By Edeltraud Aspoeck
Deviant burial in the archaeological record, edited by Eileen Murphy (Oxbox Books, 2008)
Abstract: ‘Deviant burials’ are generally associated with bizarre practices like decapitations and strange body positions. Archaeologically ‘deviant burials’ are those that are different from the normative burial ritual of the respective period, region or cemetery. This paper will examine the research history of ‘deviant burials’ in the Anglophone and the German-language archaeological traditions. In both traditions the interpretation of ‘deviant burials’ started with the denial of intentionality of these burials and then slowly moved to the insight in the 1960s ad 1970s that ‘deviant burials’ are part of normal burial practices. By comparing the two research traditions we will see how the interpretation of ‘deviant burials’ as changed over time, in the context of two different archaeologies, finally arriving at two completely different approaches. This challenges the usefulness of the concept of ‘deviant burials’ as such.
Introduction: ‘Deviant burials’ are first of all associated with bizarre practices like decapitations and strange body positions, bearing testimony to particularly unusual mortuary practices of the past, such as the ‘live burial’ at Sewerby, East Yorkshire. More objectively, the minimal definition of ‘deviant burials’ that most archaeologists would agree to is that they are burials different from the normative burial ritual of the respective period, region and/or cemetery. These differences may occur in body position or treatment, location of construction of the grave or types of grave goods.
The characteristics of German archaeology and the differences in archaeological practice between Germany and the Anglophone area have been outlines by Harke. In the ‘culture-historical’ epoch of archaeology similarities between the two areas prevailed and the concept of an ‘archaeological culture’ can be traced back to the ideas of the German archaeologist Kossina. During the Nazi regime archaeology in Germany was utilized for political purposes, leading to a subsequent fear of over-interpretation and the desire to remove all ideology from archaeology after the Second World War.