Fragments of death. A taphonomic study of human remains from Neolithic Orkney.

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Recognition of tremendous variation in the treatment of the dead, both temporally and geographically, has done little to curtail the pursuit of homogenous mortuary rites for monuments which appear, by virtue of their architecture, to be similar. This is aptly demonstrated in considering the Neolithic tombs of Orkney, Scotland. The Orcadian human bone assemblages represent the largest volume for this time period from Britain – a significant resource. However, discrete skeletons are lacking, the researcher being presented with formidable volumes of disarticulated and commingled remains. Themes of transformation, fragmentation and manipulation of the body permeate the literature, conferring significance on the tombs as places of transition. Previously, the inherent complexity of the remains has made them an unattractive proposition for detailed study. New interpretations are derived from examination of excavation reports, rather than the material itself. However, advances in taphonomic analysis means techniques now exist for approaching such complex assemblages. A study has now been successfully carried out on the Orcadian remains, uncovering a wealth of new data. This data draws attention to subtle variations in practice between and within tombs, and advocates for a dramatic reconsideration of the current understanding of the practices and cosmologies associated with these enigmatic structures.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)725-734
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of Archaeological Science: Reports
Early online date24 May 2016
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2016


  • Taphonomy
  • Neolithic
  • Archaeology
  • Orkney
  • Human bones


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