How did I get here?! Using taphonomic analysis to understand Neolithic cave burials

Eirini Konstantinidi, PhD candidate
Cardiff University
Twitter: @EiriniKonstant9
Instagram: @supervillaintheme

WARNING: This thread contains images of human remains for educational purposes.

There is a great body of data available from karst and cave studies underlying the importance of  these environments which have encapsulated and protected osseous remains throughout the years as opposed to more open sites where harsh conditions have eroded the remains (Dinnis and Ebbs 2013: 28). However, their ability to preserve contextual archaeological evidence does not imply that difficulties in studying those sites are not apparent. The same sources of sedimentary infillings that can cause depositions (e.g. disintegration of the rock ceiling and walls, colluviation from overlying slopes, aeolian deposition) (Strauss 1990: 258) can also erode and remove information, often leaving a peculiar set of data that cannot always be thoroughly understood.   

Fig. 1. Agents that can affect remains in burial. Human: H1 Retrieval; H2 Selection; H3 Arrangement; H4 Damage. Natural: N1 carrion birds; N2 carrion mammals; N3 burrow animals, N4 soil chemistry; N4 weather. (King 2003)

Natural caves, rock-shelters and fissures are well identified locations which have the ability to preserve and protect archaeological remains as they can act as ‘ready-made traps’. However, they are hardly immune to erosion and disturbance (Strauss 1990: 260). Seismic activity can cause breaching (rock fall, sediment and rock accumulations, collapses, even gradual blocking of entrances/shafts), resulting to gradual transformation of the sites (ibid. 257); Water displacements, the soil chemistry,  human occupations throughout the years, animal scavenging and displacements by trampling and ground movement do not favor steady conditions in these sites. As opposed to open air locations, where cultural depositions are stacked, caves are susceptible to continuous depositions that are, subsequently, altered due to the abovementioned factors (ibid. 256). Thus, whilst remains can be insulated from extreme forces of erosion (Holderness et al. 2006: 1), a series of unstable parameters can still affect them before entering the cave and after more agents impact them (Figure 1).

Following the laws of burials (i.e. taphonomy) 

Emphasis on all these issues underlines how important the depositional history of a site is as well as the combination of analyses that need to be used in order to fully comprehend past activity. Taphonomy is considered a palaeontological subdiscipline, which is the study of the agents and processes that influence the body from the moment of death until remains are discovered. (Andrews 1990: 2). It derives from the Greek word taphos (τάφος), meaning “burial” and nomos (νόμος), meaning “law”. Taphonomic analysis, brings these  abovementioned aspects at the forefront and aims to reveal the ‘disguised’ burial history that has not only been impacted by natural causes but also by human interference. More specifically, macroscopic taphonomic analysis provides information on the degree and duration of exposure of the remains, the nature of manipulation and/or disturbance of the bones and the agents of these modifications impacted on the bone (examples in Figures 2,3). 

 Taphonomic indicators:  
– Weathering
– Gnawing
– Abrasion
– Erosion/root etching
– Staining

Fig. 2. Ifton Quarry, Monmouthshire – Cranium displaying root etching and staining on the surface. (Photographs: Author)

Combining the site and the analysis:  

Caves constituted one of the burial contexts were people ‘interred’ or disposed their dead. The multiple burial trends with a predominance of disarticulated, fragmentary and incomplete individuals, specifically in the Neolithic period, have amplified suggestions of general circulation, movements and arrangement of human skeletal material at that time (King 2003: 193). This uneven representation of human remains has created imprecise understandings of the way people handled their dead. Thus, the reconstruction of mortuary practices is truly important as it can help us get a better understanding not only about the treatment of the deceased, but also about the living. 

During the Neolithic, bodies were: 
– left out to naturally deflesh (excarnation) – the practice of removing flesh and organs of the dead before burial, leaving only the bones (putrefaction);
– moved being around (circulation) and placed in collective tombs or caves and rock shelters (as part of secondary burials;
– moved to make room for more interments in reused tombs during the Middle Neolithic, whist single burials and cremations alter the traditions in the Late Neolithic.

Fig. 3. Ifton Quarry, Monmouthshire – Cranium: cutmark on the frontal bone. (Photographs: Author)

Mini case study: Example of cave where a peculiar set of human remains have been discovered:  

Little Hoyle Cave: More than 14 individuals are represented in this site (four Neolithic radiocarbon dates available). This site has a very large quantity of mandible fragments (Figure 4) – Mandibles are one of the first elements that disarticulates from the body. Only a few cranial fragments, including a reconstructed cranium were discovered from this site, hence, this suggests that: 
1) either remains were circulated as part of a mortuary practice to a new context. Craniums could have been removed from the cave after primary deposition leaving the disarticulated elements (i.e. mandibles and phalanges, which disarticulate rapidly, back in the cave). There are also not enough cranial remains that could explain that large quantity of mandibles found in the site  
2) or were brought disarticulated in the cave from another context for secondary burial. 

Fig. 4. Little Hoyle Cave, Pembrokeshire – Different degrees of staining on mandibles. Evidence of weathering is also present on the left mandible. (Photographs: Author)


Andrews, P. 1991. Owls, Caves and Fossils: Predation, preservation and accumulation of small mammal bones in caves, with an analysis of the Pleistocene cave faunas from Westbury-sub-Mendip, Somerset, UK. London:  Natural History Museum Publications.  

Dinnis, R. and Ebbs, C. 2013. Cave Deposits of North Wales: some comments on their archaeological importance and an inventory of sites of potential interest. Transactions of the British Cave Research Association 40 (1), 28-34.  

Holderness, H., Davies, G., Chamberlain, A. T. and Donahue, R. 2006. Research Report – A Conservation Audit of Archaeological Cave Resources in the Peak District and Yorkshire Dales. ARCUS 743b, 1-144. 

King, P. M. 2003: Unparalleled behaviour: Britain and Ireland during the ‘Mesolithic’ and ‘Neolithic’. Oxford: Archaeopress. 

Strauss, L. G. 1990. Underground Archaeology: Perspectives on Caves and Rockshelters. Archaeological Method and Theory, 2, 255-304.