Death customs

And all the other bits!

As we work closely with archaeological planners and advisors, particularly the English Heritage Greater London Archaeological Advisors in London, the scope of all of our fieldwork and post-excavation strategies follow nationally agreed strategies, we have a really structured process that guides us through the excavation and analysis works. So my specialist osteological analysis and reporting will tie in to specific research questions generated for each site. On large projects like our post-medieval cemetery excavation in Bethnal Green, I will also engage with other specialists, particularly our small finds specialist, Helen MacQuarrie, who will be looking at the coins, dress accessories such as hair combs and buttons that we found with the burials, and our dendrochronologist Anne Crone, who

An adult skull which we found with a coin in each eye orbit for the symbolic payment for transport into the afterlife. Copyright AOC Archaeology

Variation in coffin decoration from post-medieval burials excavated from Bethnal Green, London. Copyright AOC Archaeology

has been working to identifying the species that were used for the manufacture of wooden gravemarkers, which we also found at the site. Anne is also blogging about her day today – worth having a look. And I’ve uploaded a picture of one particularly interesting burial we found with a coin placed in each eye orbit as a symbolic payment for transport into the afterlife.

As an osteologist, I also look into the variation in funerary practices that were adopted in the past. The Bethnal Green burials were interred in wooden coffins, mostly covered with an outer textile that tends not to survive very well. The textile was held in place by upholstery pins and the coffin makers placed the pins in a range of patterns to add a bit of variation to the design of the coffin. Additional metal decorations were added, including angels and urns with flowers as well as sun-rays and rosettes. It’s interesting to see if the construction and decoration of the coffin varied, either between the sexes or by age or showed any variation across different sites.  So after recording each skeleton, I’ll catalogue the coffin size and decoration from site records and photographs and hopefully quantify the changes. You can see the variation in the coffin decorations in the site photo and this is generating a mass of data that will hopefully provide some really interesting results. Some of the burials had surviving coffin plates, which tell us the name and date of death of the individual. We can try and identify these individuals in the surviving parish records such as birth, marriage and death records, the census records, parish rate books and in wills, to try and broaden what we know about their lives. At the end of the analysis, we will bring together all of the research and evidence in a site-specific monograph, so the results will be fully accessible in the public domain together with the archived finds, which will be deposited at the LAARC.

Osteology at AOC Archaeology Group

I’m very lucky to have a job that I absolutely love doing. My role is to excavate and analyse the human remains that we find across our archaeological sites. It can be a diverse role – last week I looked at an Early Bronze Age adult cremation burial, next week I’ll be looking at some medieval burials found underneath a chapel floor. But today I’m studying one of my favourite groups – post-medieval burials fromLondon! The bone surface preservation is usually really good in post-medieval burials, which means we can see a great range of things on the skeleton, whether it’s a slight developmental anomaly or a more severe pathological change.

The skeletons I’m looking at are from a former burial ground dating from 1840 to 1855 from Bethnal Green. The ground was privately owned by a pawnbroker – he clearly saw an opportunity to make some money from the high mortality rates in the parish and surrounding area! We excavated the burial ground over six extremely muddy months last year, prior to the building of a new nursery school on the site. As you can see in the site photo, we’ll uncover and clean the coffins before recording and photographing them. We recovered just over 1000 burials; some of the graveshafts contained up to 54 burials and were up to 7.5m deep.

When back in the office, having cleaned the skeletons, I’ll start by laying out all of the remains and then producing an inventory of which bones are present or missing. Post-medieval burials w

Excavating and recording post-medieval burials from Bethnal Green, London. Copyright AOC Archaeology Group.

ere often placed in vertical stacks in graveshafts, which sometimes collapse over time. So I’ll look for any possible mixing between the bones (if I have three skulls for one burial there’s a problem!) and I’ll check the site records, which will indicate if a coffin was damaged or had collapsed. I’ll then assess the bone preservation and estimate the age and sex of the individual as well as taking a host of measurements – for this site I’m particularly interested in seeing how well the juveniles were growing compared to other groups or compared to modern studies.

The best bit of the job, for me, is to determine how healthy individuals were in the past. I’m a true geek and I’m fascinated by how the skeleton can respond to disease processes and how, by recognising and recording those changes, we can help to reconstruct a bit more about what life was like in the past. I admire fieldwork archaeologists – how they can look at a hole in the ground and work out what activity had taken place on the site – but I love that my work has a more personal aspect by looking at the evidence from the people themselves. It’s a very emotive subject, but hopefully by trying to ascertain as much as about them as possible, as carefully as possible, we are gauging a respectful and fascinating insight into their past lives.

Right – ready for the first skeleton of the day. I’ll complete a paper-based record for each skeleton, which forms part of the site records that are archived with the relevant museum when the project is finished, in this case the London Archaeological Archive and Research Centre, so if anyone needs any further information they can directly access the records. We also have a specific osteology database for generating our report data, which can get big depending on how many pathologies there are on a skeleton or how long-winded I’m being. I’ll update the blog later on to show you what I’ve found. I can already see traces of a nice cranial infection on this individual!

Human Remain Detection Dogs Help to Identify Unmarked Graves in an African American Cemetery

Since its creation, the  Florida Public Archaeology Network’s North Central Region office, located in Tallahassee, has worked hard to assist local organizations that are working on various preservation projects in the region. The most recent of which involves a historic African American cemetery located in Tallahassee, Florida. The Munree Cemetery, as it is known, was established in the late 1800s to early 1900s. It is associated with the Welaunee and Monreif plantations of Tallahassee. The cemetery contains at least 250 burials, the majority of which are unmarked. Since 2009 a group of concerned citizens have been working with county and city officials to protect and preserve this historic site. The citizens established a non-profit organization, The Munree Cemetery Foundation, Inc. as part of this effort. In early 2012 this group contacted the Southeast Archaeological Center asking if there were any archaeologists that would be interested in assisting them. The Southeast Archaeological Center contacted the North Central FPAN office. Since that time the Southeast Archaeological Center and the North Central FPAN office have partnered with the local citizens to work on having the cemetery properly documented. This opportunity is being used to create awareness within the community of the importance of historic cemeteries and how to properly maintain and protect them. After all, cemeteries are a non-renewable resource – once they are gone, they are gone for ever! And when a cemetery is abandoned and disappears over time, the priceless information that cemetery provides to archaeologists and historians is lost forever as well. Burials are not only a reflection of those buried there, but also of the community and the cultural practices of those that were present at the internment of those buried.

On June 29th and June 30th  a team of archaeologists from both organizations and volunteers from the Munree Cemetery Foundation, Inc. will take two days to document the cemetery and conduct some much needed maintenance. The Southeast Archaeological Center is generously providing use of their GPR equipment to assist with this effort. On June 30th the volunteers and local citizens will have the opportunity to get some hands on experience using the GPR. The group will also take this opportunity to learn how to safely and properly clean cemetery monuments using D-2 Biological Solution and learn how to document sites using the Florida Master Site File cemetery form. In addition to using these more common methods of cemetery documentation, a unique opportunity has been presented. On June 29th, which happens to be the 2012 Day of Archaeology, we will utilize specially trained Human Remains Detection (HRD) canines to help identify unmarked burials. After several months of planning, three dog handlers and their specially trained dogs will be assisting in identifying the boundaries of this cemetery and will also help to identify the locations of unmarked graves. This information will be compared with the results of the GPR survey. The public is  invited out to the cemetery while the dogs and archaeologists are conducting their survey. Of course, we all will take time to answer questions and educate visitors about the importance of protecting historic cemeteries.

Tomorrow we will post another blog about this project! We will also be live tweeting, look for the hash tags #Munree and #Dayofarch!

 

Historic graveyards and community archaeology in Ireland

wrapped Monaghan headstone

Low impact headstone rubbing from Kileevan, Co. Monaghan, Ireland

A colleague of ours spent years recording the archaeology of an island off the west coast of Ireland. In the last few weeks of the project the team commenced the survey of the islands’ historic graveyard.

‘Finally,’ his neighbours said jokingly ‘ you are doing something useful around here’.

 

We know, as archaeologists, the value of our surveys, excavations and publications (http://eachtra.ie/index.php/journal/) but that value is not always apparent to the general public. We have found that community-based historic graveyard surveys (http://www.historicgraves.ie/blog) are a great way to introduce members of the public to our methods and to our ways of thinking and looking at the world.

 

In the course of this Day of Archaeology we hope to touch on the application of archaeological methods to historic graveyard surveys and to also present the sights and sounds of the Irish landscape.