Monday 27 April 2020

#043 Oxford University - Archaeology - Course Conclusions

Back in January I embarked on an online short course in archaeology, by Oxford University. This was an assessed course, with two marked assignments. I shared my first assignment in blog number #042
Assignment 1 - Archaeology In Practice
The overall grading structure is a pass / fail. I'm delighted to say that my grading and feedback is now in and I have passed!
I have included my tutor's comments for my second assignment, below, in which I discuss what we can learn from ancient burial practice.
When the Covid-19 is lifted, we are all permitted back into the hills and to go back to working in the wonderful outdoors, I am looking forward to sharing these insights of our stone-age ancestors in my upcoming bushcraft sessions at The Peak Centre, Edale. 

Archaeology in Practice – Assignment 2

Assignment Question 2C: In many ancient societies, people include grave goods as part of their burial practice. Can we reconstruct the society of the living from these? How can grave goods be useful for dating, understanding ritual, or identifying gender, ethnicity, social status, occupation, and connections with the outside world? Enliven your answer with specific examples.

Stuart Westfield*

Careful and methodical examination of the dead, during and after excavation, can reveal huge amounts of information about the deceased as well as their environment. Here we look at two Bronze Age inhumations, which on first impression are culturally very different, but have compelling similarities in terms of societal organisation and trade connections. We contrast these with the death of a Chalcolithic (late Neolithic) man who ended his days on a Tyrolean mountain, laying undiscovered for 5300 years. Through archaeological science, we see how his life and times can be reconstructed, even though this ended without the formality of burial ritual.

Dr.Morrison - Good structure plan, a promising opening!

The Boy King
Tutankhamun, perhaps the most iconic burial of them all. Howard Carter’s methodical documentation of the tomb and its contents in 1922, began a century of ongoing archaeological investigation. His ability to understand the cultural and ritual meaning of the hieroglyphs on tomb walls, sarcophagus and other artefacts was in no small way due to Champollion’s deciphering of the Rosetta Stone, in 1822.

Tutankhamun’s small tomb, unfinished hieroglyphs and hurriedly deposited artefacts indicated he died unexpectedly. Re-examination of the famous golden funerary mask has found evidence of soldering around the perimeter of the facial features. Archaeologists now suspect that Tutankhamun’s image was grafted onto a mask originally intended for that of his mother, Nefertiti. (Dr. Joann Fletcher, 2016)

DNA sequencing has shown that Tutankhamun suffered from multiple malarial infections and frail health due to familial interbreeding. CT scans indicated the bones in his left foot had been destroyed by necrosis. (Dr. Zahi Hawass, 2010)

But most of Egyptology had been dedicated to pharaonic royalty.

“This was, at first, a history very much concentrated on a royal and elite male culture, and the ordinary, illiterate members of society remained dumb in their unmarked graves”
                                                                                               Dr. Joyce Tyldesley, 2005

In contrast to the veneer of hieroglyphic affirmations and propaganda, the
excavation of structural discard in waste pits at the village of Deir el-Medina, near the Valley Of The Kings, revealed thousands of ostraca. Small fragments of limestone, on which were written legal documents, letters, work records, receipts, indeed most aspects of everyday life and social intrigue (U.C.L. 2002). The ostraca show that this was a sophisticated and highly organised community of artisan workers whose purpose was to create the pharaonic tombs.

The village would have needed to procure resources from the immediate region. But also reach beyond the lower Nile to import trade goods and objects of art. A gilded wooded leopard head in Tutankhamun’s tomb was originally manufactured in southern Africa, (Jen Pinkowski, 2015) some 8000km away. Far from the more widely acknowledged Mediterranean trade networks of antiquity.

Amesbury Archer
In 2002, the grave of a Bronze Age man, estimated to be 35 to 45 years old when he died, was uncovered on the site of a proposed development, just 5km east of Stonehenge. Immediately it was obvious, this was an inhumation of enormous importance. The grave goods were typical of the early Bronze Age Beaker Culture, but in an unprecedented quantity, nearly 100 items, including the earliest known gold items in Britain. (Wessex Archaeology, 2003)

But his grave goods present an enigma. Among them were two sandstone bracers (archery wrist guards), 18 flint arrowheads, possibly kept in a quiver which had long since decomposed and boars’ tusks. In life, he suffered from a traumatic injury to his left knee cap, which undoubtedly impeded his mobility and left him in chronic pain with a wasted leg.

His knee injury would have precluded a ‘long hunt’. And with this disability, it is unlikely he would have been physically able to stalk close to larger quarry. His low powered bow would only have been useful in close-to hunting. (Dr Alison Sheridan, 2003). Practically, it seems unlikely he was actually a hunter of great repute.

Another artefact was a cushion stone. This item was typically used as an anvil, hammer, polisher, or all three (Julie Walker, n.d.). So, was he a metalworker? The original alchemist, possessing the secrets of smelting metal from rock. Such special knowledge and skill would have made him an important, possibly revered, person. This evidence goes some way to explaining the care taken in his burial. An acknowledgement of his status perhaps, commending him to the gods?

In Europe, bronze age metal workers’ graves are equally elaborate. Around 2400BC, Beaker people ranged across Europe, characterised by common burial practice, flow of ideas, cosmology and materials. Among the Archers’ grave goods were three copper knives. The metal sources were traced to Spain and western France, illustrating far reaching direct or indirect trade connections.

“We have long suspected that it was people from Europe who initiated the trade that first brought copper and gold to Britain and the archer is the first discovery to confirm this”
                                                      Dr Andrew Fitzpatrick, Wessex Archaeology

Results of oxygen isotope analysis on his teeth show he spent his childhood in the European Alps (Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre, n.d.). Also evident from his teeth was a dental abscess. The suppurating knee injury and jaw bone infection, suggest sepsis as a possible cause of death.

Another burial was discovered nearby, dubbed ‘the Archer’s companion’, although radiocarbon dating indicates he died slightly later (Andrew Fitzpatrick, 2009). Interestingly, both had a rare congenital joint articulation abnormality in their feet, meaning they must have been closely related.

The Amesbury graves were contemporary with the great megaliths, including Stonehenge. It’s creation, would have required vision, the coming together of a committed workforce, huge effort and leadership (Barry Cunliffe, 2003). The conceptualisation and likely the construction of the Stonehenge megalithic landscape had to be driven by an individual, or a small number of people, who were held in positions of esteem or power by the population. These could have been identified as tribal leaders, holders of special knowledge, shamans, or prehistoric astronomers.

The Amesbury Archer and his companion we’re individuals who were afforded respect, reverence and tribute after death which undoubtedly was reflected in life. So, perhaps, the varied and many high-quality grave goods, some of them in unused pristine condition, were not all his possessions in life, but actually mourning tributes from various tribe members to their King and ruling elite.

Dr. Morrison - Excellent observation

Otzi The Iceman
In 3345BCE a Neolithic man died high in the Otzal Alps, without a grave burial. His body was preserved, almost entire, naturally mummified in ice until found in 1991.

Bone analysis indicated he was around 45 years old at death, long lived for the time. He had a wiry, athletic build. Beaus lines on his fingernails were an indicator of physical stress. He had intestinal parasitic worms and had suffered several bone breaks during his life.

Dr. Morrsion - Would like a source here, even if it is the one you later cite in subsequent paragraphs

His lungs were blackened from time near open fires, on which he cooked and then ate game, grain and other plants. Otzi’s diet shows that, in his region, hunting and gathering behaviours prevailed into the Neolithic period. Parallels can be drawn with today’s hunter gatherer communities, who use plants as food as well as nature’s medicine cabinet (Mike Williams, 2010). Analysis of his gut contents, revealed that he consumed seasonal pollen spores with his last meal, narrowing the time of his death to spring.

Throughout the archaeological investigation of Otzi, several theories regarding his death were tested. Crucially, an x-ray re-examination revealed a flint arrow head embedded deep in his left shoulder along with a corresponding 2cm unhealed entry wound. The arrow severed his subcutaneous artery resulting in a quick death through catastrophic blood loss. Otzi had been murdered. (Stephanie Pain, 2001)

Based on the evidence, Dr. Eduard Egarter Vigil a pathologist, proposed the scenario: Otzi was attacked, he fled, and was shot in the back. There was no arrow shaft, indicating that he had pulled this out and then collapsed (BBC Iceman, 2002 / Interview)

An axe with metal mace head was found with Otzi. Typologically, the axe belonged in the early bronze age, which contradicted radiocarbon dating of the late Neolithic. However, metallurgical analysis showed that it was made from pure copper, which was indeed in keeping with the carbon dating.

In Conclusion
Modern archaeological techniques have given us incredible insights, fresh discoveries and the gift of captivating narratives. It is vitally important for this work to be driven by evidence and to be open to a range of interpretations and possibilities. As archaeologists, we owe this respect to the deceased. To tell their story with integrity and to the best of our ability.

Striving for better understanding, means re-visiting artefacts and the findings of previous archaeologists. Carter, for example, was at the forefront of his profession, but subsequent scientific developments have given hitherto inconceivable results.

The eminent V. Gordon Chile’s Beaker Culture single migration hypothesis has been replaced with understanding of a more complex sequence of movement and adoption of cultural ideas, made possible by strontium isotope analysis (Parker-Person, 2007). A method unavailable to him when he was alive.

But, testing of theory does not necessarily need a long intervening period, as demonstrated in the examinations of Otzi The Iceman.

Who knows what tomorrow’s archaeologists will discover? But in looking forward we should always acknowledge from where we have come.

If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.   
                                                                 Sir Isaac Newton (1643-1727)

Stuart, this is an exceptionally well written and researched piece of work. As with your first essay, you have extracted the key points from a wide range of sources and drawn together a solid argument supported by the examples. A purist might say that Ötzi wasn’t a burial with grave goods, but rather a victim left to lie with his possessions (at least we might rule out robbery as motive!) but I think you use him as a very good example of what can be learned (and unlearned) with good preservation and a willingness to keep asking questions. Excellent work indeed! - Dr. Wendy Morrison

*Stuart Westfield BEng(hons) FRGS
Hayfield, United Kingdom                            email:

1        Dr Joann Fletcher - Immortal Egypt S1 Ep 3 BBC, 2016
2        Dr. Zahi Hawass - King Tut’s Family Secrets, 2010
3        Dr. Joyce Tyldesley - Egypt: How A Lost Civilisation Was Rediscovered
Pub. BBC Books, 2005 ISBN 0-563-49381-X
4        University College London - Deir el-Medina ostraca in the Petri Museum  
5        Jen Pinkowski – 15 Pharaonic Objects Buries In Tut’s Tomb, 2015
6        Wessex Archaeology - The Amesbury Archer, 2003
7        Dr Alison Sheridan – Prehistoric Archery And Its Accessories, 2003
8        Julie Walker – Early Bronze Age Stone Metalworking Tools In The United Kingdom And Ireland, not dated
9        Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre, not dated
10     Andrew Fitzpatrick – In His Hands And In His Head, The Amesbury Archer As A Metalworker (extract from) Bronze Age Connections, Cultural Contact In Prehistoric Europe Ed. Peter Clark Pub. Oxbow Books, 2009 ISBN 978-1-84217-348-0
11     Sir Barry Cunliffe – Film Stonehenge Rediscovered Film Rise, 2003
12     Mike Williams – Prehistoric Belief, Shamans, Trance And The Afterlife Pub. The History Press 2010 ISBN 978 0-7524-4921-0
13     Stephanie Pain – Arrow Points To Foul Play In Ancient Iceman’s Death Pub. New Scientist, 2001
14     Death Of The Iceman BBC, 2002 / Interview Dr. Eduard Egarter Vigil
16     Parker-Pearson - British Museum from: Kevin Greene, Tom Moore - Archaeology: An Introduction 5th Edn Pub. Routledge, 2010 ISBN 978-0-415-49639-1

Tutor's report for CATS Points Award Panel.
Summary of tutor’s comments and advice to student on final assignment

Stuart, this was an excellent treatment of the subject, which reflects not only how much work you have put into researching and reading but also how you have developed your own ideas about what we can learn from burials.  You make some very good original observations and have built your arguments with support from two outstanding examples from the excavated material. Excellent work, indeed!