicare despre: Broken bodies: addressing the dynamics of postmortem depositions in Neolithic settlements from the Balkan area [Corpuri fragmentare: analizarea dinamicii depunerilor de oseminte umane in asezari Neolitice din Balcani]. Mai multe detalii vor urma in curand.

Getting started: first 3 months of DivMeanBody

No better time for making lists and drawing lines than the beginning of a new year. DivMeanBody’s first months have been marked by 3 landmarks: making the research aims public in late October (part of the Festival of Ideas in Cambridge), followed by the interesting postdoc forum at the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research in early December, and then the TAG Southampton Conference just before Christmas.

TAG, and especially the Following Things in Motion: Object Itineraries in Archaeological Practice session organised by Marta Díaz-Guardamino (Cardiff University/University of Southampton) and Rosemary A. Joyce (University of California, Berkeley) provided a good opportunity to make me think about how I should approach these fragments of the past. While most osteoarchaeological analysis focus on the destiny of human remains in the(ir) past, such remains often continue their biography beyond death, up to the present time. The itinerary itself along with the scientific networks in which they are embedded reshape their ontological understanding. Therefore, I took the case study of several dozen human remains discovered in Neolithic settlements in southern Romania during the 1960s-1970s. These settlements have yielded collections of fragmentary and scattered human remains who might help us understand how these past communities were dealing with the transition between life and death. However, their existence does not end with their deposition, and their meaning shifts as they move through laboratories, displays and publications’ pages. To quote Shanks (1998), they have been ‘slowly assembled’, the biography of the individual before death being intertwined with their contemporary trajectory of a body-as-scientific-object, taken from the world ‘out there’ into the cultural realm. It is an itinerary which spans 6 millennia and in which human remains are constructed in various ways: the body as-an-archaeological artefact, body-as-osteological data, and body-as-knowledge. To explore how the meaning of these bones has been continuously redefined through their discovery, analysis and publication I chose to ask questions shaped within the field of the sociology of scientific knowledge area. Given that the past and present intertwine in constructing how these bones are defined, in order to grasp these transformations one needs to breach the biological body (osteology) and the cultural body (archaeology) divide which often marks an osteoarchaeological discourse.


So where next? The plan for the next 3 months is to continue the historical research of these remains, in order to better understand how the archaeologists have constructed them as historical bodies. In parallel, I aim to gather the existing published evidence on human remains discovered in settlements falling within the geographical and temporal limits of the projects, as well as to trace any available materials that are still waiting to be analysed.

This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Sklodowska-Curie grant agreement No 701230

_ _ _ _ _ _

Inceputuri: primele 3 luni ale proiectului DivMeanBody

Nu este un moment mai bun pentru a face liste și a trage linia decât începutul unui nou an. Asadar, primele luni ale proiectului DivMeanBody au fost marcate de 3 repere principale: diseminarea in randul publicului a liniilor principale ale cercetarii la sfârșitul lunii octombrie (parte a Festivalului Ideilor din Cambridge), urmat de forumul postdoctoral interesant de la McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research la începutul lunii decembrie, iar apoi Conferința TAG Southampton chiar înainte de Crăciun.

TAG, și în special sesiunea Following Things in Motion: Object Itineraries in Archaeological Practice organizată de Marta Díaz-Guardamino (Cardiff University / Universitatea din Southampton) și Rosemary A. Joyce (Universitatea din California, Berkeley) a oferit o bună ocazie pentru a mă provoca să reflectez la modul în care ar trebui să vorbesc despre aceste fragmente din trecut. In timp ce majoritatea analizelor osteoarheologice se concentreze asupra destinului lor din trecut, aceste rămășițe isi continuă adesea biografia dincolo de moarte, până în prezent. Itinerariul în sine, împreună cu rețelele științifice în care acestea sunt încorporate reconfigureaza înțelesurile lor ontologice. Prin urmare, plecand de la studiul de caz a câteva zeci de rămășițe umane descoperite în așezări neolitice din sudul România pe parcursul anilor 1960 1970, am urmarit cum existența lor nu se încheie cu depunerea lor,  interpretarilor lor schimbandu-se o data cutraseul lor prin laboratoare, expozitii și pagini de publicații. Pentru a il cita pe Shanks (1998), ele au fost “asamblate lent”, biografia individului înainte de moarte  încrucișandu-se cu traiectoria lor contemporană, a unui corp ca-obiect-stiintific. Este un traseu care se întinde pe 6 milenii si in care ramasite umane sunt construite în diferite moduri: corpul ca-un-artefact-arheologic, corpul ca-date osteologice și corp-cunoaștere. Pentru a explora modul în care semnificația acestor oase a fost redefinita în mod continuu, prin descoperirea, analiza si publicarea lor, am ales să pună întrebări dezvoltate in aria sociologiei cunoasterii stiintifice. Având în vedere faptul că trecutul și prezentul se întrepătrund în construirea modului în care sunt definite aceste oase, pentru a înțelege aceste transformări este nevoie de depasirea diviziunii corp biologic (osteologic) și corp cultural (arheologic), care marchează adesea un discurs osteoarheologic.

Planul pentru următoarele 3 luni este de a continua cercetarea istorică a acestor descoperirii, cu scopul de a înțelege mai bine modul în care arheologii au construit corpul istoric. În paralel, imi propun sa adun informatiile publicate existente despre rămășițe umane din așezările care se încadrează în limitele geografice și temporale ale proiectului, precum și sa descopar orice materiale disponibile care încă așteaptă să fie analizate.

DivMeanBody: an exploration in the construction of the prehistoric body and identity

DivMeanBody project based at the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, University of Cambridge is designed as an exploration in the construction of the prehistoric body and identity, by studying the post-mortem fate of human remains discovered in Neolithic settlements in the Balkan area (between 7th-4th millennia BC).

These settlements have yielded collections of disarticulated, fragmentary, and scattered human remains. Traditionally such human remains have been either a focus of osteological studies, looking at them in a biological dimension, or subjected to cultural analysis. The project aims at taking a multi-disciplinary comparative perspective, that cuts across the traditions of archaeology and osteology, towards the re-interpretation of such deposits. By developing a taphonomic perspective on the formation of these deposits I aim to establish whether these are deliberate depositions or more complex, including non-cultural processes, might explain this fragmentation. The beginnings of settlements, agriculture and the Neolithic way of life are marked by such funerary practices, and studying them is integral to understanding past ways of life and cultures. Through its aims, DivMeanBody will help us better understand how these past people were performing and dealing with the dynamic processes of life and death in their communities and the relation of these practices to the formation of archaeological deposits. In the same time, it will surpass the divide present in contemporary research between a biological body (studied by osteology) and a cultural body (by archaeology).

The results of DivMeanBody will bring an original contribution that can challenge contemporary distinctions between domestic-funerary space, whole bodies-fragmentary parts, the world of the living-the realm of the dead. It will also create links between categories of archaeological material which are otherwise interpreted separately and thus offer new insights into what being human meant in the past.

This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Sklodowska-Curie grant agreement No 701230

Source base map:

_ _ _ _

DivMeanBody: o investigatie a modului in care s-au construit corpurile si identitatile preistorice

Proiectul DivMeanBody din cadrul McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, University of Cambridge este gandit ca o explorare a modurilor in care au fost construite corpurile si identitatile preistorice, prin studierea destinului post-mortem al osemintelor umane descoperite in asezari neolitice din zona Balcanilor (mileniile VII-IV i.e.n.).

In aceste asezari au fost descoperite colectii de oseminte umane fragmentare, care au fost in mod traditional analizate in cadrul unor studii de osteologie (privite in dimensiunea biologica), sau au devenit subiect al unor interpretari culturale. Scopul proiectului este acela de a reinterpreta asemenea descoperiri dintr-o perspectiva comparativa multi-disciplinara, care depaseste granita dintre arheologie si osteologie. Adoptand o perspectiva tafonomica pentru intelegerea modului in care depunerile s-au format, doresc sa inteleg daca acestea sunt depuneri intentionate, sau daca alte procese mai complexe (inclusiv de ordin natural) au stat in spatele lor. Inceputurile asezarilor, agriculturii si al modurilor de viata neolitice sunt marcate de asemenea practici astfel incat studierea lor este o parte integranta a intelegerii culturilor preistorice. O astfel de analiza ne poate ajuta sa intelegem mai bine modul in care oamenii trecutului intelegeau procesele dinamice ale vietii si mortii, precum si relatia acestor procese cu formarea depunerilor arheologice. In acelasi timp, cercetarea isi propune sa depaseasca diviziunea prezenta in cercetarea contemporana intre un corp biologic (studiat de osteologie) si un corp cultural (studiat de arheologie).

Sursa hartii de baza: