Proposition 2

that excarnation may have been practised through much of prehistory

To identify clearly where multiple and single phase rites have taken place has been difficult, particularly in periods where cremation was a prominent disposal method, and the reasons are not repeated here (see Section 4.6). There is evidence, however, that every period does contain sites with multiple phase disposal rites (Tables 145-47), and among those sites there are in each period some where excarnation took place (Tables 175-77). Only the south west area in the period 8/700-100bc fails to provide a single example of excarnation, from the smallest numerical base of 35 sites. Given the problems of survival and recognition, the high-level evidence might be thought significant and to indicate continuation through prehistory of a tradition of excarnation, which is most visible in the surviving record of earlier periods but is later more obscured.

Moreover, excarnation commonly forms part of the wider disposal process of the treatment and use of a dead body, with particular purposes related to the disposal process itself and to time, space and place thereafter. In this context, variation in treatment of cremated bone is relevant since there is occasional evidence that, on some sites, cremated bone was reserved for purposes of redeposition or other use, much as seems to have been the case with the use of certain unburnt skeletal parts through prehistory (see the continuum of evidence over 3500bc-AD43 in the special studies, under cremation and inhumation and ritual activity in section 6). Although there are physical differences (burning the flesh rather than letting it decompose), the underlying process is similar (defleshing of the corpse) and, given the context, possibly the purpose too. This argument may be supported by the instances that occur where both cremation and inhumation have been used on the same body in whole or part, and where both methods occur in separate depositions on the same site.

Apart from a single gap in one area in one period, the hypothesis appears to be supported, even in periods when cremation obscures evidence.

The evidence to support this hypothesis divides between the unambiguous and the more circumstantial. The unambiguous evidence in 3500-14/1300bc is found at causewayed enclosures and in mortuary structures of differing degrees of solidity, which were erected to hold bodies and subsequently covered over. At some sites in each period, a grave or a pit has been left open with the body in it for some while before closure, as environmental or skeletal evidence shows.

Other evidence is more open to interpretation. In the main it comprises the inclusion of human bone, which sometimes bears evidence of exposure, in deposited composite mixtures of soil, stone and domestic refuse. The contexts differ vary from mass single deposits of largely disposal material, to seams of domestic refuse containing some bone fragments, through to (for example) blocking rubble with some human bone material. The issue surrounding these contexts relevant to the hypothesis is whence came the material, particularly in the first two cases, where the human bone appears to have been mixed with other material before final deposit, quite possibly in a midden-like location. The circumstances might imply an extended sequence of processes, moving from exposure of the whole corpse, to collection and reservation in whole or part in a midden or settlement location (or both in the case of a refuse pit within the settlement), and then collection and use of the bone and associated material in the funeral monument itself. In this model, exposure might have temporary burial (within or outside the settlement) as an alternative means of defleshing the corpse. There are sites, such as 29 Frocester II, very suggestive of this process followed by transfer to the final resting place.

The existence of evidence to support platform exposure depends on interpretation of post structures on disposal sites, and which are not indisputably those belonging to mortuary houses. Temporary structures within monuments (there are some 92 sites with instances in all) are recorded in greatest numbers in the Neolithic/Bronze Age interface (75), but are ten times less frequent in the flanking Earlier Neolithic and the Bronze Age, and have but single instances in each of the Iron Age and the Continental transition. Where these are on non-settlement sites, comprise three or four holes in triangular or quadrangular formation, and are beside or over the grave pit or the piece of ground on which the body has been laid and are appropriately spaced, they are suggestive. In periods where incidence of inhumation and excarnation are together relatively high, as is the case between 3500-14/1300bc (82 of the 92 instances of temporary post structures), the probabilities are greater, and little more than that may be said. The sole instance from 100bc-AD43 could well have been a disposal platform, but that from 8/700-100bc is a simple post. However, even single posts perhaps should not be ignored. If not marker posts, they still might be used to support an upright bound body, and this might fit with the occurrence of (?)isolated single graves with so-called marker posts, and with graves in visible monuments with the remains of such posts within or by the grave where no marker is ultimately needed. In summary, there is some slight evidence to support the existence of platform exposure in the period 3500-8/700bc, but little for later periods. The evidence suggests an increase in the practice in 2500-14/1300bc, but this might be biased by the disposal sites themselves being used for exposure, while this may have been less common in periods before and after.

The evidence for the use of trees in which to expose the corpse is circumstantial and scant in the extreme, as might be expected. At only two sites in one period (2500-14/1300bc) was a large tree apparently the focus of the monument site: at 919 Roxton Ring Ditch B there is some evidence for the burial originally centring on a semi-mature oak tree, which was then uprooted and the barrow constructed (no small task), and at 1710 Basingstoke II Barrow the monument was centred on a large tree-hole. There are a number of sites where tree and shrub clearance has taken place before the monument was built, but the resultant holes are relatively small features. It is possible that the trees at the two sites mentioned had significance, but it is too much to declare them excarnation sites, although that is conceivable. The second tenuous strand of evidence is that, in earlier periods particularly, there is some clear environmental data showing that a few sites were sited in or close to woodland. The nearby trees might have been used for exposure, but this is totally speculative. Yet there is sufficient occurrence of the use of wood, natural or worked, in the disposal process for purposes other than the obviously functional (such as coffins, biers, supporting planks, marker posts and fencing) to suggest that particular trees may have had significance for the participants, but there is nothing to link this possibility with those trees' use for exposure.

The hypothesis seems strongly supported for the periods down to 100bc in respect of exposure on open ground or in open mortuary structures of different kinds, but is weakly supported thereafter. The evidence for tree exposure is too circumstantial for conclusions.

The general proposition 2 seems valid.


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