Articulating burial process: Primary and secondary burials in the British and Middle Eastern Neolithic

Something which has often come up as a subject of discussion in prehistoric British archaeology is that of excarnation and secondary burial.  What are these you ask?

Technically the term excarnation can be used to define any burial process which removes flesh from the body.  It is also used to refer to what I will call exposure burial; where a body is left exposed to the elements until it is reduced to bones.

Secondary burial can be used to describe any burial which  has multiple stages.  For example, cremation is both a way of removing the flesh from the body (excarnation) and a form of secondary burial. Secondary burial entails a lapse of time followed by a secondary process and/or removal to a final place of burial.  So excarnation can be a primary or secondary burial rite.

However, the terms excarnation and secondary burial have been used in the past sometimes indiscriminately (for the most part in reference to Early Neolithic burials when discussing exposure burials).  Also burials may be described as ‘secondary’ with a different meaning (confusingly) referring to the position of a burial in relation to one of ‘primary’ position or importance.

A number of years ago this was the subject of my BSc dissertation where I examined the literature for British Neolithic evidence for excarnation and exposure burial.  I looked at taphonomy and what types of evidence these practices would leave behind.

These include:

– Carnivore activity

– Cut marks

– Weathering

– Fracture patterns

– Removal/selection of certain bones

Below is an example of a cut-marked human femur from Megdale, Derbyshire.

Megdale gnawed femur, Buxton Museum (Neolithic or Bronze Age)

Megdale femur with cutmarks, Buxton Museum (Neolithic or Bronze Age)

For the most part I left this subject behind when I began my post-graduate research.  Last year I was introduced to an entirely different area of archaeology for me – the Pre-Pottery Neolithic (PPN) in the middle east.

PPN burials show a wide variety of different kinds of burial and mortuary treatment; including skull removal, skull curation (at times with plastering and painting), purposeful de-fleshing, and burials in bags or wrapping.

Evidence of secondary burial can be seen in cut-marks on human remains, and also through how the bones were deposited.  Larger bones were removed after primary burial, for final burial.  This means that small bones (such as from the hands and feet) and teeth get left behind.  Below is a rough plan of such a deposit.

Scatter of small bones and teeth at Bestansur

Scatter of small bones and teeth at Bestansur, Iraqi Kurdistan

The burials at Bestansur (which i am currently writing up) are extremely varied, but it is rewarding to come back to a subject i’ve been interested in since my undergrad days.


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