How to Analyze a Prehistoric Commingled Burial

Most of the human skeletal remains that Emilie and I have been analyzing for the past two weeks are either primary burials, or secondary burials of bits of a single individual.

Two humeri, two radii, two ulnae = 1 person. Would I that all bioarchaeology was this simple.

We’ve recently been examining material from an Early Bronze Age site located just east of us, across the Mureș river. This archaeological site has five distinct graves documented, and after reviewing the maps, I did what I do best: decided to save what looked like the worst work for Future Jess.

For all of last week, I analyzed about a burial every day or two, and things were moving along at a rapid clip until on Saturday night I realized that the only provenience left from the site was from the commingled grave. With growing trepidation, I decided to re-examine that particular map. I have provided an schematic replica of the map below:

Since Sunday morning, I have spent approximately 157 hours working on this burial. Because my previous research project also involved the analysis of commingled remains, I am providing a brief guide to the stages involved in this foolish undertaking, for you to keep in your back pocket in the event that you are ever also unexpectedly presented with a hodge-podge of human bone.

Figure out the fastest way to get energy into your  body,  and then stockpile it in advance. I am currently enamoured of these wonderful little Jacobs 3-in-1 packets that taste like caffeinated hot chocolate. My collaborator Colin is disgusted by this, partly because he is a coffee snob, and partly because his analytical fuel of choice is Lion Bars. Emilie has now developed a capuccino habit after near-daily visits to the stands in the citadel. Whatever supplies you need for motivational sugar/snacks/caffeine, stock up!

SUPER caffeinated and ready to analyze some commingled assemblages!

When working with museum collections, conducting your own inventory is an essential first step before analyzing anything , not only commingled remains. After learning my lesson the hard way on previous projects, Emilie, Colin, and I spent the first day at the museum carefully inventorying all of the bags and boxes of material available for us to work with. I also tagged each bag with my own numbering system, matching up an alphanumeric code to a specific provenience to ensure that I had all of the material from a given area before I began my analysis. This prep work ensures that you don’t accidentally skip a bag of bones that might affect your assessments of age, sex, or MNI.

Shockingly, not all bone comes out of the ground looking sun-bleached and perfect. Many of the bags you open  will in fact contain things like this:

This is why it’s important to figure out what needs to be cleaned before starting analysis. Emilie has been cleaning burials from the site we will look at next in advance of completing the commingled burial, so that by the time we begin those bones will be fully prepped and ready to examine.

You’ll probably need to  leave the lab at this point. Remember the sun? It can be hard to pull yourself away from your research (says the woman who has eaten a 10-minute lunch at her desk for the past three days in a row), but give it a shot.

It is easier to convince yourself to venture beyond the confines of the lab if you work somewhere beautiful.

After your five-minute jaunt outside to accumulate as much Vitamin D as possible, the fun begins. If your site has been meticulously mapped, with each piece of bone or bag of bone georeferenced, then avoid this step, because you may be able to associate bones with particular individuals.

If, however, you find yourself in the most common archaeological scenario (e.g. having a massive heap of bones that all come from “Unit C”), you’re in luck. Begin sorting your bones by anatomical region, and move from something that looks like this:

To something that looks like this:

Ignore these siding labels.

Obviously these siding labels are incorrect because I decided to pair match some of the bones mid-way through the photo process, but you get the picture.

Once the general sort is complete, it’s time to delve into the business of ID-ing and refitting as much as you possibly can. If you’re me, this involves orienting bits of bone relative to your own body. In this picture, I’m deciding that these refit fragments of ilium are, in fact, from the left side.

This step is true for all archaeology, and likely all museum work anywhere. I have an Excel spreadsheet in which I enter individual bones, a Word document in which I write up a summary of a particular mortuary context and outline my thoughts about preservation and taphonomy, and then a physical notebook in which I jot down inventory items and to do lists.


As of yesterday morning, the final count for the commingled burial was 136 bones, 45+ teeth, and at least five individuals. I am currently celebrating the conclusion of the commingled burial by working on some beautifully preserved primary burials from a site just north of us (one individual has a hyoid! all of the metacarpals are present!), but I have also had several beers in the interim.

And with that, on to my next packet of Milka Jacobs!


Roses in Romania

Alba Iulia is a beautiful city! After traveling for two and a half days we arrived in Romania, greeted by Dr. Ciugudean and many blooming roses.

Roses in the Alaba Iulia Cetate

After arriving, the bioarchaeology fun began. Our second day in the lab, we performed an inventory of the skeletal remains from three Bronze Age sites that are housed at the museum. Inventory, while not the most exciting activity, was essential for finding out which burials were preserved and which bones were present for each provenance. All of the labels associated with the bones were recorded and some bags were given different labels so that they could be located more easily. Thankfully there should be no need to do this again…

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After we finished the inventory, we started analysis for two of the individuals. This included gently cleaning the bones with materials that would not scratch them, like toothpicks and toothbrushes. Many of the bones had to be cleaned in order for the features to be visible, which is needed for identification and further analysis. I mostly worked on cleaning the bones while Jess recorded the information so that it could be accessible and organized.

We also scored tooth wear in order to  estimate age for one of the individuals.

Occlusal view, maxillary tooth wear

It’s been a great first few days here in Romania, surely with more to follow!