Fragments of death. A taphonomic study of human remains from Neolithic Orkney.

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

10 Citations (Scopus)


Recognition of tremendous variation in the treatment of the dead, both temporally and geographically, has done little to curtail the pursuit of homogenous mortuary rites for monuments which appear, by virtue of their architecture, to be similar. This is aptly demonstrated in considering the Neolithic tombs of Orkney, Scotland. The Orcadian human bone assemblages represent the largest volume for this time period from Britain – a significant resource. However, discrete skeletons are lacking, the researcher being presented with formidable volumes of disarticulated and commingled remains. Themes of transformation, fragmentation and manipulation of the body permeate the literature, conferring significance on the tombs as places of transition. Previously, the inherent complexity of the remains has made them an unattractive proposition for detailed study. New interpretations are derived from examination of excavation reports, rather than the material itself. However, advances in taphonomic analysis means techniques now exist for approaching such complex assemblages. A study has now been successfully carried out on the Orcadian remains, uncovering a wealth of new data. This data draws attention to subtle variations in practice between and within tombs, and advocates for a dramatic reconsideration of the current understanding of the practices and cosmologies associated with these enigmatic structures.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)725-734
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of Archaeological Science: Reports
Early online date24 May 2016
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2016

Bibliographical note

I would like to thank John Robb and Chris Knüsel for inviting me to submit a paper for this special edition and for their comments on earlier drafts. This paper is based on work carried out as part of the author's PhD project. I would therefore like to also thank my supervisor, Eileen Murphy, for her support and enthusiasm throughout. Particular thanks go to Alison Sheridan (National Museum of Scotland) for kindly granting generous access to the human remains. I am also indebted to Carl Crozier for providing anatomical illustrations.


  • Taphonomy
  • Neolithic
  • Archaeology
  • Orkney
  • Human bones


Dive into the research topics of 'Fragments of death. A taphonomic study of human remains from Neolithic Orkney.'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this