Journal of Archaeology in the Low Countries 1-1 (May 2009)E. Smits; J. van der Plicht: Mesolithic and Neolithic human remains in the Netherlands: physical anthropological and stable isotope investigations
7 Discussion and conclusions

7.1 Mortuary variability

A rough division can be made in three groups as far as the depositions of the human skeletal remains are concerned: inhumation graves, cremation remains in settlement context and scattered human bones. The inhumation graves show diversity in the disposal of the dead. There were single, double and multiple inhumation graves and the remains were either complete or incomplete.

From the Mesolithic period burials are scarce and appear to have been either isolated or in small burial grounds for instance at Vedbæk and Skateholm in Scandinavia, at Téviec and Hoëdic in Brittany (Albrethsen & Brinch Petersen 1976; Larsson 1990; Péquart & Péquart 1929, 1934, 1954; Péquart et al. 1937). The most frequent burial posture is supine with stretched limbs. Burials in which the deceased was buried in a sitting position, like one burial at De Bruin, are also attested at several other European sites, Bäckaskog in Skåne and Lummulunda on the isle of Gotland, Sweden (Stenberger 1962, 36; Newell & Constandse Westermann 1979). We may deduce that the observed traditions seem to be in accordance with those in northwest Europe for the late Mesolithic period. At Swifterbant and Urk the same burial posture is attested.

A change from a stretched to a position on the side with flexed limbs evidently took place before or around c. 3500 BC. This phenomenon is known from several burials associated with the Michelsberg culture in the south (Ilett & Coudart 1983). Stable isotope analysis has shown that two individuals from Schipluiden probably originate from other areas including the southern regions. This indicates either migration and/or other contacts. Liaisons with these people may have been at the root of new traditions including the treatment of the dead.

Most sites have yielded scattered, unarticulated, human bones and bone fragments as well as formal burials. These remains can indicate a variety of processes and actions. They can be the result of taphonomic processes, related to an archaeologically invisible above-ground treatment of the dead for which again many options exist. One is a mortuary ritual like excarnation in the open, on a platform. After a certain period the bodies are decomposed or defleshed and (secondarily) buried or discarded. Secondly, there may have been fighting between members of the group or with outsiders, leading to discarding of the remains of slain enemies, to trophy hunting, or even cannibalism. Thirdly, an unnatural death or mysterious disease can also lead to a different manner of handling the body resulting in the observed spectrum. Furthermore postdepositional disturbances of formal burials can cause the dispersion of bones as well.