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Dead and buried? Variation in post-mortem histories revealed through histotaphonomic characterisation of human bone from megalithic graves in Sweden

Journal article
Authors H. I. Hollund
Malou Blank
Karl-Göran Sjögren
Published in Plos One
Volume 13
Issue 10
Publication year 2018
Published at Department of Historical Studies
Language en
Subject categories History


This study investigates possible variation in post-mortem histories during the Neolithic period in southwestern Sweden based on microscopic studies of human bone. Numerous megalithic graves were built in this region and good preservation conditions have left a rich skeletal record. After more than a hundred years of research, it is still a controversy whether or not these skeletal assemblages were the result of primary burials, or ossuaries where skeletonized remains were deposited. In this study we apply histological analysis to obtain insights into post-mortem histories and taphonomic processes affecting the human remains, potentially including funerary rituals. This type of analysis records the condition and traces of degradation found in skeletal material at a microscopic level. Human skeletal material from four different megalithic tombs in the Falbygden area has been sampled and analysed by thin-section light microscopy, and by scanning electron microscopy. The results of the study provide evidence of variation and changes in burial conditions for skeletal remains from the different graves, also for remains from the same grave. Extent of bioerosion varied, from extensive to moderate/arrested, to none. Bone samples from the same graves also differed in the type of staining and mineral inclusions, showing that the non-bioeroded samples relatively early post-mortem must have experienced an anoxic environment, and later a change to an aerated environment. This could be taken as an indication of primary burial somewhere else, but more likely reflect a special micro-environment occurring temporarily in some graves and parts of graves after the tombs were filled with soil and sealed by roof slabs. The study illustrates the usefulness of bone histological analysis in the reconstruction of post-mortem histories, revealing variations not discernible at macro-level that may aid in the interpretations of funerary rituals. However, the results also highlight the issues of equifinality. Based on current data and knowledge, several scenarios are possible. Further histotaphonomic work is advisable, including archaeological remains from megalithic tombs, and bones from taphonomic experiments.

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