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Late Mesolithic and Neolithic mortuary practices and identities of hunter-gatherers: archaeological and anthropological analyses of mortuary deposits (Estonian example) (completed)

Mari Tõrv M.A.

The project aims to investigate Late Mesolithic and Neolithic (ca. 5000–3000/2800 yrs. cal. BC) hunter-gatherer mortuary practices in the present day Estonia. It focuses on the questions of how death was handled in the hunter-gatherer society with the aim of tracing single practices in mortuary deposits. The hypothesis of the project is that the attitudes towards death in hunter-gatherer societies varied, which is reflected in different mortuary practices and dependent on the personal identity of the deceased. Sources for studying mortuary practices may be divided into two subcategories: (1) archival sources (e.g. excavation reports, photos etc.) and (2) mortuary deposits (bone assemblages consisting of inhumations and scattered human bones from contemporary settlement sites and in separate cemeteries; grave structures and grave goods).

In my research I aim to bridge disciplinary boarders by bringing together social (theory of practice, body theories and identity studies) and natural sciences (bioarchaeology, archaeothanatology, statistics). This kind of approach is vital because mortuary practices are visible both in human bodies and material culture. Basis for the analysis and theoretical reconstructions of practices are created by (1) bioarchaeological and (2) archaethanatological methods:

(1)   The sex-age estimations of the skeletal data; stable isotope studies, if and where possible pathologies are determined. This information forms the background for understanding the variations in mortuary practices and its possible connections to personal identities.

(2)   Assessing different types of mortuary deposits, primary and secondary burials, the treatment of the body, individual and collective burials, the arrangements of grave goods and dress ornaments in connection to the deceased. These analyses provide the bases for the reconstruction of single events in the context of funerals (in every single case).

My PhD thesis will contribute on the understanding of the ways death was handled in the hunter-gatherer societies in Eastern Baltic during the Stone Age. Secondly, the project can serve as a model for further research in mortuary archaeology.

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