Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Seminar report: Missing Persons? Formal disposal and funerary practices in Prehistoric Britain

On the occasion of the Inaugural Lecture of the Society on November 20th, Professor Chris Scarre, head of the University of Durham addressed the gathered audience about funerary practices and the disposal of the dead through a project of his called Invisible Dead. The aims of the project were to analyse the how burials appear and disappear in the record of various regions across Britain from the Neolithic to the decline of the Roman Empire as well as understand the changes in burial customs and the relationship between the living and the dead. Professor Scarre highlighted that the treatment of the dead is critical not just for archaeologists in finding remains, but also for understanding the society it reflects, funerary practices echoing a “self-awareness” within the culture.

                Using the Baysian method for collecting a vast range of data, Professor Scarre was able to note changes in burial practices across different eras in Britain as well as different regions. For example, a majority of funerary practices in Southern and Eastern England during the Late Neolithic to the Early Bronze Age consisted of a single grave under a round mound. He noted that in terms of space, there was a segregated funerary space, possibly for ritual. In contrast to this, the Middle and Late Bronze Age produced more cremation burials, which was becoming a more widespread practice throughout Europe at the time.

                As well as addressing the dead buried in funeral customs, Professor Scarre also addressed the issues of finding the dead in ‘non-funerary’ customs such as victims of warfare or bodies disposed in other manners. As an example, he talked about a skull found in the River Thames that was dated from the Bronze Age. He remarked that because of this deviation from traditional practices, it does not give archaeologists an accurate sense of how the dead were treated.

                From the transition between the Bronze Age and the Iron Age, his project revealed the growing shift in burial practices with a rise in inhumation graves. In some of these graves, chariot remains were uncovered, however he believes that the incorporation of a chariot in the grave was not a continuous burial custom. It is also at this time, his data revealed there is a slight decline in cremation graves, which raises questions as to why there was a change in customs but also challenges assumptions of ‘normative burials’.

                From the Roman Conquest of Britain in 43 AD, the Invisible Dead project estimated that the population within Britain at the time would have consisted roughly of 3.7 million people! Based on this number, it was estimated that 25 per thousand per year would have led to 22 million deaths. However, despite these estimations, only .05% of these burials are known from the English Heritage Database. This raises the issue of what happened to the rest of the population? Through this project, Professor Scarre hoped to address this issue, stating that this was only the first half of the project and that he hopes that he can continue this project to provide a clear answer. 

By Mary Cain

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