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Beyond the Grave: Human Remains from Domestic Contexts in Iron Age Atlantic Scotland

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  18 February 2014

Ian Armit
Affiliation:
Division of Archaeological, Geographical and Environmental Sciences, University of Bradford, Richmond Rd, Bradford, West Yorkshire BD7 1DP
Victoria Ginn
Affiliation:
Archaeological Consultancy Services Ltd, 21 Boyne Business Park, Greenhills, Drogheda, Co. Louth

Abstract

The occurrence of human remains in Iron Age domestic contexts in southern England is well-attested and has been the subject of considerable recent debate. Less well known are the human remains from settlement contexts in other parts of Iron Age Britain. In Atlantic Scotland, human bodies and body parts are found consistently, if in small numbers, in Atlantic roundhouses, wheelhouses, and other settlement forms. Yet these have remained unsynthesised and individual assemblages have tended to be interpreted on a site-specific basis, if at all. Examination of the material as a corpus suggests a complex and evolving set of attitudes to the human body, its display, curation, and disposal, and it is improbable that any single interpretation (such as excarnation, retention of war trophies, or display of ancestral relics) will be sufficient. Although the specific practices remain diverse and essentially local, certain concerns appear common to wider areas, and some, for instance the special treatment accorded to the head, have resonances far beyond Iron Age Britain.

Résumé

L'occurence de restes humains dans des contextes domestiques de l'âge du fer est bien documentée dans le sud de l'Angleterre et a récemment fait l'objet de nombreux débats. Moins bien connus sont les restes humains provenant de contextes d'occupations dans d'autres régions de la Grande-Bretagne de l'âge du fer. En Ecosse Atlantique, on trouve régulièrement des corps et des parties de corps, même si c'est en petit nombre, dans les maisons rondes atlantiques, les maisons en forme de roues et d'autres formes d'habitat. Pourtant on n'en a pas fait la synthèse et on a eu tendance à interpréter les assemblages individuels sur une base spécifique au site, si toutefois il y a eu interprétation. L'examen des matériaux sous forme de corpus révèle une série complexe et changeante d'attitudes face au corps humain, à son exposition, ses soins et son dépôt et il est improbable qu'une seule interprétation, telle que l'excarnation, la conservation des trophées de guerre, ou l'exposition des reliques ancestrales soit suffisante. Bien que les pratiques spécifiques restent diverses et essentiellement localisées, certaines tendances semblent communes à de plus vastes zones, et certaines, telles que par exemple l'attention particulière accordée à la tête, ont des correspondances bien au-delà de la Grande-Bretagne de l'âge du fer.

Résumen

La aparición de restos humanos en contextos domésticos en el sur de Inglaterra está bien documentada y ha sido tema de considerable y reciente debate. Menos conocidos son los restos humanos procedentes de asentamientos de la Edad del Hierro en otras partes de Gran Bretaña. En la costa atlántica de Escocia se han encontrado, de modo consistente aunque en menos cantidad, restos completos y parciales de cuerpos humanos en las casas redondas atlánticas, en las casas radiales y en otras formas de asentamiento. Sin embargo, estos descubrimientos permanecen sin sintetizar, y los alijos individuales han sido interpretados normalmente dentro del contexto del yacimiento específico, si es que han sido interpretados. Un examen del material en su conjunto sugiere una compleja serie de cambiantes actitudes hacia el cuerpo humano, su exhibición, proceso de curación y deposición, y es improbable que una interpretación única (tal como sería la de descarnación, retención de trofeos de guerra o exhibición de reliquias ancestrales) sea suficiente. Aunque las prácticas particulares sean diversas y esencialmente locales, hay ciertas preocupaciones que parecen comunes a áreas más amplias, y algunas, por ejemplo el trato especial acordado a la cabeza, tienen resonancias que van mucho más allá de la Edad del Hierro británica.

Zusammenfassung

Menschenreste aus eisenzeitlichen Hauskontexten in Südengland sind seit langem bekannt und werden in jüngster Zeit wieder viel diskutiert. Weniger bekannt sind jedoch die Menschenreste aus eisenzeitlichen Siedlungskontexten aus anderen Regionen Großbritanniens. So gibt es immer wieder menschliche Skelett- oder Körperteilfunde aus dem atlantischen Schottland. Wenn auch in vergleichsweise geringerer Anzahl, stammen sie vor allem aus Rundund Spinnhäusern, aber auch aus anderen Siedlungskontexten. Das Problem liegt darin, dass diese Funde bisher noch nicht systematisch bearbeite und nur, wenn überhaupt, im Rahmen des jeweiligen Fundstelleninventars interpretiert worden sind Betrachtet man aber das gesamte Material, zeigt sich ein ausgeprägtes und komplexes Verhaltensmuster im Umgang mit den menschlichen Überresten: die Aufbewahrung, Erhaltung und Beseitigung der Menschenknochen machen eine monokausale Interpretation eher unwahrscheinlich (wie z.B Exkarnation, Aufbewahren von Kriegstrophäen oder Aufbewahrung von Ahnenreliquien). Obwohl diese Praktiken sehr unterschiedlich sind und hauptsächlich eine lokale Verbreitung zeigen, scheinen Einige, wie z.B. die spezielle Behandlung des Kopfes, überregionale Bedeutung besessen und auch weit über die Britische Eisenzeit hinaus eine besondere Rolle gespielt zu haben.

Type
Research Article
Copyright
Copyright © The Prehistoric Society 2007

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