ISSN 1357-4442Editor: Simon Denison

Issue no 50, December 1999


Dancing with the dead in a mass grave

Neolithic communities repeatedly handled the decaying bodies of their dead, writes Mary Baxter

Every society must dispose of its dead in one way or another. The taboos surrounding death, however, are so deep-seated that any methods of disposal that differ from the norm are viewed by many today with a peculiar mixture of horror and fascination.

For at least 3,000 years in Europe, and perhaps longer, the norm has been to dispose of the dead by either cremation or inhumation in a single grave. In the Neolithic period, however, from around 6,500-4,000 years ago, a completely different practice took place - disposal of the body first in one place, followed by a `secondary burial' of the whole body, or part of it, somewhere else.

The great communal tombs of the Neolithic - earthen or stone long barrows, or passage graves - typically contain an apparently jumbled mass of bones from numerous bodies. The skeletons are often disarticulated (that is, the bones have been moved out of their natural skeletal positions), and frequently bones are missing. In short, Neolithic communities did not simply dispose of their dead; they handled them repeatedly and shifted them about.

Antiquaries of the last century interpreted the sight of massed, disarticulated bone as the sign of lack of respect for the dead, or worse: cannibalism and ritual sacrifice, supported by written evidence from classical authors. More recent analysis has shown that the reordering of human remains was not random but often the result of careful arrangement. Examples include skeletons of men separated from women, and adults from children.

Archaeologists have now identified three different ways in which Neolithic bodies were given secondary burial. The first is that whole bodies were placed within a tomb and later re-arranged there (as interpreted, for example, at Hazleton North in Gloucestershire). The second is that whole bodies were placed in a tomb, and later certain parts removed to be used elsewhere (as interpreted at West Kennet in Wiltshire, where excavators noticed a marked shortage of skulls and leg bones).

The third method is that bodies were initially disposed of outside the tomb, and later, clean bones collected for the communal chamber. This intepretation was given to the remains at Isbister on Orkney.

And why did these secondary treatments take place? One interpretation has been widely accepted. Based on anthropological studies, archaeologists have concluded that the main reason was to dispose of the distressing corpse and, in time, retrieve the clean bones of the skeleton and finish off the mortuary rites. The gap between initial and concluding mortuary practices was to allow the soft tissue of the deceased to decay gently off-camera, as it were, leaving the clean bone for later reuse.

My own interest, as a human-bones specialist, has been to see whether close analysis of the bones themselves can shed new light on the methods and reasons for secondary burial. My conclusions are that all three proposed methods took place, sometimes within one and the same tomb.

However, in contrast to the traditional view, I have found that it was frequently not clean bone that Neolithic communities handled for secondary burial - far from it. In reality, the body parts that were jumbled about and reused seem typically to have been part-decayed; rotting, but still hanging together with ligaments, tendons and possibly muscles intact.

My research focused on the human bone from two tombs - Haddenham in Cambridgeshire and Ascott under Wychwood in Oxfordshire. Haddenham was excavated in 1985-87, with the bones now held in storage at Cambridge University; Ascott was excavated in 1965-73, with bones in the Natural History Museum. I decided that the presence or absence of the small bones of hands and feet was critical to the interpretation of which method of secondary burial had taken place.

These small bones are among the first to drop off as the body decays. If, therefore, whole bodies had been placed in a tomb and later rearranged there, you'd expect the small bones to be present on excavation. If small bones survive, but with a corresponding lack of larger bones, it would imply that whole bodies were interred there but selected material later removed.

If, however, the small bones are lacking, the most likely explanation is that bodies had received initial mortuary treatment elsewhere with selected bone later interred in the tomb - assuming the general condition of the bones is reasonable and `natural' decay of the small bones can be ruled out. The hands and feet will probably have dropped off either at the primary disposal site, or in transit to the body's final resting place.

The 5,000-year-old earthen long barrow at Haddenham covers a wooden chamber containing either five or six bodies. Most of the small bones of the hands and feet were found. Three bodies seem to have been buried whole and left within the structure. One skeleton, however, is missing its cranium, which had been removed.

The other body parts consist of an articulated leg - that is, the bones were found in their natural relationship to one another - and a separate semi-articulated part consisting of head, neck and arms, looking like the upper part of a skeleton that had been cut in two under the armpits. One arm was intact only down to the elbow. Small bones from the foot and hands were found, indicating that these two articulated body-parts were originally interred whole. They may have come from two distinct individuals, or from one. In either case, their articulation suggests strongly that the missing pieces were removed before the bodies were fully decomposed. The upper torso suggests to me that someone may have taken hold of the dead body by its shoulders - and yanked.

The arm that survives only down to the elbow carries a notorious cut-mark. This was interpreted at the time of excavation as a sign of defleshing, with the muscle of the upper arm cut through above the elbow joint. I do not dispute this interpretation, which supports my view that body parts were removed in a state of semi-decay. Ascott under Wychwood is a long cairn of Cotswold-Severn type. Inside, body parts from between 46 and 49 individuals were found. Although evidence suggests a small number were interred relatively whole, some of these had bones removed after initial deposition. The great majority of skeletal material, however, was disarticulated. Recovery of the small bones of the hands and feet was low, but the bones themselves were well preserved, indicating that initial treatment of many bodies was undertaken away from the site.

Exposure to air, birds and beasts is one possible initial treatment outside the tomb - but one which I doubt occurred in this case, as there was little sign of weathering on the bone. Another possible initial treatment, recorded in ethnographic research, is burial in the ground followed by complete or partial disinterment, and later reburial in the tomb. Interestingly, some Neolithic graves are known with skeletal parts missing, which could be explained by this process.

Another possibility with ethnographic parallels is storage of the dead body for years in a box, or wrapped in blankets, inside the home, until decomposition reaches an advanced stage - the idea being that the person is `not dead' until they are finally buried. This practice has been recorded among the Torajan people of Africa.

Most interestingly at Ascott under Wychwood, a number of articulated parts were found in positions that were too tightly angled to have been possible in life - for example, legs with the long bones parallel to one another. These had clearly been arranged after a certain amount of body decay had occurred, allowing the tight flexing to take place, but while some soft tissue was still holding the bones together.

The great imponderable question is why in the Neolithic these secondary treatments took place. The apparent tendency to handle part-decayed bodies argues against any desire to avoid the distressing sight of a rotting corpse.

There may be, in some cases, a link between the place of burial and association with land - just as today many people abhor the idea of being buried in a `foreign field' away from home. The removal of Neolithic body parts from the tomb for reburial elsewhere may relate to claims of ownership of several places.

Partial or complete Neolithic skeletons, perhaps removed from tombs, have been found at other monuments such as causewayed enclosures - as if Neolithic communities wished to invest the monument with the spiritual power of the dead person.

An explanation for the rearrangement of body parts within a tomb is suggested by a practice recorded in Madagascar. After burial of the dead, relatives are gathered together and preparations made for the main mortuary rite. The bodies are disinterred, wrapped in cloth bundles and placed in a vault. Later, at the time of subsequent interments, the bundles are brought out again - and danced with, in a macabre ceremony in the vault. As these bundles age, they decrease in size and eventually disintegrate, leaving space for more burials in the tomb.

Mary Baxter is a postgraduate student at Cambridge University

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Laid to rest on pillow of bay leaves

Research continues on the wealthy Roman woman found in London this spring. Christopher Thomas reports

Few recent archaeological finds have generated such intense excitement as the Roman sarcophagus discovered in London in March this year. The sarcophagus contained a complete lead coffin, in which lay the bones, and some of the belongings, of a wealthy Roman lady who probably died some time in the 4th century. The story was picked up by newspapers around the world.

The sarcophagus was the first to be discovered in London in almost 30 years, and the first containing a lead coffin in more than a century. Since its discovery, archaeologists have continued to study the burial and conserve the artefacts. The results are still preliminary, but this burial and the site as a whole are already proving to be one of the most fascinating archaeological projects yet carried out in London.

The site is being excavated by the Museum of London Archaeology Service (MoLAS) in advance of large-scale redevelopment of Spitalfields Market. The main focus of the excavation is the medieval priory and hospital of St Mary Spital which was one of the largest such establishments in the country, although no remains now survive above ground.

The excavations have found well-preserved remains of the hospital, together with more than 8,000 medieval burials, and houses and streets from the 16th-18th centuries that post-date the dissolution of the monastery. Beneath these remains lie one of London's principal Roman cemeteries, which lay outside the city walls alongside Ermine Street, the main road from London to the north.

There appear to have been two distinct phases to the Roman cemetery - one dating to the latter part of the 2nd century, in which the burials seem widespread but dispersed, and one dating to the latter part of the 3rd and the first half of the 4th century. The sarcophagus belongs to the 4th century phase. It remains unclear whether the cemetery went out of use for a time after the 2nd century, or whether burials from the intervening period exist but have not yet been found. Much of the cemetery has been disturbed by later activities on the site.

In all, 82 Roman skeletons have been recovered during the present excavation, in addition to graves with little or no surviving bone and two cremation urns. Previous work by MoLAS on the site recovered 19 Roman skeletons, and other skeletons and cremations were found in the 1930s.

Boundary ditches were discovered in the cemetery, which may have delineated areas used for different groups of individuals, and may also have defined areas where no burial took place. Quarries, wells and evidence of agriculture indicate that not all parts of the cemetery were used for burial at all times during the Roman period.

The sarcophagus in fact formed one of a row of four high status burials in a line at right angles to the main road. They lay on slightly rising ground, suggesting they were meant to be seen by passing travellers on Ermine Street. The two graves at either end of the row had been robbed, and both contained traces of stone sarcophagi. A ramp had been excavated by the grave robbers at the end of one of these graves to make it easier to pull out the sarcophagus.

Between these two graves were the two most exciting Roman burials in the cemetery - our sarcophagus burial, and a large grave that once contained a timber mausoleum. The timbers had rotted but the impressions of the floor joists could still be seen. The grave had been partially cut away by a large medieval pit, but the remains of one child's skeleton were found as well as evidence for yet another sarcophagus. This tomb without doubt originally contained more than one body. Eight glass vessels were found in this grave - one of the finest assemblages of Roman glass found in a grave anywhere in South-East England. These consisted of four bottles, two drinking vessels, one dish, and fragments of a vessel decorated with writing - an extremely rare find.

The robbery must have occurred before the 13th century - because buildings of this date cover the graves - and it possibly took place in the early post-Roman period. Why one sarcophagus survived can only be guessed at. It may be that the grave robbers piled up their earth on top of the surviving sarcophagus and therefore never got around to digging it up; or perhaps the other graves had above-ground monuments that signalled to the grave robbers where to dig.

The sarcophagus was made from limestone quarried in the East Midlands, possibly from Barnack near Stamford. Presumably such sarcophagi were readily available in London since its quarrying, preparation and transport would have taken some months. It is likely to have been laid in the ground some time before the lead coffin was placed within it. Later, soil was dumped in the gap between the coffin and the sarcophagus wall. Within this material was found a rare glass phial.

Inside the coffin lay the body of a woman in her early 20s, who appears not to have borne children. During her short life, she had been well fed and well caredfor. Her teeth showed little sign of decay, and at 5ft 4in tall she was tall for the period. However there was no sign of injury or disease in her bones and it seems likely that some infectious disease killed her early in life.

She was laid in the coffin with her right arm by her side and her left arm drawn up across her chest. Her head, at the west end of the coffin, was laid on a `pillow' of bay leaves. Textile found beneath these leaves may have formed a kind of pillowcase.

So who was this young woman? It is quite clear that she came from an extremely wealthy family - perhaps that of one of London's government officials. Provisional results of DNA testing carried out on one of her teeth have been compared to modern DNA samples and have found the closest match to be someone from the Basque region of Spain. Perhaps, then, she was an official's Spanish wife, or the daughter of a family with Spanish connections. One thing at least is clear. The row of sarcophagus burials did not all contain members of the same family, as DNA from the child in the mausoleum has established that it and the woman were not related.

The lead coffin was a simple rectangular box, formed by folding the end panels over the side panels and soldering them down. The lid was cast with impressions of scallop shells within an elaborate rope-patterned grid. The design of this lid is similar to a coffin excavated in the East London cemetery at Mansell Street during the late 1980s, and there are other examples from other Roman towns in Britain.

It was during the excavation of the coffin by conservators in the Museum of London galleries that some of the most important discoveries were made. In the wet silt beneath the skeleton - probably washed into the coffin as the water table rose after the Roman period - fragments of textile were recovered. These textile remains are the first Roman examples to be found in London.

Patches of gold thread - the largest assemblage of Roman gold textile in Britain - were found near the woman's thigh bones, around her ribs and by her wrists. Gold thread has only rarely been found in Roman contexts in Britain, but is more frequent in continental Europe. Given the discrete areas in which the gold thread was found, it is likely that it formed the decorative element to a larger garment in which the body was clothed, the remainder of which has not survived. The gold thread around the wrists may have been decoration on the cuff.

The thread is exceptionally fine (only 0.1mm wide) and was spun into a spiral around an organic thread core. This core is likely to have been silk because of the need for a very fine but strong thread, but unfortunately none has been found so far.

In addition to the gold thread, two other types of textile were found. These lay around the upper part of the chest, on the left side of the body. They may have survived because of the waterlogging at the very base of the coffin. One has been identified as a rare fragment of silk damask, among the finest cloths of the period. Only one other Roman example has previously been found in this country. The other was wool. These two textiles are almost certainly from different pieces of garment or cloth. It is possible that the gold thread and the silk damask were part of the same garment although this can only be suggested.

The woman, therefore, seems to have been laid in the coffin with at least two different pieces of textile: one had fine gold decoration, perhaps on a silk damask garment around her body reaching to the upper parts of her legs. The other was made of wool and may either have been a garment or perhaps a sheet or cloth lining the coffin or covering her body.

Buried outside the stone sarcophagus but within the grave were a group of objects consisting of a glass phial and a collection of jet artefacts (see panel). All of these were laid at the foot end of the grave. It is interesting to note that almost all of the grave goods buried at Spitalfields have been buried at the foot ends of the graves, although the significance of this remains unclear.

Much work has yet to be undertaken on this remarkable discovery. Conservation work continues on the textiles to reveal and record any surviving patterns and evidence of weave. Associated threads or other corroded metal features are also being sought in the silts found in the coffin. Insect remains will be examined by environmental archaeologists, in an attempt to shed further light on any other materials that may have been placed within the coffin - such as, for example, floral garlands.

Detailed examination of the bones has yet to take place. This will show, for instance, how this woman compares to other burials in the cemetery in terms of health and physical characteristics. Analysis of isotopes of lead, strontium, oxygen, carbon and nitrogen from her teeth - which are taken into the body at certain times of life through food and the atmosphere, in differing proportions in different parts of the world - may help to identify her place of origin.

As work continues, we hope that a fuller picture of the Roman cemetery and the sarcophagus burial itself may throw yet more light on an important period of London's history, and help us understand better the rituals and practices associated with Roman death and burial.

The wealth and importance of the Spitalfields Roman lady were evident not only from her sarcophagus and coffin, but also from the rare and elegant artefacts found within her grave.

They consisted of a group of jet objects found with a glass phial outside the sarcophagus (but within the grave), and a second glass phial within the sarcophagus but outside the coffin.

The phial outside the sarcophagus was of a long, decorated type for which there are no known parallels. It has a zigzag pattern which is more common in late 4th or 5th century contexts and does not appear until about AD350. It is of the very highest quality. The design has parallels from Germany in 5th century contexts and there are similar designs from the Mediterranean. It may have been specifically made as an item to accompany a burial, containing ointments intended to accompany the woman into the afterlife.

Associated with this phial was a long tapering jet rod which is the same length as the phial and may have been used for extracting the liquid - perhaps a cosmetic - and applying it to the face.

The other jet objects were a flat ring and a pin, which were probably hair accessories belonging to the woman, and a small cylindrical box possibly - to judge from its size - for holding cosmetics or ointments. Reflected light microscopy has confirmed that the rod, ring and pin were made from jet, and that the box was made from three types of coal material, jet, lignite and carbargillite.

Jet occurs natually in Britain near Whitby in Yorkshire, Kent and Scotland, although we cannot be certain of the source of the objects in this grave. Jet was thought to have had magical properties by the Romans and may have been used to ward off evil spirits. It is a relatively common find from Roman graves, albeit only for the wealthy.

The second glass phial was designed with a bulbous centre. Only two other examples of this design have been recovered in Britain, both from the Spitalfields cemetery. It was found between the sarcophagus wall and the lead coffin, covered by earth, lying towards the foot of the coffin. It too is thought to date from the 4th century. Its position - separated from the other objects - is something of a mystery: was its inclusion in the grave an afterthought?

Numerous important grave goods have been recovered from other graves on the site, and all will eventually be published as a part of the Museum of London's Roman Spitalfields publication.

The Spitalfields lady is perhaps only the best surviving burial from what was once one of Roman Britain's grandest cemeteries. One only has to read John Stow's account of the quarrying at Spitalfields at the end of the 16th century, in his 1598 history, A Survey of London, to gain an indication of the number of other high-status graves that once lay here. He describes sarcophagi, glass vessels, Venus figurines, ceramics and other items, suggesting that Spitalfields was once the burial ground of some of the wealthiest and most important members of London's late Roman community.

Christopher Thomas directed the Spitalfields excavation for MoLAS. The sarcophagus, the lead coffin, the skeleton and its accompanying finds will be on display at the Museum of London from 17 December, and a booklet about them will be on sale at the museum.

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Warfare and the destruction of history

Alpaslan Özerdem visited Kosovo to assess the extent of cultural damage following this year's conflict

In November 1993, the elegant, 16th century Stari-Most bridge over the River Neretva at Mostar, Bosnia, lay in ruins.

It was shelled by the Bosnian Croats, during their war with the Bosnian Muslims, but not because the bridge had strategic importance. Rather, as a relic of the Muslim Ottoman Empire, it had become a prime symbol of Muslim identity. Its destruction was intended to strike a profound blow to Muslim morale.

Now that a kind of peace has been restored to Bosnia, the destruction of Mostar's famous and historic bridge - it has still not been replaced - seems peculiarly pointless; a tragic example of cultural vandalism that diminishes our global cultural heritage and affects us all. Mostar was not alone to suffer in that war. Nearby Pocitelj was ransacked by Croatian militia with symbols of Christianity erected and the buildings of Islam damaged. In fact, all over Bosnia-Herzegovina historic monuments and buildings, religious places and even cemeteries were attacked as part of the policy of ethnic cleansing adopted by all sides in the conflict.

Cultural vandalism is not a new phenomenon in war. From the Persians who sacked Athens in 480BC to the Germans whose bombers targetted England's historic towns in the so-called `Baedeker' raids of World War II, cultural vandalism has no doubt been a feature of conflict since war began.

Yet this form of vandalism appears to be becoming more of a central feature of war than ever before - perhaps because so many wars of the late 20th century are driven by ethnic, religious or cultural conflict. In Azerbaijan, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Croatia, Georgia, Lebanon and elsewhere, historic buildings have been prime targets of warfare.

This sad phenomenon is one of the subjects that we research at the Post-War Reconstruction and Development Unit (PRDU) at the University of York. We undertake research and consultancy work for United Nations agencies, national government agencies, international nongovernmental organisations and other bodies. And we train professionals - architects, economists, humanitarian workers, the military and others - in ways of managing post-war reconstruction. I am myself a civil engineer by training, of Turkish extraction.

This September, I travelled to Kosovo, to investigate for the PRDU the extent of cultural damage that has occurred as a result of the conflict there this year.

In two weeks, I covered much of the country, travelling largely by public transport. Kosovo has been affected in a different way from Bosnia, where opposing armies wrought widespread destruction on all forms of Bosnian infrastructure. Kosovo, by contrast, gives the impression of less widespread damage. In many towns, shops are open. Buses are running. Telecommunications are down, and in Pristina no traffic lights are working. But considering the level of human displacement - huge numbers are still without shelter, water or electricity - it is amazing how much `normal life' has already been restored.

Yet what you do see, as a ubiquitous sign of the recent conflict, are burned houses. Everywhere I travelled, especially in rural areas, the landscape was marked by the blackened shells of buildings that had once been people's homes. First, it was the Albanian homes that were burned. Then, with the return of Albanian refugees, Serb homes were put to the torch.

According to recent estimates by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, 120,000 homes have been damaged in Kosovo, two-thirds of them seriously damaged or completely destroyed. In towns, apartment blocks have generally survived because these were inhabited by both Serbs and Albanians. But neighbourhoods identified with one or other community have suffered. Albanian neighbourhoods of some 60 to 80 houses in towns like Mitrovica and Pec have disappeared, as has the Roma or Gypsy neighbourhood in Mitrovica, burned by returning refugees. In rural areas, where individual homes could be more easily recognised as belonging to a family from one or other community, the damage is worse. This extensive campaign of house-burning on both sideshas, of course, caused appalling damage to Kosovo's historic environment. This is perhaps most evident in the town of Prizren in southern Kosovo.

Prizren is arguably the most beautiful town in Kosovo. A few years ago it was one of Yugoslavia's tourism honeypots. With its narrow, winding cobble-stoned streets, and historic buildings of Turkish, Serbian and Albanian architectural styles, it had a reputation as an open-air museum. By good fortune, Prizren survived more or less intact the period of Nato's bombing campaign, from March to June this year. Yet when the Albanian Kosovars returned, the burnings began. Now the historic features of this beautiful town are in danger of being substantially lost.

Prizren's history goes back to Illyrian Dardans who fell under the Roman occupation in 68BC. From the 10th century to the Ottoman occupation in 1455, Prizren was administrated by Serbian rulers, under whom it became at one point the centre of the Serbian Empire. During Ottoman rule, the town was an important regional capital.

The town also plays a significant role in Albanian history. The League of Prizren, an assembly of representatives from all Albanian regions in the Balkans which was created to demand autonomy from the Ottoman Empire, first met in a house in Prizren in June 1878. Earlier this year, this historic house - a potent symbol of Albanian independence - was burned to the ground. The Serbs blamed Nato bombing. The Albanians blamed the Serbs.

The house stands by the river in a historic quarter. Its surrounding buildings survive. There can have been no reason for Nato to bomb it. The destruction was almost certainly an act of the Serbs, whose officials quickly removed the rubble from the site in order to create a public park.

Albanian retaliation soon began, taking revenge for alleged injustices suffered over the past ten years or more. In the historic heart of Prizren, whole streets have now been lost. The facades of the buildings remain, but behind them lurks a tragic mess of charred timbers and broken roof tiles. In one arson attack in August on a prominent Serb house on the riverbank, the fire spread quickly to surrounding buildings and consumed the oldest and most famous building in Prizren - an 18th century Ottoman gem, recognised by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.

Prizren's 11th century fort - the Kalaja of Prizren - overlooks the town from a plateau. Today, this fort and its labyrinth of underground tunnels are inaccessible, as the hill on which it stands was heavily mined by the Serbian army because of its strategic location. The mines are yet to be cleared.

In towns all over Kosovo, I have seen mosques damaged by Serb militia. The Serbs have claimed, in turn, that Orthodox churches and monasteries have been attacked in retaliation. The Sh'nm'ria Levishka orthodox church - one of the oldest buildings in Prizren - is today guarded around the clock by KFOR soldiers, to protect it from Albanian extremists.

What will happen when the United Nations forces depart? Now, many buildings are protected by their soldiers; but these guards cannot stay in Kosovo forever. The only hope for the survival of Kosovo's historic environment is if the Kosovar people themselves - both Serb and Albanian - can control their rage to destroy each other's, indeed their own, national cultural heritage.

There are some signs that this is beginning to happen. In Prizren, the destruction of the World Heritage Site building sent shock waves around the town. People began to protest at the wave of burnings. A campaign has emerged, run mainly by local journalists, and posters have started to appear pasted onto walls in the town. One was designed in such a way that the two burnt houses - the Serbian and the Albanian - appear to be one single house. The message of the posters is clear:

Everything belongs to us. Let us defend the place where we live. Stop burning!

Dr Alpaslan Özerdem works at the Post-war Reconstruction & Development Unit at the University of York

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