Monday, July 2, 2007

Tracking Mortuary Behavior

One of the most intriguing kinds of information that has come from our work at the Danbury site is the evidence for changes in mortuary treatment (i.e., how people buried their dead) over time. This is due in part to the fact that the temporal perspective at Danbury is very long, nearly 5,000 years, and because most groups established small cemeteries during their years of residence.

Shown below are images from our field maps showing two of the burials we recorded this season.

These two (Burial Features 07-01 and 07-03) show the remains of two adults buried in very similar fashion. They are referred to as "extended, primary interments" which means that each person was buried soon after they died and on their backs with arms to the sides. This burial form is very similar to the way many people are buried today. Notice that BF 07-01 (top image) is missing all of the right leg and the lower half of the left leg. These bones appear to have been removed during backhoe excavation during road construction. At present, we do not know the time period of these burials since no temporally sensitive artifacts were recovered with them. Still, this extended form of burial and the northwest to southeast orientation of the skeletons is typical of all the Late Woodland period (ca. 1,000 years old) burials found so far.

In contrast, is Burial Feature 07-02 shown below. This individual, also an adult, was interred in

what is called a "flexed" position with knees drawn up to the chest and arms flexed on or in front of the body. This posture somewhat resembles a fetal position, and, accordingly, some researchers speculate that positioning the body in this way mimics the birth posture and symbolizes the passage from life to the afterlife. A more practical explanation is that the flexing of a body allowed it to be placed in an already-existing storage pit. The bones of this individual are very fragmentary and poorly preserved which may indicate great age. We have found two other flexed burials in similarly poor states of preservation. One of these is the oldest yet found and dates to 4,800 years ago, during the Late Archaic period. So, perhaps we are looking at two different forms of mortuary treatment, extended vs. flexed, which are separated by thousands of years and, perhaps, different belief systems.

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