Saturday, July 7, 2007

The Early Woodland Ossuary

A few posts ago, I described a burned earth feature which we called Feature 07-01. I noted that it most likely was associated with a cluster of human bones. Much time has been spent over the last week excavating Feature 07-01 in plan and carefully exposing what lies beneath. We were amazed to learn that this rather modestly sized feature contains the disarticulated remains of at least 13 people! An image of Feature 07-01 before excavation is shown above (the blue oval shows the maximum extent of the feature).

We refer to this large bone cluster as an "ossuary" or mass burial pit. It contains individual concentrations (or "bundles") of remains which include skulls, longbones, pelves, vertebrae, and hand and foot bones. They most likely represent the collected remains of individuals who died elsewhere, and whose bones were cleaned of flesh and packaged for transport to a common place of interment. Such a secondary form of burial contrasts drastically with the primary extended and flexed burial treatments described previously. We don't completely understand why some groups buried their dead together in this fashion, while others favored the use of individual graves. Here is a copy of our field drawing of what we now call Burial Feature 07-04.

Interestingly, the original burned earth feature now seems to have been a late addition to this feature. It is outlined in the upper right hand portion of the drawing and appears to be devoid of bone. This suggests that this hearth or cooking pit was dug into the pre-existing ossuary, most likely by accident. A collection of scattered bone on the upper (north) edge of the ossuary appears to been displaced from the hole dug by the later hearth-builders and redeposited into the ossuary. Several Leimbach series pot sherds have been found in the fill of the ossuary pit which indicate that it dates to the Early Woodland period (ca. 1000 to 500 B.C.).

Excavation of this very complex feature will continue for some time, and more surprises most likely await us.

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