Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Wrapping Up for the Season

This past Friday, we closed out the 2007 field season at Danbury. Everyone was very busy removing the last features and backfilling deep excavation units. Jim Bowers and crew removed the last of the bundle burials from "The Ossuary," alias Burial Feature 07-04. This feature turned out to be truly astounding. Our field counts of crania alone exceeded 20 individuals, and the post-cranial bones were densely packed into the center of the pit. We found no birdstones or exotic artifacts in the ossuary, which disappointed a few crew members, but we also found nothing to contradict our working hypothesis that the feature is of Early Woodland age.

This conclusion is based on two observations. One is that only thick, cordmarked, grit-tempered pot sherds, resembling the Leimbach series, were found scattered among the bones, nothing of later vintage was found. Secondly, our cursory examination of some of the teeth appeared heavily worn and with little to no evidence of tooth decay. Such healthy but worn-out teeth are much more typical of hunting and gathering populations such as the Late Archaic and Early Woodland inhabitants of this region, than of Late Woodland or Late Prehistoric period maize agriculturalists. I guess we will have to radiocarbon date one or two samples of bone to find out the real age of this intriguing feature.

I plan to continue my entries to this blog for the next few months with updates on our work in the lab as well as posts on some of the other interesting projects we have underway.

Finally, let me finish with a final "farewell" and big "thank you" to all our very hard-working and very interested field school volunteers and students. You all did a fantastic job and worked steadily in the heat and in the slop (last week). You are directly responsible for the great success we have had this season. Also, we remain grateful to Greg Spatz and Cove on the Bay for allowing us to do this work and continuing to do "the right thing" when it comes to saving a part of this extremely important archaeological resource.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Man's Best Friend?

As I have mentioned in earlier posts, we rarely find artifacts or other inclusions within the burial features found at the Danbury site. The two notable exceptions are the whelk shell burial found in 2005 (see the 2004 excavation report) and the birdstone burial discovered just last year (described in the 2006 report, coming soon!). This week, however, we discovered something unusual placed within the extended burial of an adult female (BF 07-07). Located above the left leg of this burial was a concentration of animal bones which included the skull and jaw of a dog. Below is a closeup image of the dog remains showing the cranium (on right, upper jaw missing), the left side of the lower jaw (with teeth), about four cervical (neck) vertebrae (lower center), a rib, and one scapula (shoulder blade, on left). The white object in the center is the shell of a land snail of relatively recent origin.

No other parts of the dog skeleton were found in the burial so this feature appears not to represent the deliberate burial of, for example, a pet dog but more likely an offering of a dog head or upper body section. Interestingly, a very similar association of a female burial with the head of a dog was documented during the 2003 salvage excavations at the site.

Historical accounts of Great Lakes Native American tribes often mention the importance of dogs, not only as pets or hunting companions but also as sacred offerings or objects of sacrifice used to honor important individuals. The fact that these dog remains were accompanied by a mixture of bones from other creatures (additional offerings?) seems to support this interpretation over the more romantic notion that some Danbury site residents wished to have "man's best friend" accompany them into the afterlife.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

A New Burial Pattern Appears

Much of our work of late involves the recording of burial features. We are working at the southern boundary of Lot 4 in an effort to join together our block excavation areas from 2004 and 2005 (see our excavation plan in the June 24 post). As it turns out, this area contains a relatively dense cluster of adult and subadult (child) burials but almost no domestic features (i.e., cooking pits, storage pits, and midden or trash deposits). Several of the smaller (subadult?) burial pits we have recorded contain loose soil and only fragments of human bone. A cross-section of one of these is shown below.

These pits most likely represent graves from which the remains were exhumed by prehistoric Native Americans. We do not yet understand why such burials were disinterred; however, we have found other adult burials that contained the bundled remains of children. Perhaps some of these young ones were exhumed from their individual graves for reburial with relatives. Interestingly, many of these subadult burials lie just to the southeast of a distinct alignment of adult graves which runs northeast to southwest. This pattern is unlikely to be random but rather is evidence of a preplanned cemetery.

A few burials in this cluster contain undisturbed remains of children like Burial Feature 07-08 which was found just this week. It contained the skeleton of a young child and included several marginella shell beads and the single shell disk bead pictured below.

Saturday, July 7, 2007

The Early Woodland Ossuary

A few posts ago, I described a burned earth feature which we called Feature 07-01. I noted that it most likely was associated with a cluster of human bones. Much time has been spent over the last week excavating Feature 07-01 in plan and carefully exposing what lies beneath. We were amazed to learn that this rather modestly sized feature contains the disarticulated remains of at least 13 people! An image of Feature 07-01 before excavation is shown above (the blue oval shows the maximum extent of the feature).

We refer to this large bone cluster as an "ossuary" or mass burial pit. It contains individual concentrations (or "bundles") of remains which include skulls, longbones, pelves, vertebrae, and hand and foot bones. They most likely represent the collected remains of individuals who died elsewhere, and whose bones were cleaned of flesh and packaged for transport to a common place of interment. Such a secondary form of burial contrasts drastically with the primary extended and flexed burial treatments described previously. We don't completely understand why some groups buried their dead together in this fashion, while others favored the use of individual graves. Here is a copy of our field drawing of what we now call Burial Feature 07-04.

Interestingly, the original burned earth feature now seems to have been a late addition to this feature. It is outlined in the upper right hand portion of the drawing and appears to be devoid of bone. This suggests that this hearth or cooking pit was dug into the pre-existing ossuary, most likely by accident. A collection of scattered bone on the upper (north) edge of the ossuary appears to been displaced from the hole dug by the later hearth-builders and redeposited into the ossuary. Several Leimbach series pot sherds have been found in the fill of the ossuary pit which indicate that it dates to the Early Woodland period (ca. 1000 to 500 B.C.).

Excavation of this very complex feature will continue for some time, and more surprises most likely await us.

Monday, July 2, 2007

Tracking Mortuary Behavior

One of the most intriguing kinds of information that has come from our work at the Danbury site is the evidence for changes in mortuary treatment (i.e., how people buried their dead) over time. This is due in part to the fact that the temporal perspective at Danbury is very long, nearly 5,000 years, and because most groups established small cemeteries during their years of residence.

Shown below are images from our field maps showing two of the burials we recorded this season.

These two (Burial Features 07-01 and 07-03) show the remains of two adults buried in very similar fashion. They are referred to as "extended, primary interments" which means that each person was buried soon after they died and on their backs with arms to the sides. This burial form is very similar to the way many people are buried today. Notice that BF 07-01 (top image) is missing all of the right leg and the lower half of the left leg. These bones appear to have been removed during backhoe excavation during road construction. At present, we do not know the time period of these burials since no temporally sensitive artifacts were recovered with them. Still, this extended form of burial and the northwest to southeast orientation of the skeletons is typical of all the Late Woodland period (ca. 1,000 years old) burials found so far.

In contrast, is Burial Feature 07-02 shown below. This individual, also an adult, was interred in

what is called a "flexed" position with knees drawn up to the chest and arms flexed on or in front of the body. This posture somewhat resembles a fetal position, and, accordingly, some researchers speculate that positioning the body in this way mimics the birth posture and symbolizes the passage from life to the afterlife. A more practical explanation is that the flexing of a body allowed it to be placed in an already-existing storage pit. The bones of this individual are very fragmentary and poorly preserved which may indicate great age. We have found two other flexed burials in similarly poor states of preservation. One of these is the oldest yet found and dates to 4,800 years ago, during the Late Archaic period. So, perhaps we are looking at two different forms of mortuary treatment, extended vs. flexed, which are separated by thousands of years and, perhaps, different belief systems.