Wednesday, December 7, 2016


Zoë L. Devlin, Emma-Jayne Graham (ed.), Death Embodied: Archaeological Approaches to the Treatment of the Corpse. Studies in funerary archaeology, 9. Oxford; Philadelphia: Oxbow Books, 2015. Pp. 174. ISBN 9781782979432. $55.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Liana Brent, Cornell University (

Version at BMCR home site

[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

As part of Oxbow's Studies in Funerary Archaeology series, this collection of essays places the body at the core of archaeological and anthropological studies of past funerary and burial practices. Two main themes are thus highlighted by Graham in the Introduction: the power of the dead body to evoke a range of emotions and physical responses in the minds of the living, and the necessity of placing the human body at the forefront of burial practices, while disentangling conflation between the body, skeleton and social identities of the deceased (3-5, 12). Fundamental are the questions of how the materiality of the cadaver affected the development of particular funerary behaviors and why the corpse has been written out of funerary archaeology. Collectively, these chapters raise important questions of how an individual's social and biological identities or the manner of death affected the circumstances of burial. Papers are primarily concerned with archaeological, osteological and occasionally textual data from European contexts, which range from prehistoric Malta and central Europe, Iron Age and Roman Italy, through Anglo-Saxon England.

Chapter 2 by Rebay-Salisbury focuses on partial cremations from European prehistory and the Classical periods. The author contrasts the transformation that takes place in an inhumation burial, in which decomposition largely occurs out of sight, with the act of cremation, where corporeal destruction is featured prominently in the funeral (19). The author investigates four main scenarios of partial cremations: incomplete cremation of an individual; differential treatment of separated body parts; differential application of fire during the deposition of an un-burnt body; and finally, cremation of partially de-fleshed skeletal bodies in the form of secondary mortuary rites. Rebay-Salisbury addresses the technical aspects of cremation, how corpses could be transformed during the process of incineration, as well as the ways in which past societies could 're-imagine' the body after cremation (32). The author acknowledges that cremation or inhumation could be linked to particular beliefs, yet partial cremation in multi-stage rituals resists straightforward archaeological interpretation.

In Chapter 3, Graham continues the discussion started by Rebay-Salisbury about the links between cremation and inhumation practices and specific beliefs by focusing on the shift that took place in Roman Italy in the late first and early second centuries AD. This transition has been explained by Nock, Cumont, Toynbee, and Morris, among others, with surprisingly little attention to the body itself. Graham argues that funerary rites were concerned with controlling the materiality of the corpse as it began to decompose, and that the protection of the body was fundamental to the elaboration of these rites (47). The author connects the apparent increase of funerary professionals (libitinarii, pollinctores) in the first century AD with an increasing distance from the corpse in preliminary funerary treatment (43, 57). Inhumation as opposed to cremation offered alternative ways of protecting and concealing the corpse, which the author explores through the archaeological record. In light of scant evidence for funerary professionals, the degree to which their involvement could precipitate such a top-down shift in burial practices is perhaps overstated (58), as the family, peers or kin may have continued to be responsible for corpse disposal and burial in large parts of Roman Italy. Otherwise, situating the materiality of the corpse at the forefront of changes in burial practices is a fruitful way of investigating embodied funerary experiences among the living.

Devlin, in Chapter 4, argues that the corpse continues to have a social life after death, and that the corpse itself influences the ways in which the living perceive and interact with the dead in Anglo-Saxon communities. Devlin begins by considering textual accounts that reveal how the bodies of preserved saints and executed criminals could be exposed, concealed, protected or destroyed (64). Post-mortem conditions of viewing the corpse could reflect the manner of an individual's death, as the living could witness, punish, venerate and commemorate the deceased. Archaeological case studies from five Anglo-Saxon sites focus on the deliberate reopening and disturbance of graves, and on the movement of bodies. Not all examples are equally convincing in the interpretation of taphonomic events: in the first case study of subadult burial 1847 from St. Andrew, Fishergate, Devlin infers 'jumbled but tightly packed bones' as an indicator that the individual had been disinterred from the original burial place and subsequently redeposited at a time of partial decomposition. The perceived indicators of exhumation and reburial in burial 1847 raise other interpretive possibilities, such as a delayed primary burial, bone tumble following the collapse of perishable materials within the grave, or the disappearance of certain anatomical connections as the result of taphonomic processes. Overall the focus on deliberate re-engagement with corpses advances the book's aim of investigating interactions between the dead and the living.

Chapter 5 by Aspöck challenges the concepts of norm, variety and deviance by examining indicators of post-burial treatment in early medieval England at the Anglo-Saxon cemetery of Winnall II. The author resists conventional, typological approaches to Anglo-Saxon 'deviant' burials and instead adopts a contextual approach, in which normal or outlying burial practices are identified as such by considering statistically dominant patterns in the available evidence from a cemetery, region or period. Drawing on osteological and contextual data, the author illustrates the ways in which post-burial manipulations can be detected in site reports from older excavations by considering three important taphonomic factors: indirect evidence of intervention pits; bone from other individuals; and unusual or non-anatomical positional of human skeletal remains or grave goods (91). By using the relative degree of corporeal decomposition as an indicator of the time between deposition and reopening, Aspöck attests to the importance of taphonomic considerations in the interpretation of burials and demonstrates how the state of the corpse could shape post-burial practices (105).

Using evidence from the early Neolithic period Linearbandkeramic (LBK) in central Europe, Hofman in Chapter 6 challenges the assumption that divergent funerary behavior constitutes 'deviance,' with the implication that it marks abnormal and inferior status, especially when funerary 'norms' reflect modern ideas of pious burial. Drawing on cases of defleshed, partial and fragmented human remains, which are often presented as deviant or anomalous, the author outlines possible connections between these rites in both settlement and cemetery contexts, so that funerary variability is not simply interpreted as an indication of norm or deviance. The author explores parallel practices of bodily presentation and fragmentation in settlement and cemetery burials, noting that both types of location create an idealized picture of the deceased, while 'microtraditions' and references to other graves unite the two burial contexts (120-121). The ways in which grave goods and the body could undergo processes of fragmentation suggest that dissolution and dispersal was one way of creating an identity that was not necessarily fixed, but part of a managed process. Rather than stigmatize burials that do not conform to certain rites, the author argues for a continuum of practices that range between idealized images of bodies and fragmented remains.

In Chapter 7, Perego, Saracino, Zamboni and Zanoni investigate marginality, social exclusion and abnormal mortuary behavior through socio-anthropological, archaeological and bioarchaeological lenses. The authors contend that differentiated or deviant burial rites, especially when paired with skeletal indicators of violence, can be an indication of social marginality. Drawing on archaeological evidence from the Veneto region in Italy in the Final Bronze and Iron Ages, the authors cite the following characteristics as some of the criteria for anomalous burials: inhumation in largely cremation cemeteries; displacement at the margins of formal burial areas; low energy expenditure or the adoption of simpler tomb structures; the absence of grave goods in inhumation burials; abnormal burial positions, especially prone burials; evidence of disability, deformity or disease; musculoskeletal stress on the skeleton, and the association of animal remains. This contribution is perhaps the least concerned with dynamic material bodies, as the case studies adopt a fairly typological approach to deviant burials.

Chapter 8 by Stoddart and Malone investigates death-centered rituals in prehistoric Malta through above-ground 'temple' structures that were combined with subterranean funerary hypogea or caves. At the Brochtorff Circle at Xaghra, for example, bodies were intentionally disarticulated and distributed in caves within megalith circles. Two main themes are access to or restriction from formal burial, as well as the deliberate disarticulation of body parts in the majority of burial deposits. From a methodological standpoint, they argue that the French 'anthropologie du terrain' or archaeothanatology should move beyond osteological and taphonomic observations, in order to take into account theoretical insights from cultural anthropology (164). The authors evaluate two possible models of the prehistoric Maltese burying population: the 'elite eternity' model, in which members were not closely associated by kin relations, and the 'indigenous extended descent' or 'democratic theater' model, which assumes closer degrees of kin relations and potential marriage linkages (168-169). Using ethnographic comparisons and demographic profiles of select burial sites, the authors argue for a variation of elite democracy, despite the admitted lack of scientific proof for this preference.

This book cogently demonstrates the necessity of incorporating dynamic material bodies into discussions of death in past societies. The centrality of the human body in archaeological contexts unites these papers, which explore how various types of post-mortem treatments were concomitantly determined by and affected the state of the remains. By bringing together studies that span multiple periods in various European contexts, the authors highlight the fact that multiple and possibly conflicting interpretations of mortuary evidence are possible. While the emphasis on the body in tomb contexts is not entirely new in mortuary archaeology,1 the book under review demonstrates the degree to which corporeal concerns necessarily transcend the disciplinary divide between anthropology and archaeology.

Nearly all of the chapters demonstrate a high level of awareness about the materiality of death, the ways in which corpses decompose, as well as the accompanying changes that take place in burial environments. These contributions continually reinforce the idea that circumstances surrounding decomposition affect what archaeologists find at the time of excavation and that they must be taken into account in archaeological interpretations. The volume relies heavily on Anglophone scholarship pertaining to decomposition and corpse taphonomy, and, with the exception of passing references by Graham, Aspöck, Stoddart and Malone, there is surprisingly little drawn from complementary French work on archaeothanatology, despite the overlapping interests with the work of Duday and colleagues.2

The volume is well illustrated with 29 images and 7 tables. There are very few minor errors in grammar and editing: Harris and Robb 2013 (7) should be Robb and Harris 2013, as per the bibliographic entry. This book should be read by anyone interested in funerary archaeology, regardless of temporal or regional focus.

Table of Contents

1. Introduction: Embodying death in archaeology / Graham
2. Neither fish nor fowl: burial practices between inhumation and cremation / Rebay-Salisbury
3. Corporeal concerns: the role of the body in the transformation of Roman mortuary practices / Graham
4. "(Un)touched by decay": Anglo-Saxon encounters with dead bodies / Devlin
5. Funerary and post-depositional body treatments at the Middle Anglo-Saxon Cemetery Winnall II: norm, variety, and forms of deviance / Aspöck
6. The burnt, the whole and the broken: funerary variability in the Linearbandkeramik / Hofmann
7. Practices of ritual marginalization in late prehistoric Veneto: evidence from the field / Perego, Saracino, Zamboni, Zanoni
8. Prehistoric Maltese death: democratic theatre or elite democracy? / Stoddart and Malone


1.   Meskell, L. 1996. "The Somatization of Archaeology: Institutions, Discourses, Corporeality." Norwegian Archaeological Review 29: 1-16.
2.   Duday, H. 2006. "L'archéothanatologie ou l'archéologie de la mort (Archaeothanatology or the Archaeology of Death)." In R. Gowland and C. Knüsel (edd.). The Social Archaeology of Funerary Remains, pp. 30-56. Oxford: Oxbow Books; Duday, H. 2009. The Archaeology of the Dead. Lectures in Archaeothanatology. Oxford: Oxbow Books.

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