Halting Death in Its Tracks: Scientific Methods and Theoretical Interpretative Frameworks for Investigating Curation in Iron Age Britain (c. 800 BC - AD 100)

  • Marte Tollefsen

Student thesis: Phd


Recent advances in histotaphonomic studies have dramatically changed our understanding of the complexities of mortuary treatments during both the Neolithic and Bronze Age periods in Britain. But what about the Iron Age: an era renowned for its naturally curated 'bog bodies' and 'kept' human remains, sometimes modified into objects? This thesis presents the first cross-regional study of this phenomenon, probing the famously diverse burial practices of Wessex and the inhumation tradition of East Yorkshire. It reveals diverse and intriguing burial assemblages from iconic sites such as Danebury Hillfort and its Environs, reflecting on what this might tell us about mortuary ideology. The Arras Culture rites of East Yorkshire are re-evaluated, showing equally complex trajectories of the dead towards final interment. This study demonstrates the merits of using diagenetic data alongside archaeothanatological frameworks to piece together post-mortem treatments of the dead. This thesis introduces two new conceptual terms: delayed decomposition - indicative of partial cessation of decay - and deferred decomposition - reflecting more active anthropogenic intervention to curate a corpse. It suggests that these strategies were actively employed to facilitate more complex temporalities of burial and deposition, not just to create ancestral bodies which might linger longer amongst the living or curate enemy relics, but as a response to particular kinds of death and perceived agencies of the deceased. These findings build on new and fascinating research into elusive burial rites in Iron Age Britain (e.g. Booth and Madgwick 2016; Tollefsen 2016). Furthermore, this thesis proposes a contrastive range of practices through which differential curation might be achieved and resituates them within the wider context of communities actively experimenting with long-term storage in many other ways: bringing both a practical and ideological notion of intervention in time and decay, to transform mortuary practices in this millennium.
Date of Award1 Aug 2022
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorMelanie Giles (Supervisor) & Andrew Chamberlain (Supervisor)


  • Bacterial Bioerosion
  • Human Remains
  • Histology
  • Funerary Practices
  • Taphonomy
  • Archaeology
  • Bone Diagenesis
  • Iron Age
  • Curation

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