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29 February 2000
Neolithic gruesome burial practices

Our Neolithic ancestors moved parts of rotting corpses from one burial place to another as part of an extended funerary ritual, a Cambridge (England) archaeologist claims. Missing hand and foot bones, and cuts from removing flesh attest to different kinds of manipulation.
      "Reordering of human remains was often the result of careful arrangement: examples include skeletons of men separated from women, and adults from children," Mary Baxter says. "From around 6,500 to 4,000 years ago, however, a completely different practice took place - disposal of the body first in one place, followed by a 'secondary burial' of the whole body or part of it somewhere else."
      Three kinds of seriously post-mortem movement can be detected, she reports in British Archaeology: the most "normal", from our point of view, is when whole bodies might be shifted before they had decayed to make room for a newly deceased person in a collective tomb.
      At the West Kennet long barrow near Avebury (England), certain body parts were removed for ritual reinterment elsewhere, especially skulls and leg bones; and at Isbister in Orkney (Scotland) the bodies were defleshed outside, and only the major bones interred clean in the tomb chamber.
      The differences can be detected because the small bones in the feet and hands are among the first to drop off as the body decays, Ms Baxter says, so that if complete corpses were buried, these would still be present. If the small bones are there, but some of the larger ones are missing, it suggests that these were removed after decay had occurred and used elsewhere. The presence of large but not small bones conversely suggests initial mortuary treatment in another location: "The hands and feet probably dropped off there or in transit," she says.
      At Haddenham, near Cambridge, a wooden chamber had contained five or six bodies: one was missing its cranium, and another consisted of just the head, neck and arms, "looking like a skeleton that had been cut in two under the armpits", Ms Baxter says. "It suggests to me that someone may have taken hold of the dead body by its shoulders and yanked." One arm has a cut mark into the bone, where the muscle was sliced off above the elbow. At Ascott under Wychwood in the Cotswolds, semi-decayed remains had been bound tightly into bundles. "The apparent tendency to handle part-decayed bodies argues against any desire to avoid the distressing sight of a rotting corpse", she says.

Source: The Times (30 January, 2000)

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