Institute of Archaeology
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First for Archaeology in UK 2015

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Christie Willis

Stonehenge and Late Neolithic mortuary practices

There was considerable variation in mortuary practices during the Mid-Late Neolithic period of Britain (c. 3400-2400 cal B.C.). Disposal practices included inhumation burial in flat graves, in round and long mounds, in cairns, in caves and in cists, disposal of partial skeletons on single bones resulting from excarnation, disposal of human remains in rivers, bogs and other watery contexts and burial of cremated remains. At Stonehenge, the burial practices consisted of exhumation, inhumation, and cremation; however recent radiocarbon dating suggests that the cremated remains were deposited during the very first stage of construction c. 3300 cal B.C.

This project will study the demographic attributes and the burial organisation of Mid-Late Neolithic cremation cemeteries in order to examine the nature of the nature of the mortuary rites, spatial and social organization, population demography, and regional variation. The data gathered will form the basis for a new understanding of the burial practices at Stonehenge and at other cremation cemeteries. The study will also investigate the processes behind the selection of certain individuals for cremation (e.g. only males or only adults) and whether differences in demographic profiles can be discerned between a variety of circular enclosures (i.e., henges, stone circles, and timber circles) will form the basis of understanding the burial practices at Stonehenge and at other cremation cemeteries. Stratigraphic sequences also show that cremations were added at different times in the histories of each monument, thus this thesis will also determine how this form of burial practice evolved, what other mortuary practices were used alongside it during the period, and how and when the practice ended.

Additionally, differences in the cremation process within and between cemeteries, such as the differences in the efficiency of the cremation, pyre technology, bone selection for burial, containment of the bones, and methods of burying the remains will also be examined , as they varied during the Mid-Late Neolithic period. Funerary contexts, such as those from deposits recovered in pits, caves and riverbeds from the same period, will provide contrasts and comparisons at local, regional and national levels. This will require a systematic and comprehensive examination of all published and unpublished reports on cremation cemeteries and other sites with human remains in Britain.

Supervisor

 Educational background

  • BA, Anthropology, University of Lethbridge, 2003
  • MSc Human Osteology and Funerary Archaeology, University of Sheffield, 2004

Parker Pearson, M., Cox Willis, C., Marshal, P., Mulville, J., Smith, H., Cowie, T., Craig, O., Deluis, I., Juddery, M., Manley, H., Schwenninger, J-L., and Taylor, G. (2013). After the ‘Frankenstein mummies’: Cladh Hallan in the Bronze and Iron Ages. PAST 73: 11-13.

Parker Pearson, M and Cox Willis, C (2010). 'Burials and builders of Stonehenge: social identities in Late Neolithic and Chalcolithic Britain'. Paper presented at the 3rd Megalithic Studies Group Meeting, May 2010; available from: http://www.jungsteinsite.uni-kiel.de/artikel.htm

Parker Pearson M., Chamberlain A., Collins M., Cox C., Craig O., Hiller J., Marshall P., Mulville

J., and Smith H. (2007). Further Evidence for Mummification in Bronze Age Britain. Antiquity 81, number 312 (http://www.antiquity.ac.uk/ProjGall/parker/index.html).

Cox, C. (2007). Cremated Bone from the Cairnderry Chambered Tomb. In, Cummings, V. and

Fowler, C. From Cairn to Cemetery: an archaeological investigation of the chambered cairns and early Bronze Age mortuary deposits at Cairnderry and Bargrennan White Carin, south-west Scotland, BAR 434.

Cox, C. (2006). Human Skeletal Remains from Frampton on Severn, Gloucestershire. In, Mullin, David et al (eds). The Archaeological Landscape of Frampton on Severn. Transactions of the Bristol and Gloucestershire Archaeology Society Journal.

Conferences

Speaker at the American Association for Physical Anthropology, Chicago April 2010 Title of paper: As we were in life, we are not in death: evidence of possible mummification in prehistoric Britain.

Co-speaker at the American Association for Physical Anthropology, Chicago April 2010 Title of paper: Differential mortality in the 19th century Johnstown and Sheffield floods: a study of age and gender.

Speaker at ‘The Useful Dead: an interdisciplinary dialogue on how we live with October 2010 Death’, University of Durham. Title of paper: Picture perfect: grief, mourning, and perpetual memory in the Victorian way of death.

  • The start of the excavation at Stonehenge
  • Excavating the cremated human remains from Aubrey Hole 7, Stonehenge

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