Session 21 – Lost Souls: Breathing life into the fragmented dead

Timetable: Friday afternoon 1400-1730 in the Alison Wylie Zoom Room

Format: Half day workshop

Organisers: Jacqui Mulville, Julia Best, Adelle Bricking, Katie Faillace, Bethan Healey, Eirini Konstantinidi, Michael Legge



This session looks at the strategies that archaeologists use to deal with the isolated, the eroding, the assembled and the incomplete dead with an aim of forming a Working Group from the session. Disarticulated and partial burials are discovered across a wide range of locations and the approaches used to understand the lives and deaths of these individuals present challenges. Difficulties in excavating, dating, and clarifying the context of incomplete and/or disarticulated remains are compounded by the range of actors involved in their deposition, from purposeful disarticulation as a mortuary practice, to coastal erosion and variable cave environments, to selective curation by past excavators, and beyond.

The absence of clear strategies for recovering, recording and analysing disarticulated remains has created a vacuum in our understanding of past activity. It is essential that we develop tools to recover and interpret fragmentary remains as incomplete assemblages which have inevitably resulted from past mortuary and burial practices. These practices, and the people represented, will never be understood unless fragmented records are assessed using multi-level methods of analysis.
From first responses to the discovery of human remains in non-burial contexts, to funding, excavation, recording and analysis we invite short 10-minute papers that consider the procedures, practices and principles needed to recover and reanimate these divided and liminal lives. With an emphasis on utilising disarticulated remains from multiple chronologies and contexts to their full potential, discussion will centre on developing best practice procedures for working with Lost Souls.


1400 – Current Professional Perspectives on Disarticulated Human Remains

Rebecca Cadbury-Simmons, University of Bradford;  William Hale, University of Bradford

Ethical treatment of human remains is of the utmost importance within archaeology; however, a dichotomy exists between the ways articulated and disarticulated remains are treated. Disarticulated human remains (DHR) are frequently excluded from post-excavation assessment and/or analysis. This is particularly apparent in DHR which are not from specific burial deposits. The literature shows the reasons for this are varied and complex, however the main factors tend to include a lack of professional guidance, a lack of previous research, negative historic attitudes, and increasingly limited budgets in commercial work.

To better understand the current attitudes towards, and methodologies for working with DHR, a survey was distributed in September 2020 to professionals working with human remains in the UK. The 68 responses to the survey support the reasons found within the literature for this contrast in practices, as well as raising further issues in working with DHR.

1415 – Evaluating the Usefulness of Studying Disarticulated Human Skeletal Remains

Rebecca Avery, University of Exeter/Cotswold Archaeology

This project sought to evaluate the usefulness of studying a collection of disarticulated human remains in the contexts of academic research, commercial archaeology, and teaching. Disarticulated remains from the former Royal Navy burial grounds at The Crescent, Plymouth were analysed, and the results were compared to data from the articulated burials to confirm the accuracy of the analysis. This data was further tested through comparison to contemporary sites, placing it within the wider archaeological context. The disarticulated data created a similar demographic profile to the articulated remains and to those from the other sites. Therefore, it was concluded that disarticulated remains hold scientific value in all sectors of archaeology. As these findings are contrary to statements in current osteological guidelines, it is recommended that further research is undertaken to establish the value of studying disarticulated remains and that standardised methods are developed to ensure consistency in disarticulated analysis across the field.

1430 – Aims, challenges and ethical considerations for destructive sampling of fragmented assemblages

Jess Thompson, McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, University of Cambridge; John Robb, Department of Archaeology, University of Cambridge; Trish Biers, Duckworth Laboratory, University of Cambridge

With much recent debate on the ethics of destructive sampling, and the rapid rise in genomic research, bioarchaeologists have yet to carefully consider how key issues in this conversation affect analyses of human remains from commingled and fragmented assemblages. The ethical roadmap for invasive analyses of individual skeletons is generally clear, even if not always navigated sensitively. But how does this roadmap change when there are no identifiable ‘individuals’, when multi-issue analyses cannot be implemented, the ideal skeletal elements are not abundant, and the MNI is difficult to estimate? The aims of chronometric, genomic, isotopic, and proteomic analyses shift in these cases, but what about the ethics? Several case studies of research on prehistoric European burial sites provide different strategies for addressing these issues on a methodological level. Notwithstanding their individual complexities, however, it is necessary that we now produce guidelines and sampling protocols for fragmented assemblages.

1445 – Unexpected Encounters — Recovery and Reconstruction of Disturbed Remains

Dawn Cobb, Illinois Department of Natural Resources; Eve Hargrave, NAGPRA Office, OVCRI, University of Illinois; Kristin Hedman, Illinois State Archaeological Survey, Prairie Research Institute

In North America, the excavation, recovery, and analysis of human graves are largely restricted to contexts threatened by natural erosion or human activities. These projects are regulated by federal and state preservation laws aimed at protecting human remains and burial locations regardless of age or cultural affiliation. The Illinois Human Skeletal Remains Protection Act (20 ILCS 3440/), codified in 1989, is one such law. Under this law, an isolated tooth is granted the same attention as a complete body; the objective is to provide osteobiographical information and reconstruct the demographic characteristics, temporal association, and mortuary context regardless of completeness or preservation of the elements recovered/exposed. Methods used to aid in reconstructing the lives and identities of individuals include detailed skeletal analyses, radiocarbon and isotopic analyses, and historical records. We will share some examples of the unexpected encounters we’ve had and our efforts to understand the lives they represent.

1500 Dead and Gone but not Dead and Buried: Breathing New Life into Lost and Recently Excavated Bone Assemblages from the Covesea Caves, NE Scotland

Lindsey Büster, Canterbury Christ Church University/University of York; Charlotte Primeau, University of York; Tom Booth, Francis Crick Institute; and Ian Armit, University of York

The Sculptor’s Cave is the best known of a series of funerary caves on the south shore of the Moray Firth, NE Scotland. Its notoriety stems from rich assemblages of artefacts and human remains dating to the Late Bronze Age and Roman Iron Age, recovered during two campaigns of excavation in the late 1920s and 1979. Between 2014 and 2020, a large programme of post-excavation reanalysed and synthesised these assemblages to tell the story of this long-lived and enigmatic site. The biggest challenge was the loss of the majority of the disarticulated human bone assemblage from the 1920s excavation campaign, which survived only as hand-written lists. In 2014, new fieldwork began at other adjacent caves, with Covesea Cave 2 in particular yielding a substantial disarticulated bone assemblage. This presentation is a tale of two halves: the first will outline the innovative approach taken to the analysis of the lost Sculptor’s Cave assemblage, while the second will explore characteristics of the recently excavated bones using the zonation method, histology, and macroscopic and microscopic examination. Together, these approaches are shining new light on the intimate and enduring relationships between the living and the dead in this unique prehistoric mortuary landscape.

1520 – Break

1540 – Multi-scalar spatial approaches to disarticulated and fragmented skeletal remains: in-situ volumetric modelling and the reconstruction of mortuary practices by Homo naledi

Patrick Randolph-Quinney, Northumbria University and University of the Witwatersrand; Ashley Kruger, Stockholm University

The Dinaledi Chamber of Rising Star Cave, South Africa, has yielded >1600 fossils of Homo naledi dated to 236-335 kya. We have identified evidence of mortuary ritual through deliberate body disposal or funerary caching, a behaviour unrecognised in such a morphologically primitive hominin. The Dinaledi assemblage preserves a minimal amount of articulated or semi-articulated remains, with the bulk of skeletal elements disassociated and commingled. The project used innovative approaches to understanding skeletal dis/articulation and spatial arrangements. Using 3D imaging we integrated bone elements into a multi-modal, multi-proxy source of spatial and decompositional data, allowing for 3D digital placement of bones back into their original pre-excavation spatial position. This allows us to access critical information with regards to embedded taphonomic information and site formation processes operating on this disarticulated assemblage. This approach has significant implications for how archaeologists reconstruct and reimagine the life and death space of mortuary environments.

1555 – Modelling the Most Likely Number of Individuals in commingled deposits

John Robb, Department of Archaeology, University of Cambridge; Sechan Yun, Faculty of Mathematics, University of Cambridge; Thomas Rosenberg, Faculty of Mathematics, University of Cambridge; Jess Thompson, McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, University of Cambridge

When we are confronted by remains from a collective, commingled deposit, one of the first questions we ask is: how many people were deposited here? This is basic osteological data which is fundamental for interpreting the social process of burial. It is a deceptively simple question. In fact, it remains an unsolved problem; we have no good method for answering it. There are two reasons for this. One is that it involves assessing what is missing from a site as well as what is present. The other is that we lack comparative data for it. We do not have a library of collective tomb assemblages for which we know how many people were originally deposited. Without this, how can we test and calibrate methods? Some recent methods have been devised by archaeologists to address this problem, but each comes with its own limitations. We report on the results of collaborative research approaching this problem using predictive and probabilistic modelling techniques. Our exploration of the challenges involved in such statistical methods circumscribes the core factors which constrain our ability to model MLNI in complex deposits with individually varied, and usually long-term, taphonomic histories.

1610 – Methodological approaches to large-scale commingling at the Ossuary of Roncesvalles (Navarre, Spain)

Emma Bonthorne, University of Oxford/Aditu Arkeologia

Excavations at the Silo de Carlomagno in Roncesvalles (Navarre, Spain) have generated more than 350,000 human bone fragments from mixed contexts dating from the medieval period to the 20th century. The wide range of mortuary practices employed during 800 years of continual usage have led to high degrees of fragmentation and commingling throughout all excavated layers. The challenges associated with the disarticulated remains are further compounded by storage, time and funding considerations which have highlighted some of the impracticalities of implementing traditional MNI methodologies in the field.

This paper presents some of the strategies employed in the excavation and recording of large-scale disarticulated remains at the site, with a focus on streamlining inventorying procedures and minimising inter- and intra- observer inconsistencies throughout the recording process.  Results from the first phases of analysis will be presented, together with practical considerations for the future implementation of this methodology.

1625 – Lost children? Uncovering co-mingled and fragmented child remains from the Neolithic site of Bestansur, Iraqi Kurdistan.

Sam Walsh, University of Reading

This paper will discuss the strategies used in the excavation and analysis of infant and child remains from the Neolithic site of Bestansur, Iraqi Kurdistan (7700-7200 BC) as part of the MENTICA project. Human burials have been recovered from multiple areas of the Neolithic settlement, resulting in an MNI of 94 individuals. Over half the individuals in this assemblage are aged from neonate to 5 years at death. The main concentration of at least 73 individuals were buried within multiple phases of a single special building, one room of which was predominantly used for multi-staged articulated and disarticulated burial deposits and related activities. Many infants and young children were placed in a specific area of this room, differentiating them from the adults. The excavation and analyses of these individuals have been highly challenging and time consuming due to the fragility and co-mingled nature of these remains. Within human remains studies, fragmented juvenile burials are often poorly documented with a lack of standard strategies used. This paper highlights the range of information which can be gained from fragmented and incomplete juvenile remains through using multiple collaborative methods.

1640 – A puzzle with missing pieces: Visual guide for beginners to analyse cremated remains

Pilar Mata Tutor, Departamento de Medicina Legal, Psiquiatría y Patología, Laboratorio de Antropología y Odontología Forense; Catherin Villoria Rojas, Departamento de Medicina Legal, Psiquiatría y Patología, Laboratorio de Antropología y Odontología Forense

Fire can be considered a taphonomic agent that destroys and severely modifies osseous remains, providing certain limitations and challenges during the anthropological examination. Thus, a simple and straight-forward methodology to analyse cremated remains for beginners, with high-quality pictures and short descriptions, is recommended, especially if the sample is very fragmented and in poor state of preservation.

In this short communication we will explain the methodology that we designed and regularly employ in the Laboratorio de Antropología y Odontología Forense to study cremated remains both from archaeological and forensic contexts, focusing on the laboratory techniques used to separate the remains in anatomical regions, to differentiate between sharp force trauma and heat induced fractures, to estimate the preburning condition of the remains, to calculate the degree of completeness and conservation, and to evaluate quantitatively the overall quality of the sample.

1655 – Break

1705 – Discussion

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create your website with
Get started
%d bloggers like this: