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.

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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.

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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.

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Source:  Ion A. 2010
References:
(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

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