Funerary practices in the Middle Neolithic necropolis of Can Gambüs-1 (Sabadell, Spain): From preparing the body to closing the grave

Florence Alliésee, Jordi Roig, Joan Manel Coll, Maria Eulàlia Subirà, Jordi Ruíz, Philippe Chambon, Juan Francisco Gibaja

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review

4 Citations (Scopus)

Abstract

While the presence of Neolithic communities is attested in the north-eastern part of the Iberian Peninsula from the middle of the sixth millennium BC, it was only a thousand years later that burials in large numbers began to appear. Their abundance and some spectacular aspects are at the origin of the name 'Sepulcres de fossa culture' or 'pit grave culture'. Although more than 600 burials are associated with this period, there has not to date been any research into how the deceased were buried in the grave and how the pit may have been installed. The site of Can Gambús-1 at Sabadell, discovered in 2003, is the latest and most remarkable discovery for the Middle Neolithic in this region. No domestic structure of this period has been discovered around the graves, suggesting that the place was strictly dedicated to interment. The preservation of most of the 47 burials helped to redefine and complete prior classifications by providing new information about construction processes, roofing systems, reuse and looting. A typology of five principal categories has been proposed for the Can Gambús-1 cemetery. Simple graves (type E) are distinguished from more complex large and monumental burials (types A to D). The anthropological study of the 51 individuals has allowed the lifestyle of the Can Gambús-l population to be understood through osteometric study, analysis of activity-induced musculoskeletal stress markers and pathologies. Skeletons are generally poorly preserved. While men and women are equally represented, the absence of subjects under the age of 18 is remarkable. Almost all the structures contained grave goods, composed mainly of carved and polished stone tools, ceramic vessels, bone tools and items of adornment in variscite. To date, radiocarbon determinations have been conducted on four individuals. Taphonomic analysis of both the skeleton and the burial, applied for the first time to a cemetery of the Sepulcres de fossa culture, provides a complex image of the graves of Can Gambús-1. Based on the chronology of the dislocation of articulations and gravity, its purpose is not only to determine the space in which the body decomposed or the container in which it was buried, but to restore the original appearance of the grave. The funerals are described dynamically, from the time of death to the closing of the grave. All inhumations are primary deposits and the great majority are individual ones. However, four structures sheltered two subjects, including three successive deposits. The corpses decomposed in an empty space, as evidenced by the disarticulation of the joints, occurring outside the initial volume of the cadaver, the tipping of the lower limbs, as well as several cases of burial being reopened due to both looting and funerary practices. The deceased were generally buried in large structures, composed of an upper excavation, a lower funerary chamber and sometimes an access well. In some cases, the pit had been fitted out to receive the corpse or the grave goods, for example with benches or supports. Items resembling head rests have also been identified. Preparation of the body was an important step in the funerals. Although no organic elements such as hide or fabric have been discovered at Can Gambús-l, the presence of wall effects visible at the level of the limbs and extremities suggests that the cadavers were wrapped in a flexible container, probably items of clothing. Adornment was another step in the preparation of the body. Although beads made from a mineral support (essentially variscite) are the only ones found, it is also possible to imagine pieces made of perishable materials or body painting. The beads are located only on the upper part of the body, mainly around the neck and the chest, suggesting elements such as necklaces or breast plates. They could also have been sewn on hide or fabric. Moreover, some of the deceased had one or two bone awls in contact with the craniofacial block, which can be interpreted as part of the funerary ritual or of hairdressing. Wall or rupture effects visible at the level of the skeleton constitute evidence of rigid supports or containers that may have been used to transport or to lower the corpses into the pit. Wall effects point to the existence of containers with high sides. Rupture effects indicate the decomposition of a rigid component underneath the body, resulting in an underlying void, the disappearance of which provoked the disarticulation of the joints. Associated with a wall effect, they evoke a mobile rigid container like a coffin or a fixed one like a chest, composed of a floor and four sides. However, the tilting of the lower limbs implies slightly elevated sides and the absence of a cover. Inhumation on the back, following a North-East/South-West orientation, is the rule at Can Gambús-l. Type D is characterized by a difference between the orientation of both individual and funerary chamber and that of the structure. The position and degree of inflexion of the limbs are variable. Although the knees are generally bent to the side at the time of excavation, it would seem that this was not their original position, but a consequence of the cadaver decomposing within the structure. Taphonomic analysis of the skeleton shows that the knees were elevated when the body was placed in the grave. In addition to the abundance of grave goods, the taphonomic analysis revealed the existence of non-preserved components, divided into three categories: held objects, wrapped objects and objects deposited at the bottom of the pit. Some individuals were buried with an item in or under their hands. Several burials have yielded assemblages of artefacts, mostly honey flint blades and bone awls, found as well-defined deposits, indicating the existence of elements such as a bag which would have contained the awls and blades. Moreover, the presence of traces of red colouring matter suggests that some deposits were covered by a hide or a fabric. The last resting place of the deceased must thus have evoked a real living place.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)453-468
JournalBulletin de la Societe Prehistorique Francaise
Volume111
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2014

Keywords

  • Burial
  • Catalonia
  • Funerary practices
  • Middle neolithic
  • Sepulcres defossa
  • Taphonomy

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