4.10 Age Incidence

This is another difficult analysis focus, partly by the nature of the evidence and partly because of problems with interpreting and using it. Incidence and not a headcount is recorded, and therefore this data cannot be used to project population size or density (even if the timespans allowed a plausible attempt), but is merely an indicator of the age range interred on a site in a period. The Codes used are 109 for Age 0-1, 108 for 2-17, 105 for 18-24, 106 for 25-35, 107 for 36+ and 111 for age unknown. These ranges were chosen intuitively after recording about 1200 sites. They represent, however, deliberate choices to show the very high risk peri-natal and post-natal periods, a longer age spectrum from young childhood to juvenile, and then two periods which, for the timespan under research, seems to have represented the prime of adulthood from 18-35. This left a group aged 36+ for the senior citizens of the time, a subjective decision but one which may be thought justified later by the evidence.

The ages recorded through the Gazetteer coding reflect age as given precisely or implicitly by an excavation report. When the report does not give a precise age, the description may make it possible to assign remains to a particular age group. The most interpretable terms here include: foetus, infant, child, juvenile, sub-adult, young adult and old adult. The appropriate code is used for these as their place in the age spectrum is fairly clear. Less certain in meaning are descriptive terms such as adult of middle age, or adult in the prime of life, both of which are more relative than the others as well as being subjective. In the former case a modern connotation has been assumed and the age assigned to the oldest category, although by prehistoric criteria middle age probably began in the mid-20s for those surviving that far. In the latter case the age could be any of three categories, depending on what 'prime of life' means to the writer (it can mean middle age, for example), and the remains are assigned to the 'age unknown' category, but categorised as adult. Where simply 'adult' is given as the description, again the remains are coded as age unknown, as are remains with descriptions such as 'small person' where age inference is risky.

Telling the age of human remains by the bones is an expert job. Even where precision is essayed, however, research has shown that on a relatively modern site a few hundred years old experts can err by 10 years or so in ageing bones. It is also clear that not all report writers used experts to determine the age of remains, and although a non-expert could pick up the important rudiments of the technique, the risk of error is there. An assumption is nonetheless made that the data are reasonably even in quality, and that if there are errors then the errors are consistent. This is a bold assumption, but otherwise it is hard to see what to do except dismiss the evidence for its imperfections without knowing how serious they were.

The three areas of south west, south and south east have been examined for all five periods from 3500bc-AD43, and the relevant results are set out in Tables 257-270. The section treats age incidence starting from the broadest picture for the whole geographical area over the whole period.

Overall patterns 3500bc-AD43

The summary picture

As Table 269 shows, the general context is one of age being indeterminable in a very high proportion of incidences overall (84%). It appears that the age range 2-17 provides the highest incidence of burials (19%), the others being overall very evenly represented at 8-9%. The obvious question is what would dividing the 2-17 age range further into (say) ages 2-9 and 10-17 have revealed - possibly an even representation throughout? On the whole, precise ageing of child burials is not the norm, and the span can trap them in the way that unaged adult burials cannot be trapped. Other noteworthy points show that the south west appears to show rather lower incidences on record over the whole spectrum and particularly in the 2-17 age group (14%), the south east has a higher representation of the 25-35 age group (11% against the average of 8%), and also has a lower incidence of unaged remains.

The period pictures

Across the periods, Table 266 shows that generally the periods covering 2500-8/700bc provide less evidence for age. This might well be connected with the prevalence then of cremation (Table 176), and the difficulty of ageing cremated remains. The patterns appear broadly consistent otherwise in relation to the average, and the numbers do not allow the slight variations to be given very much significance.

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