Journal of Archaeology in the Low Countries 1-2 (November 2009)Quentin Bourgeois; Luc Amkreutz; Raphaël Panhuysen: The Niersen Beaker burial: A renewed study of a century-old excavation
3 Human remains

3.4 The crouched burial: taphonomy

What was described by Nieuwenhuis as a complete skeleton is is in fact a partial skeleton with most of its bones intact and in position. This deposition will be referred to as the crouched inhumation. This skeleton is found in the southern part of the recovered burial. The human remains are represented by dark brown soil discolourations and smaller and larger bone fragments. Combining the visible parts with the information from the radiographs and the field observations recorded in photographs and the description by Hanedoes van Almkerk, it is evident that we see the skeleton of a person who was buried on its left side with semiflexed legs in relation to the trunk. The left arm extends out of the trunk and is flexed at the elbow joint. The right arm was described by Hanedoes van Almkerk but he does not mention its position. The position of the pelvic bones on top of each other, the parallel position of the femora, and the way they articulate in the hip joint provide evidence for a burial on the left side. Similarly the skull was found to be lying on its left side. Since several spinous processes of the vertebrae were found to represent the lowest part of the vertebral column we may assume that the upper half of the body was slightly rotated towards a dorsal position. Hanedoes van Almkerk’s interpretation that the person was lying on its back was made on the basis of a not fully uncovered skeleton in the field and has to be revised. Holwerda’s assumption that the body was deposited in the grave in a sitting position has also been refuted.

The soil discolouration which surrounds the bones is difficult to interpret. First of all it is not known whether the present margins of the discolouration mark the original distribution of the darker coloured soil. Some isolated spots of dark coloured soil above the femora may indicate that some of the soil was lost during the cleaning of the burial in the laboratory. Furthermore the discolouration of the soil extends around and between all three bone concentrations.

The loss of the lower part of the legs shows that the burial was not completely recovered. The left femur was damaged in the process of recovery and originally extended outside the margins of the recovered block. No trace is visible of the tibiae and feet. In one of the field photographs (providing a view from above) a linear mass is, however, visible probably representing the right tibia. This mass suggests that the knee joint was lying in a semiflexed position, with an angle between the femur and the supposed tibia of circa 90 degrees. During the recovery some bone was also lost in the area of the skull. The top of the skull is in contact with the gypsum.

Bone loss also occurred as a consequence of intense bone decomposition. Smaller bones, like those in the hand, and bones with lower bone densities, like vertebral bones or the proximal and distal ends of long bones, have completely dissolved in the soil.

The loss of complete bones and sections of bones shows that the conditions in the grave and soil were not ideal for bone preservation. If we compare the situation documented in the field and in the laboratory it is notable that the lower lying parts of the skeleton are better preserved than the higher parts. In particular, the skull and the pelvis and lower extremities are better preserved. However small fractures are also visible in preserved bone sections.

An important indicator for the conditions in the burial context at the time of deposition and changes in the time after deposition, is the analysis of joint articulation and the position of individual parts of the skeleton. It is important to note that the original deposition surface of the burial can no longer be determined, which makes it difficult to determine the exact position of the body and skeleton in relation to this deposition surface. What can be described is the position of the parts of the skeleton relative to each other. The skull is lying on its left side, facing south. The occipital bone and the atlas were observed articulated. Further, the mandibular condyle was found articulated with the mandibular fossa at the skull base. The lower jaw was found in an open position and had thus moved outside the volume of the body. As a whole the skull, mandible and atlas were found in a position circa 25 cm from where we assume the shoulder girdle and the first thoracic vertebrae would have been. A series of actions may have resulted in this position. First, the skull may have been separated from the body before the moment of deposition and placed at this location in the grave. Second, the skull may have been separated from the rest of the body during the decomposition process and displaced due to natural decomposition processes of the body and underlying organic material. A third possibility is that the skull was displaced due to intervention in the grave after the initial decomposition process had dissolved the connective tissue between the first and maybe the second cervical vertebrae (atlas and axis) and the rest of the cervical vertebrae.

Remains of the left arm can be seen to the left of the body, with the radius and ulna in an acute angle of circa 45 degrees with the humerus. These bones seem to articulate with each other and the humerus may have articulated in the shoulder joint. Due to the poor state of preservation this cannot be determined with more certitude. The bones of the pelvic girdle are distributed in a manner which suggests that the left part of the pelvis rested on the bottom of the grave and the right half of the pelvis was displaced into the volume of the body during decomposition and is now lying on top of the left half. The pelvis was also found in close association with the disarticulated bone deposition. It seems that the right pelvis may have leaned against the disarticulated bones. The left femoral head was found articulated with the hip joint.

In conclusion, the taphonomical data show us that the skull was displaced. If we consider this displacement the result of natural decomposition processes then both the distance of displacement and the position of the mandible could be interpreted as indications that the body was lying in an open space in the grave (Duday 1990). This is no longer true if we assume that the skull was displaced due to later human intervention in the grave. In that case the jaw may have opened at the time of intervention. Therefore, evidence for the presence of an open space depends on the interpretation of the displacement of the skull.


Fig. 4 A X-ray Photo of the pelvic area of the inhumation in situ and the animal bones. In the right image the interpretation of the bones is added. The left femur is also visible in the block, the right femur is only visible in the X-ray Photo.