Monday, October 4, 2021

Heads, shoulders, knees and toes: Exploring bodies, body parts and personhood in late Neolithic Malta through funerary taphonomy 

This research addresses the body and personhood in late Neolithic Malta (c. 3600–2300 cal BC) by reconstructing funerary practices at two collective burial sites: the Xemxija Tombs (Malta) and Xagħra Circle (Gozo). The range and sequence of funerary practices are identified through implementing taphonomic analysis to classify the condition and modification of bone and explore dominant trends in depositional practice. Although the extensive disarticulation and fragmentation of remains has received considerable attention, the timing of post-mortem interactions has been largely overlooked. Yet, the temporality of mortuary practices is crucial for understanding the social dimension of the process of death and dying, revealing how the identity of the dead is transformed. This work further explores how mortuary rites responded to understandings of the body held during life. To do so, the treatment of the dead body is placed in its social context, integrating burial treatment, bioarchaeological evidence and material culture—particularly the corpus of anthropomorphic figurines—to provide a new interpretation of personhood in late Neolithic Malta. Analysing the full assemblage of human remains from six rock-cut tombs at Xemxija, and between 9.3–100% of the assemblage from 16 contexts at the Xagħra Circle, this research finds a predominant practice of primary interment and subsequent disarticulation in most burial spaces. Disarticulation typically focussed on the selective removal of crania and long bones, and long bones are demonstrated to have been removed from the Xemxija Tombs. Careful analysis shows this was an extended process, in which the memory of the dead was maintained over several generations and social death was prolonged. Significantly, this practice was inclusive of individuals from foetal to old adult in age and was not biased according to sex. Aligning the life-course with the death-course, a pervasive interest in modifying the body is evident. The fragmentation of dead bodies and figurines indicates bodily partibility enacted across multiple media. These new results reveal corporeal practices which extended from life into interactions with the dead. However, in all contexts, the body is figured and constructed in diverse ways, revealing that personhood was founded on difference. Altogether, bodies are shown to be complex and multiple entities in both life and death, and the integration of bodies in their varied forms was significant. This research offers new insights into the ‘body worlds’ of Neolithic Malta which has implications for understanding socio-political dynamics. This thesis demonstrates the significance of a holistic analysis of bodies and personhood in the past.
Taphonomy, Funerary taphonomy, Personhood, Figurines, Deathways, Neolithic Malta, Collective burial
This research was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, FRAGSUS ERC Project FP7 'Ideas' (Advanced Grant 323727), and Magdalene College (Cambridge)
All rights reserved, All Rights Reserved
Awarding Institution
University of Cambridge
Author Affiliation
Department of Archaeology
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



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