Context isn’t Quite Everything: Interpreting complex prehistoric mortuary rituals at Cranborne Chase, Dorset, England

Authors: Smith, M.

Conference: Theoretical Archaeology Group Conference (TAG on Sea 2013)

Dates: 16-18 December 2013


Since antiquarian times excavators have placed great importance on grave goods, styles of burial, monument typologies and stratigraphic relationships in judging the contemporaneity of burial events. Such judgments generally rest on an assumption that burial promptly follows death and by extension the lives of individuals and their demise can be chronologically defined. On the whole such an approach is entirely reasonable and is generally supported by multiple lines of alternative and mutually supporting evidence.

This paper presents several Neolithic and Bronze Age burials excavated from Cranborne Chase in Dorset where the opposite is true and differing aspects of the burial evidence give rise to contradictory interpretations. A potential criticism of the way funerary archaeology is often approached is that insufficient attention is given to the human remains that really constitute ‘burials’. These bones are seen as things of limited variability (age, sex, stature etc.) to be reported on by an auxiliary specialism (anthropology) but which ultimately have little bearing on how mortuary practices will be interpreted or how the respective society and their cosmology will be understood. Both during life and after death the human body is a sort of artefact in itself, a product of the choices, beliefs and experiences both of the deceased and those who survive them. Here it is argued that if insufficient consideration is given to this point, important aspects of funerary treatment may be missed altogether, leaving a picture of past practices that is as bland as the assumptions it is based upon.

Source: Manual

Preferred by: Martin Smith

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