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

4 Burial practices

4.1 Inhumation graves

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The inhumation graves comprise single, double and multiple burials. Single primary burials were most common. From roughly 5500 until 4000 BC most individuals were buried stretched on the back with extended limbs as was attested at Hardinxveld-Giessendam, Swifterbant and Urk. An exceptional custom was observed in one of the graves at De Bruin, where a man had been buried in a sitting position. That same posture is assumed by the excavator for the presumed grave pits at Mariënberg.

The burial posture had completely changed around 3500 BC, at the Middle Neolithic sites of Schipluiden and Ypenburg, to one in which the arms and legs were tightly flexed, sometimes in an extreme way, which can only be explained by the binding of limbs (fig. 3). Also the range of variability in the position of the torso was similar at both sites.


Fig. 3 Ypenburg, burial 13, a tightly flexed adult female individual, characteristic for the Middle Neolithic Hazendonk Group (after Baetsen 2008).

Multiple graves can represent a single deposition or repeated burials at different time intervals. In the case of a single act the deceased were deposited in the grave simultaneously, indicated by the articulation of the skeletons. Overlapping limb bones can show the sequence of deposition as well. The double grave at Schipluiden has the appearance of a single deposition, since both skeletons were articulated, no disturbance was visible and the overlapping of the bones indicates a simultaneous burial (fig. 4). Reasons for primary double or multiple burials can only be guessed at. There is no association with sex or age, so every grave has to be interpreted on its own. The double grave at Schipluiden for instance contained the skeletons of two men. One of them had a severe injury on the skull indicating a violent death. Although the bones of the second individual reveal no traces of the cause of death the simultaneous character of the burial serves as indirect evidence for a violent death of this man as well, implicating – because they were buried in one act – that they probably died at the same time and from the same cause.


Fig. 4 Schipluiden, burial 1, primary double burial of two adult male individuals, Middle Neolithic Hazendonk Group (after Smits & Louwe Kooijmans 2006).
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A primary double burial at Ypenburg contained the skeletons of two children and tells a completely different tale. As these skeletons do not display pathological bone changes, possibly an infectious disease of short duration was responsible for the death of both children at approximately the same time.

Repeated primary burials are characterised by a sequence of depositions separated by time intervals, which probably correlated with the time of death of the individuals. The grave was reopened for an additional deposition of a corpse, thereby disturbing the human remains already in the grave. At Ypenburg some burial pits show inarticulate skeletal remains, which may have resulted from this practice. Most obvious is the deviation of the posture of the buried individuals as compared to single burials, and the absence of grave goods. In Urk one of the graves held the remains of three individuals, which seems to be a repeated burial as well. The grave at Zoelen is exceptional because it seems to be a primary grave in the first instance with a secondary deposition on top of it. The secondary nature of the deposition refers to the phenomenon of the (re)burial of a collection of human skeletal remains that were initially buried or exposed at another location.

Underlying factors for the presence of repeated double and multiple burials could relate to social or cultural traditions, practised by for instance kinship groups or immigrants, with specific rules of their own such as the burial of members in a communal grave.

4.2 Isolated scattered bones

At all settlement sites, with only one exception (Swifterbant S2), loose scattered bones have emerged in variable quantities. They originate from different contexts like cemeteries, occupation layers and refuse zones of the settlements. Post-depositional disturbances of graves were attested at several sites and may have been responsible for part of the dispersed remains, but there are other options that will be considered here. The explanations comprise taphonomic processes, postdepositional disturbances and intentional actions or rituals.

The number of dispersed bones in relation to the minimum number of individuals that they represent shows that only 2.5 % has been recovered, as measured by the number of bone identifications and based on the fact that the skeleton of an adult individual consists of 206 bones. So 97.5 % of the bones disappeared completely. These is not surprising as the human remains ended up above the ground and were open to the elements, to be dispersed by water or wind, eaten by scavengers, or trampled and fragmented by all kinds of activities during the occupation of the sites.

Firstly, the nature and composition of the bone elements can be of importance for assessing the taphonomic aspect. An inventory shows that compact bones, like the cranium, teeth and shafts of the long bones, constitute the majority of the bone spectrum. Skeletal parts that comprise mainly spongy bone tissue, like vertebrae, ribs and the pelvic girdle, only form a small component. Apparently the compact bones have a better survival rate (table 2). On the whole there is no pattern, which distinguishes between the degrees of weathering of the isolated bones in comparison with the formal burials. The preservation of the skeletal remains in the graves can be very bad, on the other hand isolated bones can be very well preserved, especially when incorporated in aquatic clay deposits.


Table 2 Isolated skeletal remains from the Mesolithic and Neolithic sites in the Lower Rhine Basin.

Secondly, human manipulation of skeletal remains can be supported by special traces on the bones, like cut marks. They give rise to various theories, comprising not only cultural traditions concerning mortuary ritual but also acts of violence and cannibalism. Several indications of violence were observed in the material under study. The skull of a man at De Bruin showed a healed depression fracture caused by a blow on the head. In grave 1 at Schipluiden two men were interred, one of which shows a bashed-in skull. The fact that their burial differed from the others may be linked to an exceptional cause of death, probably violence. Considering that injuries to soft tissues are indistinguishable, violent behaviour might have been much more frequent and underrepresented in the osteological record. So we can expect different types of action, concerning violence and violent death of members of the local group or enemy groups, to be reflected in mortuary practices. In the case of warfare, trophy hunting should also be taken into account. The isolated skulls, that were discarded in the refuse zone at Polderweg, may be related to these habits. We can expect the same phenomenon at Schipluiden and Swifterbant. The two skulls from Urk are questionable in this respect as bad preservation prevents interpretation as isolated depositions or the last testimonies of formal burials.

Thirdly, cultural traditions can be responsible for the attested scattered remains as well. The grave at Zoelen for instance shows a secondary interment of an incomplete skeleton. Dismemberment and defleshing can be expected, either with the use of tools or in a natural way, like decomposition elsewhere and possibly above ground. At Hardinxveld-Polderweg a clavicle was found with repeated identical cut marks on it, caused by a sharp-bladed flint tool. These cutmarks were identified as perimortem – inflicted at or around the time of death – and may even be associated with cannibalism (fig. 5). A similar find at a Neolithic chambered tomb at West Tump in the United Kingdom is interpreted as an instance of decapitation (Smith & Brickley 2004).


Fig. 5 Hardinxveld-Polderweg, isolated human clavicle with cutmarks, Late Mesolithic (after Smits & Louwe Kooijmans 2001).

Cannibalism may leave some traces on the bones. One is the fracturing of the long bones and skulls to extract marrow and brain tissue. Associated features are secondary burning and cut marks, especially near the joints, for dismemberment of the body (e.g. Hurlbut 2000). These resemble the butchering marks and patterns of animals (Lyman 1987). One can expect the discarded bones to end up among faunal refuse. On the bones at our disposal we do (occasionally) observe cut marks and secondary calcinations, while they have been discarded in dumps of faunal bone. The data are too few however to conclude that cannibalism played a role or lay at the root of these dispersed human remains.