Even more from the bones…

Author: Michelle

Last week I blogged about what we have learned from the osteological analyses so far. Research is not just about answering questions though, good research ends up posing even more questions than we began with. So, this week I want to talk a little about some of the new questions the osteology has led us to ask.

What questions did we raise?

If we understand, based on these analyses that there age and sex do not differentiate different burial practices, then what does? Is it simply changes in preference that have some individuals burned and buried in pots while others are burned and buried most likely in an organic receptacle? What dictates the change from cremation to inhumation? Why are cists used for both burned and unburned bones? Our biggest limiting factor for understanding more about the burial practices in the Neolithic and Bronze Age on the Isle of Man is that most of the graves were excavated in the end of 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, when the current scientific understanding didn’t permit much analysis of human skeletal material from archaeological contexts. This means that unfortunately, excavation records about the bones and their contexts are quite limited, if present at all. It also means that sometimes the human skeletal material was not kept for analysis. Therefore, a lot of questions about deposition and context have been raised by this osteological analysis, which really can only be answered with some well-recorded, modern excavations. Osteological questions include: When we have more than one individual in a grave, is there any way to stratigraphically determine if they are mixed together or were they deposited at different times? Was there re-use of a particular grave, or area? When we have an articulated skeleton, what position was it in? Is there any evidence for organic wrappings of the body? With a larger sample, are there any patterns which can be perceived based on age or sex, in terms of burial contexts, or health issues?

IMAGE 1All identified vertebrae from The Cronk Upper Lherg Cist 1
Vertebrae from The Cronk, Upper Lherghydhoo


While radiocarbon dating can give us some answers regarding chronology and timing of the various deposits, it is not precise enough to determine if there is subsequent deposition within a short period of time (let’s say seasonally within a year)… but stratigraphy can help us un-pick these details. As can, paying close attention to aspects of the taphonomic processes which have effected the skeletal material… for example: is there noticeable water action in the burial? Have animals or plants disturbed the skeleton (little rodents love carting away small bones like fingers to their nests)? What position is the skull in, in relation to the first and second cervical vertebrae? Is there evidence of re-opening of a cist? Was it filled in with dirt after the body was deposited, or was it left open with a cap stone?

So how can we go about answering the new questions we have created? More excavation, with a good and targeted methodology will certainly help, particularly paying close attention to the skeletal material within the grave. As well, some of the skeletal material has been set aside as samples for radiocarbon dating, stable isotope analyses, and aDNA analysis. Unfortunately cremated bone cannot be tested for isotopes or DNA, so it falls to the 6 unburned skeletons to bear the majority of the testing. Samples from this small group with hopefully be able to provide us with an idea of diet (through carbon and nitrogen analyses), regional mobility (through oxygen and strontium analyses), and genetic connections (through ancient DNA analyses).

IMAGE2Small bead from West Kimmeragh Boulder Cist found in cremation
Small bead from West Kimmeragh Boulder Cist found within the cremated bones. Image: Michelle


Overall, what we have learned about the Manx people from the past is still developing as we continue to connect the biological data with the material culture and contextual information. In terms of the archaeological process when looking at mortuary features, the osteological information provides some of the key criteria needed to understand funerary practices in the past. We can look at questions regarding differences or similarities based on age or sex, or look at whether disease or disability may have been prevalent and had an impact on burial. The analysis of the prehistoric skeletal material from the Isle of Man will be comparable to skeletal analyses from England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland and will contribute to the understanding of the prehistoric periods across the British Isles.


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