Last month I attended a day conference at the University of Groningen: Mortuary Archaeology Today. In a splendid venue on a hot day, we explored all manner of death-related archaeology topics!

Now that some time has past and I’ve had the opportunity to reflect on the event, I want to share my notes on the proceedings of a successful, interesting and diverse conference organised by four researchers: three from Groningen and one from Leiden.

Again, congratulations to Eveline Altena, Elizabeth Lawton-Matthews, Karla de Roest, and Iris Rom on their collective hard work in organising this event.


The introduction outlined the desire for the conference to consider how mortuary archaeology can ‘reconstruct societies’ of the past – both the mortuary practices of these societies but the living communities themselves. Also, a further aim of the conference was to reflect on the ethical responsibilities of archaeology and other disciplines in investigating the traces of the dead.

The geographical breadth of contributors was notable: from the UK, Germany, France, Greece, Poland and (of course) the Netherlands spread across four sections:

  1. New methods in funerary archaeology
  2. Bioarchaeology: diet, health and disease
  3. Interpreting burial practices: variability, transformation and continuity
  4. Death and mourning.

These were followed by the keynote lecture by me (as discussed here).

In this post, I’ll discuss the morning: sessions 1 and 2.

New Methods in Funerary Archaeology

The first session had 3 papers.

First up, Eveline Altena (Leiden) explored a sample of 200 graves from a large cemetery of 2750 skeletons (yes, you didn’t read that wrong, 2750) from Oldenzaal (Netherlands). Her work was part of a project investigating the physical anthropology, palaeopathology, DNA analysis and isotope analysis of the burial population from the 7th century to the 19th century! The results focused on the biological ‘stability’ of the population during this long period of time, although inevitably given the long chronology, even this large sample might be taken to afford only a partial picture.

Next, Hayley Mickleburgh (Leiden) gave a fabulous paper applying archaeothanatology through the ‘body farm’ analysis of the decay of human bodies. Her focus was upon the interpretation of fleshed inhumation burials placed in a seated position, and it would be useful to consider the many contexts where her insights might be applied (such as Viking-period chamber graves which are supposed to have individuals seated). In addition to exploring the insights gained, she identified the potential of 3D animation to visualise the complex process of decomposition for educational as well as research purposes.

Third, Sabina Ghislandi and Brendan Keely (York) presented for a broader multi-authored project investigating grave soils and the rich and varied additional evidence derived from the micromorphological and organic analyses of soils for interpreting past burial practices. Such insights included the presence and character of coffins and the fabrics present in graves, as well as the affect of differential decomposition upon graves proximal to later cesspits. Future work might reveal how we might be able to deploy such methods on larger burial populations more systematically and regularly.

This first session was therefore rich, varied and show-cased a panoply of distinctive scientific techniques that can shed light on mortuary archaeology and cemetery populations, involving research teams with expertise from the biochemical sciences, bioarchaeologists and archaeologists.

Bioarchaeology: Diet, health and disease

After coffee and cakes, this second section threatened to be the most predictable in terms of approaches and insights, but actually was as rich as the first session. Christian Meyer (OsteoARC) presented work with Kurt W. Alt into the Mannheim Merovingian inhumation cemetery, where a large sample of a completely excavated cemetery of the 6th-7th centuries AD allowed detailed analysis of both osteological data and the treatment of the body in terms of grave-goods and other treatments. The association of sharp-force trauma with adult weapon graves was particularly notable, the inference being that those who used weapons most often suffered (and died) from them, whilst ‘lower status’ individuals without grave-goods or fewer grave-goods less frequently displayed evidence of blade injuries. In other words, higher-status men often fought with other higher-status men… Other graves contradicted, or at least complicated, this picture: such as a young male with congenital dysplasia of both elbow joints suggesting he may have been physically disabled and unable to wield weapons and tools in life. Yet still he was interred with a range of weapons. In other words, this example challenges the equate of weapons = warriors. Another example was of a wealthy weapon burial who was decapitated and had his head replaced in position for burial, showing the necessity for detailed osteological analysis in the field alongside archaeological investigations.

The second presentation by Barbara Veselka (Leiden) discussed work with colleagues elsewhere to investigate vitamin D deficiency in two 17th-19th-century Dutch populations using macroscopic investigations of skeletal changes and radiographical investigations of the dentition. Residual rickets was identified in more females than males and this difference was linked to differential access to sunlight among those whose social and economic practices kept them indoors.

Finally, Rachel Schats (Leiden) applied an approach developed by other researchers in the UK and elsewhere to explore medieval malaria in the Netherlands, suggesting cribra orbitalia was connected to areas historically known to have been affected by malaria (i.e. those near mosquito-infested  lower ground). This is further evidence that cribra orbitalia cannot be seen exclusively or primarily as evidence of nutritional deficiency (including iron).

So concluded a great morning’s set of papers. More in Part 2!