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Book: Religion, Death and the Senses

Chapter: 12. The Sense of Touch in Relation to Working with Archaeological Human Skeletal Remains

DOI: 10.1558/equinox.43884


Whilst sight may be the most recognised factor in the analysis of human remains touch will also play an important part in our interpretations and is paramount in the learning experience for osteology students. Both the look and feel of archaeological human skeletal remains will be dependent on a variety of factors. Taphonomic processes (aspects of the burial environment), such as how the body has been interred (shrouded or coffined), the geology of the cemetery site, rates of fluctuation in ground water, and disturbance to the site involving both cultural and natural (such as animal and plant action) processes, will play a part in the preservation of human remains. These factors will affect both how the remains look and feel in terms of erosion (to the external surface), weight (with demineralised bones feeling lighter), colouration and concretions (due to minerals in the soil and/or grave goods placed with the body), and the completeness of individual bones. The age of the skeletal remains, both in terms of how long the remains have been interred as well as how old the individual was when they died, will also factor into the preservation and therefore the feel of the remains. Pathological conditions that these once living individuals may have suffered from can also cause changes to the bones in life which remain apparent in their skeletal remains, such as loss of bone density, increase in bone formation, and deformation, that will affect the feel of the remains to those who analyse them. In this chapter I will aim to discuss these processes reflecting on how human skeletal remains are perceived through the sense of touch, illustrating how these processes create differential preservation, both between a range of cemetery environments and for individuals buried within similar environments, drawing on case studies from archaeological collections in the UK. I will also aim to address, using a questionnaire directed at recent students, how, when working with archaeological human skeletal remains for the first time, most people are surprised by the way the remains feel, and how the sense of touch becomes an important part of their learning experience.

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