Category: ellie

Defleshing the Dead: What is Excarnation and Where Does it Occur?

West Kennet Long Barrow is thought to have been a site of excarnation. Image credit - Purple Wyrm.

For the archaeologist and anthropologist, excarnation refers to a specific burial practice. It is the removal of the flesh off the skeleton, leaving only the bones to be buried, which could be allowed to occur naturally (by leaving the body out in the open, for example) or the process could be done physically, which can leave signs of scraping on the bones.

So why is there the need to de-flesh bones and then dislocate them from the body in many prehistoric cultures? And which cultures in particular does this occur in?

Mind the Fingers and Toes!

Let’s pull up a few sites and investigate some of the theories. Excarnation is common practice in the late British neolithic. Sites such as West Kennet Long Barrow in Wiltshire has had in total 46 individuals excavated from its chambers. In West Kennet many bones seem to be missing from bodies and the rest are totally jumbled up.

This apparent disorder, the dislocation of bodies and the missing parts of skeletons found inside some of these tombs could imply one of two things. Either that the deposition of disarticulated remains had taken place following excarnation, or, alternatively, that the chambered tombs represent vaults to which successive burials have been added over time. In the latter process the bodies which have been previously laid to rest are disturbed and messed up.

That said, then why are sites such as West Kennet Long Barrow and Isbister tomb in South Ronaldsay, Orkney, found with bones and body parts missing, or indeed with animal bones added?

Archaeologists have suggested that when a person died their body would be left on a woven litter or altar. When the excarnation was complete and the flesh had rotted away, finger bones and toe bones (which are very small) could fall through gaps in the woven structure or roll off the side. Thus, when a site with a lot of small bones only is found, it is highly likely to be a site for excarnation. Furthermore when a tomb with no smaller bones is found it is because they have been lost along the way.

The Tomb of the Eagles is another example of excarnation burials. Image Credit - she_who_must

Tomb of the Eagles

Isbister Tomb in South Ronaldsay in Orkney, Scotland, contains human bones representing 340 people. The skeletons were disarticulated and incomplete, the bones bleached and weathered, making it very probable that the bodies had been laid out once on mortuary platforms, exposed to the elements and birds of prey, before ultimate interment. Isbister is also known as the ‘Tomb of the Eagles’, as they found the talons and bones of sea eagles in with the human bones.

It is possible that the sea eagle would have been a totem for these people, it represents flight and travel, symbols which are boldly associated with journey and travel to an afterlife. However, again we are assuming and cruedly transplanting 21st century assumptions onto a prehistoric island society.

But hey, a sea eagle has always lived by the sea, and flown, right? and Orkney has always been an island so how far from the truth can we be?

Zoroaster and Excarnation

Another example of excarnation where it is recorded that birds and elements had parts to play is in the Zoroastrian tradition, a tradition based on the teachings of prophet Zoroaster (aka Zarathustra, in Avestan) and probably founded some time before the 6th century BC in Iran.

They considered a dead body with all the nails and hair to be unclean. Therefore the bodies of the dead are placed on top of a tower, exposed to the natural elements and the birds of prey. The roof was divided into three concentric rings: The bodies of men are arranged around the outer ring, women in the second circle, and children in the innermost ring. Once the bones have been bleached by the sun and wind, which can take as long as a year, they are collected in an ossuary pit at the center of the tower, where, assisted by lime, they gradually disintegrate. The remaining material with run-off rainwater runs through multiple coal and sand filters before being eventually washed out to sea.

The Vultures at atalhyk

Crouched Burial, Boscombe Down, suggests that when this individual was buried, the body had already decomposed to some extent, probably from having been exposed. Image Credit - Wessex Archaeology.Lastly and more recently pictures of vultures hovering above headless corpses and piles of human skulls and bones under what appears to be structures of reed and matting have been found at atalhyk. This evidence for the archaeologist is a bright red flashing light connected to death and ritual, and gives direct connotation and evidence to the dead being excarnated here.

The bodies of the dead were buried about two feet under the floors of houses and shrines. Scientific evidence suggests the bodies were never buried immediately after death but were placed in the graves only after their flesh had been removed. Archaeological evidence also proves that the skull must have been of considerable importance, because firstly the paintings denote headless corpses, but secondly during the excavation of corpses the only part left undisturbed were the brains.

This method of funerary disposal seems to be echoed in many parts of the world and over many ages. It also reiterates that death is most definitely not an isolated event, confined to that second that one passes over. Rather, death has an omnipresent power over the living, it is the unknown which is feared and then this fear which dictates how we live.

Video: The Legend of Eadgyth, England’s Lost Queen

Ellie Hunt heads over to Bristol University to find out more about the bones discovered in Magdenburg Cathedral.Bones found in Magdenburg Cathedral are those of Saxon Queen Eadgyth. In a fascinating lecture that saw science, archaeology and history working together to create concrete evidence of Queen ‘Edith’s’ legend. I went Indiana Ellie and hitched up to Bristol University to catch the breaking news on camera.

They discovered that Edith had been reburied up to five times, and that each time her bones were wrapped in a new and expensive silk. Professor Harald Meller recreated the event from Edith’s final reburial: from the silk and 169 beetles found in the casket, he suggested that the beetles were attracted to the silk as it reflected the moonlight while Edith lay in an open casket on a warm summer’s night. An oat grain was surmised as the filling for a pillow (sadly porridge-filled pillows are out of vogue nowadays).

It had first been thought after carbon 14 dating that the bones were 200 years older than Edith. Dr Alistair Pike put this down to the amount of seafood in her diet, as this can considerably change the carbon levels in bones. Scientists were able to pinpoint Edith’s whereabouts for the first fourteen years of her life by looking at her teeth (isotope analysis). They matched the science with the history books and saw that at nine or ten, when her mother was divorced from her father, they both went and lived in a nunnery and ate a very stable and non-varied diet.

It really is incredible how far science has come: I sat through the lecture in absolute awe of the archaeologists’ work. Have a look at my video blog of the day and see the lecture for yourself!

HD Video: Ancient Bones Forensics,Anglo-Saxon Queen Eadgyth Revealed

(Transcription of this video)

You can catch up with other Heritage Key videos shot across the UK such as at the Crypt of St Pancras Church, and talking to Lord and Lady Carnarvon at Highclere Castle about their ancestor’s relationship with Howard Carter. Catch us here or on YouTube. Keep up-to-date with everything by subscribing to our RSS feeds, or by following us on Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, Flickr and iTunes.

Stonehenge: Archaeology, History and Mystery

John Aubery was the first person to publicly look beyond the written record and declare the site of Stonehenge as pre Roman.All done and dusted!

The first live lecture is now over (Watch it again here). The pain and the shakiness has subsided and I can relax! Thank you all for logging in: The chat in brief looked at four areas.

First we looked at the Renaissance era and the overriding dependancy society had on God and religion as a framework for life. It was considered that other cultures, communities and societies of times gone by had been rudimentary and basic compared with that of pre-1680 Christian Europe.

For years people had been fascinated by unusual objects and nature, but until now they were collected as ‘curiosities’ and displayed in cabinets with no organisation or category.

Secondly we turn to the Enlightenment (1680-1820) which attempted to dispel this ignorance by researching gods, rituals and cults in many different cultures. People then believed the key to unlocking the past and the mysteries of the universe lay in directly observing and studying natural and man-made objects, and to then impose order on them. It was a time of increasing explanation in the world in rational rather than religious terms.

John Aubrey followed in the footsteps of the Duke of Buckingham in 1620, and famed architect Inigo Jones produced a sketch of Stonehenge as he saw it in ancient times, which was continually tweaked. He felt strongly that the Stones could not of been erected by barbarous Britons, instead a Roman temple.

Who knows what secrets Stonehenge may still hold? Image Credit -<br /> Aditya Grandhi.

John Aubrey was the first person to publicly look beyond written record and declare the site of Stonehenge as pre-Roman. Through rigorous research, historical record and common sense Aubrey claimed Stonehenge didn’t fit into the Roman era, and that the site must have been made by a cult – the Druids.

William Stukeley took over from Aubrey both in his love of the stones and their interpretations. His field work was meticulous and exact; his drawings still used today. However his interpretations were heavily fantasised, and he drew huge theological links between Druids and priesthood.Stukeley named the Slaughter Stone and Altar Stone: names which today instil a feeling of fear and imagery of the occult.

Click To Watch Video
Episode 8: Spring Equinox at Stonehenge
Nicole Favish heads to Stonehenge to experience the Spring Equinox – the point in the year where the day and the night are of equal length.

Thirdly in the live lecture we examined the era of romance. Not really my idea of romance, but a time in which an emotional attraction to dramatic, wild landscapes and primitive peoples developed.The British gentry wanted to expand cultural horizons and go to far-away places. The need to travel burned throughout Europe, and few places more so than Britain.

Three archaeologists working at this time were Maud and William Cunnington and Sir Richard Colt Hoare.Even the work of these three could not dispel the connection between Stonehenge and the Druids (Watch a video about the Druids and Stonehenge). In 1810 they excavated beneath the Slaughter Stone, proving it once stood upright.

Who knows what other mysteries or answers Stonehenge will bring us in the future? What is Stonehenge telling us? Is the answer something that has completely escaped our observations – are we looking in the wrong places? Or are we looking for too much when the answer has been right in front of us for thousands of years? We can never know for sure, but it’s fun to keep trying.

Fashion Tips for Avatars: How to Look Your Best in the Virtual World

Looking good in Heritage Key Virtual!We spend years getting taught how to dress by our parents, but here in the virtual world you are thrown straight in at the deep end: so at the age of 26 I found myself cold, unhappy, completely confused and desperate for a virtual mum or dad to lift up my arms and put a vest on me.

It might sound ridiculous but I felt after a week of wearing the same old, it was time for a change, but my God, did that change take forever and a day to make!

So Ellie the avatar needed a revamp, but where to go? The avatar centre of course, which is a place that resembles a cross between Paris Hilton’s wardrobe and a plastic surgeon’s catalogue.

I was so thankful for the friendly fairy who found me stark naked and very confused. I suppose I could see him as my avatar‘s much needed dad. He gave me step-by-step advice on what to do and where to click and it’s fair to say that without him I would have been naked and blushing for a very long time!

So here are my top five tips on how to survive a costume change:

Get the perfect hair, body and skin!

1. Cast Modesty Aside

If you can brave it and you’re not too shy, I found it best to take all my clothes off first and start with a blank canvas. Have a dance, it feels good doesn’t it!? Make sure the arrow is over each piece of clothing and right click on the mouse so the ’round sliced cheese’ comes up and then click take off, do this for each piece of clothing until there is nothing between your avatar and virtual reality.

2. Pick and Choose

To get the perfect hair, body, skin and clothes, click on the animation that takes your fancy on the bill boards and let your palm spin that magical dust and click ‘keep’ on your gifts. In the right hand corner – left-click on inventory – type the item you wanted to change into the search box (what you just picked out with magical powers so, top hat and goggles say) and then right click – options will pop up and click on wear… your transformation is under way!
The avatar centre… is a place that resembles a cross between Paris Hilton’s wardrobe and a plastic surgeon’s catalogue

Don’t like what you see? Hair colour not right? Then simply right-click to take off again.

3. Let Your Hair Down

Experiment with styles you wouldn’t normally use: let your hair flow long in wild and exciting ways. It won’t get knotted and needs no maintenance, but it will make you feel a whole lot happier if it’s raining and cold in the real world!

Trying out that stylish Top Hat and Goggles!

4. Practice Your Moves

Experiment with the keys and the options. It is really difficult at first to get to grips with the function of each button, but you will never know what it is for if you don’t try. There are so many options and dont get me wrong: it is really frustrating, but at the same time really quite rewarding once you get to grips with it.

5. Help is at Hand

Although I am throwing you in here,there is a tutorial room where you can get advice and lessons on how to figure out this virtual puzzle. You are sure to see me in there, and if you do make sure you say howdy!

Long-lost Bones Belong to Saxon Queen Eadgyth

This is the most exciting archaeological story of 2010. Once again the University of Bristol is leading the world in research. And I am lucky enough to be going back to my favorite university today to hear this groundbreaking new evidence of Princess Edith’s legend.

Scientists will announce that bones excavated in Magdeburg Cathedral in 2008 are those of SaxonQueen Eadgyth (‘Edith of England’) who died in AD 946. Crucial scientific evidence came from teeth preserved in the upper jaw. The bones are the oldest surviving remains of an English royal burial. The original excavations (view the 2006-2009 excavation here) were carried out by a joint team of the State Office for Heritage Management and Archaeology Saxony-Anhalt, and Martin-Luther-Universitt Halle-Wittenberg.
Click the images to see them inlarge size

Eadgyth was the granddaughter of Alfred the Great and half-sister of Athelstan, the first acknowledged King of England. She was sent to marry Otto, King of Saxony in AD 929, and bore him at least two children before her death aged around 36.

She lived most of her married life at Magdeburg and was buried in the monastery of St Maurice. Her bones were moved on at least three occasions, before being interred in an elaborated tomb in Magdeburg Cathedral in 1510.

It was this tomb that was opened by German archaeologists in 2008, a tomb long expected to be empty…But instead it contained a lead box carrying the inscription EDIT REGINE CINERES HIC SARCOPHAGVS HABET… (the remains of Queen Eadgyth are in this sarcophagus…). (the inscription is visible in this slideshow)
When the box was opened partial skeletal remains were found, alongside textile material and organic residues. The challenge facing archaeologists was to show that the remains, which had been moved so often and could easily have been substituted with others, were indeed those of Queen Eadgyth.
Anthropological study of the bones at the University of Mainz, by Professor Kurt Alt, confirmed the remains belonged to a single female, who had died aged between 30 and 40. One of the femur heads showed evidence that the individual was a frequent horse rider. Isotope analysis of the bones suggested that she enjoyed a high protein diet, including a large quantity of fish. All these results suggested a high level of aristocraticy.
The crucial upper jaw evidence came from a technique which measures the strontium and oxygen isotopes that are mineralised in the teeth as they are formed. The value of these isotopes depends on the local environment, and its underlying geology, that is then locked into the teeth. Samples of the teeth were studied at the University of Bristols Department of Archaeology and the Institute of Anthropology at the University of Mainz. “By micro sampling, using a laser, we can reconstruct the sequence of a persons whereabouts, month by month, up to the age of 14,” says Dr Alistair Pike of Bristol University.
Eadgyth seems to have spent the first eight years of her life in southern England, but changed her domicile frequently,” adds Bristol’s Prof Mark Horton. Eadgyth must have moved around the kingdom following her father, king Edward the Elder during his reign. When her mother was divorced in 919 – Eadgyth was between nine and ten at that point – both were banished to a monastery, maybe Winchester or Wilton in Salisbury.”
This is too exciting for words – but don’t worry: I’m going armed with my camera and will be sure to catch all the action from the talk, alongside interviews with archaeologists in the know. I’ll also be tweeting live from the event so keep an eye out!
The bones will be reburied in Magdeburg Cathedral later on this year, exactly 500 years after their last interment in 1510.

10 Reasons Not to Become an Archaeologist (and Why to Ignore Them)

Want to be an archaeologist? Think again.. before the snake gets you! Image credit - Alan.I think it is important to note that having an interest in archaeology and then working in it are two polar opposed situations. With an interest or a hobby you can choose an area of interest, lets say 2010 is going to be ‘Egypt’. You can read till your heart’s content on these areas of fascination and in the summer take the family on a holiday to look at the sites and breathe in the history. Bish Bash Boom, the Egypt box is ticked. Pompeii will be 2012.

For the commercial archaeologist in Britain, these dreams die shortly after graduation. You will never get paid to dig in Egypt or Pompeii and you will never come face to face with Nazi scientists in a climactic search for the holy grail.

This is a brief outline of ten reasons why NOT to become an archaeologist and if you are, then 10 reasons why you should consider getting out quick!

1. The Pay

Not only are archaeologists the lowest paid of all graduates, we are also second to only doctors for problems with alcoholism. Subsequently we are low paid alcoholics. We are, however, a very happy bunch with a very healthy outdoor digging lifestyle. We dont tend to want for much, so we get by and make do with a smile and a skip in our step.

2. The Physical Deformities

It’s not fun being in your 20’s and having arthritis in the hands, knees and wrists. After the working week has finished and you’ve returned back to the normality of friends and family you look in the mirrow and can’t help but notice the continued growth of ‘trowel muscle’, the fingernails of a creepy victorian pickpocket, and a very obvious ‘farmers tan’. This makes courting with a non-ologist near enough impossible, thus keeping the ologist gene pool very small and slightly odd.

The hours roll on and the days merge together, but who cares when you're seeking treasure?! Image Credit - Robbert van der Steeg.

3. The Hours (and hours, and hours…)

You finish work at 4pm on a Friday in Scotland and arrive back at 10pm in Bristol. You start Monday in Bristol at 4am and end up in Norfolk at 8am ready to start work. Where did my weekend go? Do I care? Its another fun week of digging again!

4. Dull Ditches

There is only so much of digging in the winter on a huge site with context galore of “narrow, shallow ditch, no finds, unknown age”, “oval, tapered pit, no finds, unknown age”, “sub circular shallow pit, no finds, unknown age” that one can take. However you do every now and again get put on sites which really get the detective juices flowing with deep stratigraphy and multiple contexts to salvate over.

5. Being Sent Indoors

Promotion comes slowly to archaeologists, and when it does come, nobody actually wants it. As an archaeologist you make a conscious decision that you want to work outdoors, just as a swimmer wants to swim and an astronaut wants to work in space. Higher promotion means more paper work and ultimately less time outdoors working in the field. This, however, is fantastic if like me you favour seasonal archaeology. A warm office in December can be a real treat!

Want a career where you spend a lot of time on your knees? Think Archaeology! Image credit - Dan.

6. Digger’s Bum

One considerable downside is having to see a certain ‘fearless leader’s’ perennially hairy crevice peeking at you from the back of his trousers – ALL day long. No matter where you look, it’s there, even sneaking into your dreams/nightmares.

7. Nomadic Lifestyle

Archaeologists have to move house countless times a year and live in places where no humans dwell. Consequently you are often living with many different people in many different uninhabited spaces over a long period of time. As a result you tend to drink what you earn, making the working day a write off and leaving you with negative equity at the end of each and every month.

8. Meeting Wierdos

By this I do not mean the nice hippy types or the slightly cute introverts. I mean the wrong ones, who bite their own and others’ toenails in the site hut and who drink their body weight in the evening. These are rare, however, and on the plus side you do get to meet many brilliant people all with the same interests as yourself.It’s like one big history club, which gives you an added advantage in the history rounds at the pub quiz.

What's not to love about digging up our heritage and learning more about who we are, what we've done and how history happened? Image credit - Wessex Archaeology.

9. The Classic Questions

The following are kindly provided to me by the ‘general public’:

  • “Have you found any gold yet?”
  • “When are time team coming then?”
  • “Keep going and you’ll get to Australia”
  • “Have you found anything interesting yet?”
  • “What are you doing?”
  • “Will you come and dig my garden?”
  • “What did you do to deserve this?”
  • “Found any bodies yet?”
  • “Indie!”

And my friend Susan’s particular favourite whilst digging up Peterborough city centre: “If you find my grandad, let me know.”

10. None of The Above

I can’t do it – I can’t pretend that being an archaeologist isn’t great. Yes, all these points are a little irritating, but, when it comes down to it, you can’t beat the thrill of the dig. The main point of being an archaeologist is that you are working in a subject area that you are passionate about and which you want to continually learn more about. You have to be a little ‘different’.

It is a detective game that brings colour to human actions and relationships that had been forgotten. The evidence is the artefact and the detective is you. It is a brilliant hobby, vocation, interest, passion, and one which will lead you to meet lots of interesting people of all shapes, sizes and beard lengths.

If you are a little odd, like real ale, love scraping around in mud, and have no real desire to make millions, then this is the route for you! It is fantastic fun and it amazes me each and every day to imagine the landscape and life through different eyes.