Along with what seems like 3000 other archaeologists I have been in the west end of Glasgow last week for the European Association of Archaeologists annual conference. If you were trying to get into a pub on Byres Road on Friday night to watch Scotland play Georgia and couldn’t see the telly for intense looking people jabbering about metalwork or state-formation processes now you know why.
Unlike last year at Istanbul, when I gave a paper but was only there in spirit, I actually managed the two and a bit hours on the train up from Preston. Lindsey Buster and Eugene Warembol had organised a follow-up session to their Istanbul one last year. Once again this was on human remains from caves but looking at evidence from all periods across Europe and beyond. We started at 8.00 in the morning (I was on at the relatively civilised time of ten to nine) and had almost seven hours of information and discussion about dead people in caves.
Part of the joy of this sort of session is seeing the amazing range of discoveries people have made. Highlights this time included a jaw-droppingly well preserved 14th century burial of an archer from Mongolia excavated by the German Archaeological Institute in Ulan Bator. However, one of the things that seemed to strike everyone in the session (almost all of the closing discussion revolved around it) was how strikingly similar a lot of the evidence was from all periods and regions.
Some of these similarities come about because, by definition, cave burial rituals share some fundamental structures. They all draw on the things that caves themselves can do to dead bodies: wash them away, cover them with flowstone, mix them up like a tumble dryer and make a handy space to have them eaten by bears and wolves. They are also structured by what happens to dead bodies as they get deader – basically the bits fall off in a fairly pre-determined order (pause to let osteoarchaeologists clutch their heads and roll their eyes at my over-simplification). Of course both of these constraining things are essentially universal. Human decomposition and karst geomorphology both work in the same way wherever you are in the world.
In our closing discussion we were debating how useful it is to generalise about cave burial and how much it helps to focus on the differences between rites in different places. I am not usually a big fan of generalisations in archaeology, so I slightly surprised myself during the discussion by putting lots of emphasis on the universal processes in the previous paragraph. However, we shouldn’t think of people carrying out funerals in caves as being forced by environmental and biological constraints to choose between a very restricted set of rites. Instead we need to remember that these people chose to make use of the powerful opportunities offered by the combination of geomorphology and decomposition. After all, cave burial is usually only one option out of many available to people at any given time in the past.
Wildlife of the day. Hedgehog caught stealing the chickens’ grain when I went down to shut them up the night before I left for Glasgow.