The 82nd Annual Meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (2013)

The Body Will Eat Itself: An Investigation into the Relationship Between Bone Diagenesis and Funerary Treatment


Archaeology, University of Sheffield

Friday 32, Clinch Concourse Add to calendar

The internal microstructure of archaeological human and animal bone is often altered by characteristic micro-foci of destruction (MFD). There is evidence to suggest that the majority of MFD are produced in the early post mortem period as a result of the exploitation of bone proteins by endogenous bacteria associated with putrefaction. Funerary processes that affect the proliferation of putrefaction bacteria or separate the bones from the gut microflora in the early post-mortem period should leave characteristic signatures of biotic decay within the bone microstructure. The purpose of this project is to investigate the extent to which bone diagenesis reflects funerary rite and how far it may aid in the taphonomic reconstructions of mortuary processes.

Levels of bioerosion have been assessed in bone samples of 216 human individuals from 22 European archaeological sites using thin section light microscopy and the Oxford Histological Index (OHI). Preliminary results suggest that the main factor affecting the levels of bioerosion at these sites is the presence of environmental conditions that interfere with putrefaction. In the absence of these conditions, distributions of OHI scores appear to reflect the contrast between consistent Christian graveyard inhumation and variable prehistoric processing of the dead. These findings support the hypothesis that signatures of bioerosion reflect funerary processes and that histological inspection of archaeological bone can contribute towards the identification of mortuary ritual as part of a holistic analysis of the taphonomic evidence.

This research is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council

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