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A Bioarchaeological Matrix Retrospective: Quantifying the Value of Post-Excavation Harris Matrix Reconstruction of Skeletal Assemblages.

It has been 40 years since single context recording and the Harris Matrix were introduced to archaeology, and it has revolutionized the way in which archaeological sites are excavated and interpreted (Harris 1975:109, 1977:85, 2006:142). The Harris Matrix is a vital tool for recording and interpreting archaeological sites, diagrammatically organizing the interaction and sequencing of deposits and features into a single chronology of site stratification (Clark 1996:25; Sidell et al. 2007:594; Fig. 1). Datable material culture, chemical analysis, documentary evidence, and architectural modifications can then provide the Harris Matrix with relative dates, allowing a site to be split stratigraphically into phases of activity (Harris 1975:109). Within the United Kingdom, the Harris Matrix is widely regarded as a fundamental principle in archaeological practice (Clark 1993:277) and is often a requirement of museum archive deposition for archaeological records (Maloney 2009). A Harris Matrix is routinely constructed on complex urban sites, often with more intricate stratigraphic and taphonomic processes than many burial grounds, yet burial ground Harris Matrix construction is not always attempted. This practice has resulted in a significant proportion of burial grounds being treated as a single homogeneous stratigraphic event, forgoing any significant effort to construct and phase a Harris Matrix using every individual burial context.

Dogmatic approaches to stratigraphic recording methods are unpopular with field archaeologists, who are aware of the need to be flexible and versatile with their excavation and recording strategies (Carver 2011:42). Archival deposition, however, often consists of meeting exacting standards, whereby certain forms of data must be presented and interpreted before deposition (Maloney 2009). Such site collections allow researchers to use bioarchaeological data sets more fully when they have a greater level of stratigraphic detail. A complete, fully phased, site-wide Harris Matrix allows for the division of bioarchaeological data sets into chronological phases, thus enabling factors such as health and demography to be analyzed over time (Sidell et al. 2007:594). The lack of a Harris Matrix for a significant amount of bioarchaeological data sets and the resulting limitations have not been investigated previously. The primary aim of this study is to assess the viability of retrospectively reconstructing a Harris Matrix to attempt to retrieve the data lost during post-excavation analysis. The study also aims to assess the disconnect between the perception of Harris Matrix utilization and the reality of matrix construction. Finally, it will seek to evaluate the amount of bioarchaeological data lost when no Harris Matrix is available. This study was undertaken across England and Wales, highlighting potential uses to researchers utilizing data from this area in their research. However, this matter should also be of interest to an international audience who might consider its application in their own archaeological recording strategies.

The Issue in the Commercial Sector

The primary role of a commercially produced archaeological report is to outline the findings from the excavations to the project client and to discharge their planning conditions, with the secondary purpose of making the data collected available to the scientific community (Mays 2004:46). Productive analysis of grey literature (i.e., unpublished site reports) reports created in the commercial sector is hampered by a number of issues, perhaps the most significant being the lack of standardization of reporting (Roberts and Manchester 2010:270). The deposition standards of the receiving museum/archive and to a lesser extent by the client funding the project can all contribute to divergent approaches. If museums do not insist upon a complete site Harris Matrix being made available upon deposition, the site may not be comprehensively phased. Burial grounds have been described as a "stratigraphic nightmare" (Clark 1996:25), often complex due to the high rate of disturbance, intercutting, and homogeneous soil conditions. This unpredictable palimpsest makes identifying cuts and contexts difficult, and the Harris Matrix is occasionally avoided entirely (Clark 1996:25; Hill 1997; Roberts and Cox 2003). However, recent scholarship has failed to address the ongoing issues cemetery phasing strategies have on bioarchaeology, Clark (1993, 1996) being the most recent to critique these methods in direct relation to burial grounds.

Highly complex Harris Matrix construction is time consuming and expensive for commercial units (Carver 2011:46), and the value of the retrievable data and relevance to the archaeological interpretation of a site has previously been questioned (Clark 1996:25). It has been a problem for some time now that the financial constraints placed on commercial archaeology result in data not being fully analyzed or entirely reported (Clark 1993:290). Integrated specialist post-excavation analysis in the commercial sector remains a problem, both conceptually and procedurally (Clark 1993:290). The method of excavation of skeletal remains from cemetery sites has significant implications for its eventual analysis and interpretation (Brickley and McKinley 2004; McKinley and Roberts 1993), and excavators seek recording strategies that reduce potential biases in data retrieval (Mays 1998:13). Yet bioarchaeological standards (British Association for Biological Anthropology and Osteoarchaeology 2013; Buikstra and Ubelaker 1994) have not acknowledged the importance of a burial ground Harris Matrix; therefore, its presence is not enforced via bioarchaeological codes of practice (Mays et al. 2004:3). Even on sites for which a Harris Matrix has been constructed, thorough interrogation of the data and investigative phasing of burial grounds is often lacking (Clark 1993:25). Phasing the Harris Matrix is vital, as it amalgamates all of the evidence into a site-wide, cohesive chronology (Harris 1979:114). For sites that have a paucity of finds and other dating evidence, a Harris Matrix can assist in the relative dating of otherwise undatable contexts and create a logical sequence of events (Hinge 1996:70). Radiocarbon dating of late-medieval and post-medieval skeletons is inaccurate (Bayliss 2009), so stratigraphic and artifactual evidence becomes even more important for these sites. In the absence of accurate phasing, cemetery sites are ascribed a single, broadly defined date range, which may span many centuries (Gilchrist 2003:403; Gilchrist and Sloane 2005:12). However, rendering a skeletal collection as a single homogeneous context, rather than phased into multiple periods, greatly reduces the interpretive research value of such collections. Furthermore, the assumption that the documented historical date for a burial ground is accurate has been proven to be incorrect, with burial grounds often having skeletons of earlier and later phases amalgamated into widely dated cemeteries (Sidell et al. 2007:604). A lack of standardization in Harris Matrix construction has also affected bioarchaeological data retrieved from the grey literature. There are often misconceptions that a burial ground is either too simplistic to warrant a Harris Matrix (e.g., a row of burials with a single fill over the top, with limited intercutting) or that the burials are so dense and complex that accurate Harris Matrix construction is not possible (Clark 1993, 1996).

In the first instance, these sites do often have some limited interacting features that have the potential to split data sets into at least two phases, which in itself produces far more valuable bioarchaeological data than a single date range. In the second instance, on highly complex urban sites with intricate stratigraphy, it is not only possible but also necessary to construct a Harris Matrix, in order to understand the taphonomic history of the site chronology. The use of Bayesian statistics in tandem with radiocarbon dating of the Harris Matrix has shown that Harris Matrix construction on large-scale cemetery sites can be cost-effective, resulting in high-resolution bioarchaeological data from remarkably few absolute dates (Sidell et al. 2007:594). However, such a thorough and innovative approach to complex stratigraphic analysis is rarely undertaken. Commercial archaeology cannot be expected to demonstrate interest in expending limited resources on Harris Matrix construction for the purpose of phasing skeletal data sets for potential bioarchaeological research, when standards have not previously detailed that this stratigraphic evidence has a significant impact on any skeletal remains excavated. This research aims to demonstrate that the implementation of Harris Matrix does have an impact on bioarchaeological interpretation and aims to provide a method for retrospectively reconstructing a Harris Matrix from the primary archive.

The Issue in Bioarchaeology

The importance of the Harris Matrix for burial grounds, in terms of interpreting bioarchaeological evidence, has not been widely acknowledged in the academic literature. In academia there is an understanding that grey literature is not the culmination of scientific insight of a skeletal assemblage; however, there is often a lack of understanding regarding the quality and cohesion of such primary records (Mays et al. 2004:6). While bioarchaeological data are scrutinized, the quality of the archaeology (e.g., context records, plans, matrices, reports) and secondary data are given comparatively little, if any, consideration within academic bioarchaeology (Roberts and Manchester 2010:270), despite the standard of these documents having significant implications for interpretation. Site archives are not regularly revisited, and there is an assumption that their contents have been fully examined and all of the data exploited to the fullest extent. Often, those using grey literature in bioarchaeological research only look to obtain the skeletal data, paying little attention to the primary archaeological archive (Roberts and Cox 2003). Rarely do academic bioarchaeologists consider that the primary records can be "incomplete or demonstrably incorrect" (Clark 1993:277). Bioarchaeological research is often hindered by the lack of well-dated cemetery assemblages; for instance, this is a particular problem with post-medieval assemblages, where identifying skeletons from the late-medieval, Reformation, and early modern periods (A.D. 1500-1600) from English skeletal assemblages is particularly difficult, which restricts potential bio-archaeological research questions for these periods in particular (Clark 1996:25; Gilchrist 2003:403; Gilchrist and Sloane 2005; Penny-Mason and Gowland 2014).

Aims and Objectives

This paper explores the extent to which bioarchaeological data are affected by the presence of a Harris Matrix by addressing the following questions:

1. Is it possible to reconstruct a post-excavation Harris Matrix accurately based solely on primary archive records?

2. What are the current attitudes toward Harris Matrix construction in the academic and commercial sectors?

3. To what extent are grey literature reports containing bioarchaeological data supported by Harris Matrices?

4. To what extent are bioarchaeological data lost in the absence of a Harris Matrix?

5. What is the viability of phasing burial ground matrices into multiple, yet statistically viable, data sets?

6. How feasible is it to introduce post-excavation matrix reconstruction into academic research to allow for the phasing of cemeteries and the dividing of bioarchaeological data?

Materials and Methods

There were five parts to this investigation:

The Harris Matrix opinion poll

An opinion poll relating to attitudes to the Harris Matrix was sent to both the commercial and academic sectors. The poll was constructed through and consisted of 10 questions (SurveyMonkey 1999). The poll was aimed at commercial archaeologists (from field archaeologists to project managers), osteoarchaeologists, and academics, specifically those using bioarchaeological data in their research. Sixty-three commercial units in England and Wales were contacted, as well as members of the British Association for Biological Anthropology and Osteoarchaeology. All questions included a graded response (e.g., "always," "mostly," "sometimes," "rarely," "never"), where only a single option could be selected. All questions had to be answered in order to submit the survey, although 'Not Applicable' options were available. The resulting data were downloaded into an Excel spreadsheet and basic percentages extracted from the results, excluding any instance of "not applicable" replies.

Grey literature survey

In order to assess Harris Matrix and phasing implementation in grey literature reports, it was necessary first to assess the quality of the available grey literature produced in the commercial sector. A random survey of grey literature reports from the Archaeology Data Service (ADS) from across England and Wales was conducted, with bioarchaeological data (sites with five skeletons or more) evaluated for the level and consistency of stratigraphic reporting (Archaeology Data Service [ADS] 2014). ADS reports were sampled by keyword, searching for skeletal material (e.g., using phases including "human remains," "burial," "skeleton," "skeletal," "bone," etc.) to find grey literature reports containing human remains. Any report containing human remains within England and Wales, based on the keyword searches, was included in the survey. One hundred and fifty reports were surveyed to assess the level of reporting regarding stratigraphy, phasing, and the Harris Matrix. Results were divided into "no stratigraphic reporting," "some stratigraphic reporting but no Harris Matrix," and "Harris Matrix reported." Sites from 1975 to 2014 were included. A further 150 reports without human remains were then also surveyed for reporting of stratification, phasing, and the Harris Matrix to provide a comparative data set.

Quantifying the effect of the Harris Matrix on bioarchaeological data

Fifteen grey literature reports with bioarchaeological data and an existing Harris Matrix were sourced at random from the ADS from across England and Wales (ADS 2014). Bioarchaeological data were extracted from each and analyzed with and without the Harris Matrix and phasing evidence. The difference in the bioarchaeological data was quantified, compared, and contrasted. Retrospectively constructing a Harris Matrix based on primary records is not a new idea (Hinge 1996:70), but no previous study has attempted to quantify its rate of accuracy and impact on bioarchaeological data.

Archive material viability assessment

The primary archives for 40 burials grounds with a significant assemblage of skeletons (n > 25) and with an existing Harris Matrix were sourced from multiple archives across England and Wales, both paper and digital. Each site archive was assessed for the viability of using the documents for reconstructing a full Harris Matrix, with phasing and sequencing for every archaeological and burial context. This included collecting and assessing all site plans, sections, photographs, context sheets, and GIS/CAD drawings for each archive, along with all finds and environmental data. There was no cutoff point for the viability of the archives utilized; so long as there were at least 25 skeletons and a Harris Matrix, archives were considered for inclusion in the assessment.

Retrospective Harris Matrix reconstruction

Without reference to the original Harris Matrix, a new retrospective site Harris Matrix was compiled and drawn from each of the five site archives found to be viable in the archive material viability assessment, based on site plans, sections, photographs, context sheets, and GIS/CAD drawings. The matrices were initially recorded using the Harris Matrix Composer software (Traxler and Neubauer 2008). However, after an attempt with the first site, Stratify 1.5 (Herzog 2002) was used instead, as it was found to include more features, specifically involving the phasing of the Harris Matrix; an Excel spreadsheet or a handwritten version could also be used. Dating evidence from specialist finds data, environmental data, chemical dating evidence, documentary evidence, architectural modifications, and grave inscriptions were plotted onto each Harris Matrix. Archaeological dating evidence such as intercutting features of known date were also used to phase activity. Contexts with dating evidence were given a definite terminus post quem date to identify the latest possible date of overlying burials and an approximate terminus ante quem date to suggest a tenuous early date for burials underlying. Contexts with no dating evidence were dated based on stratigraphic relationships with securely dated contexts. This method is known as the propagation of dates (Hinge 1996:70), and it organizes the chronology of a Harris Matrix by progressively redefining stratification, dating evidence, and the primary archive with the aim of clarifying phases of activity (Hinge 1996:67). Each skeleton with dating evidence was then given a burial date range (Hinge 1996:68). Contexts were altered to equate or approximately equate to other contexts with similar dating evidence and material culture (Herzog and Scollar 1990:53). Nodal points on the Harris Matrix were identified (Clark 1993:288). These are points where strategically occurring contexts effectively cap the context below and stratigraphic dating information provides cutoff points. Some nodal points did not have sufficient dating evidence, and therefore an element of critical judgment was made as to where these occur. Highlighting where these nodal points were established is vital to the discussion of alternative hypotheses and difference of interpretation. Using the nodal points and dating evidence, the matrices were divided into at least two phases--more where it was possible to do so, but never to an extent that the statistical viability of the bioarchaeological data was compromised. The matrices that did not stratigraphically fit correctly were reassessed. This procedure was composed of identifying foreign finds, differentiating between indigenous (contemporary to the context), residual (earlier finds mixed in), and infiltrated (intrusive) evidence, and editing out all the intrusive and some residual finds, while trying not to remove any indigenous data (Harris 1979:121). This point of critical judgment and differing interpretations will likely hinge on some of the decisions made in regards to the selective removal of evidence, especially in relation to the removal of residual finds (Adams 1992:14). The implementation of Stratify 1.5 meant that computer modeling could identify bad or conflicting contemporary relationships (Herzog and Scollar 1990:53). The original Harris Matrix phasing was then compared to the retrospective Harris Matrix phasing using the McNemar Test (McNemar 1947; Sheskin 2000; Somes 1983) to test marginal homogeneity in two phases and the Stuart-Maxwell Test to quantify the probability of their similarity in three or more phases (Everitt 1977; Maxwell 1970; Stuart 1955). The variables compared were the position of the skeletons within the Harris Matrix phases, between the original and retrospective matrices. The number of established contexts ranged for each of the five instances between two and four. Significant disagreement was assigned when p values were less than 0.05.

Results and Discussion

The Harris Matrix opinion poll

The opinion poll received responses from 146 individuals from both academic and commercial sectors (Figs. 2-4). When asked about the importance of a Harris Matrix on a site with no human remains, 93% of respondents answered that it should always be done. When asked about the importance of a Harris Matrix on a site with human remains, 63% responded that it should always be done. This 30% difference accounts for the sporadic use of the Harris Matrix on burial grounds, as there appears to be an overall consensus that it is generally of less relevance there than for other archaeological sites.

There also seems to be a divide between the commercial sector and academic community, with only 9% of commercial archaeologists stating that phasing is a methodological issue in their research, compared to 75% of academics. However, only 10% of academics and researchers responded that they regularly use stratigraphic evidence in their bioarchaeological research. Sixty-four percent of academics answered that they do not use a Harris Matrix often in their bioarchaeological research, 40% answering that they have "never" utilized one. This result suggests that there is a clear understanding of the flaws in burial ground chronology and dating in relation to bio-archaeological data sets utilized in academic studies. However, it also suggests that academic bioarchaeologists do not often consider the primary archive a potential source of further dating evidence, perhaps due to the assumption that any dating evidence pertaining to the skeletal data would have already been fully explored. There was agreement in the poll between both commercial archaeologists and academics as to the importance of reporting stratigraphic evidence in bioarchaeological reports, but as the grey literature survey results show, there is no standardization to this reporting in practice. Those who completed the poll who described themselves as academics had the lowest responses regarding their ability to construct and phase a Harris Matrix; 24% collectively agreed or somewhat agreed that they were comfortable doing so, in contrast to 100% of archaeological managers and 97% of field archaeologists. The results of the poll demonstrate an overall discrepancy in Harris Matrix construction in burial grounds, as well as a divide in understanding and skills between commercial archaeology and academia. Greater dialogue between commercial archaeologists, osteoarchaeologists, and academic bioarchaeologists on the topic of burial ground stratigraphy should be encouraged to enhance methods that have the potential to increase bioarchaeological data retrieval.

Grey literature survey

The grey literature survey revealed a high degree of variety in bioarchaeological report writing (Figs. 5-7). The standard of reporting ranged from highly detailed, with excellent levels of bioarchaeological and stratigraphic reporting, to very poorly detailed reports, with only summarized results and no stratigraphic reporting. Within this scope there was huge variety in quality of reporting and limited standardization.

More archaeology reports, containing osteological data, included a complete Harris Matrix and detailed stratigraphic information in the grey literature report than were anticipated; 28% had a Harris Matrix present, compared with 37% having no stratigraphic evidence at all. It should be noted that many of the grey literature reports were of a high quality and included detailed stratigraphic analysis. Splitting the data into decades from 1975 to 2014 showed that there is surprising continuity in the variety of reporting methods. However, there also seems to be a shift in report writing after 1995, possibly due to the introduction of PPG16 (UK legislation "Planning Policy Guidance 16: Archaeology and Planning"). A further shift after 2005 can then be noted, presumably as a result of the 2008 "Great Recession" in the UK, which again caused a shift in commercial archaeological practice.

The survey also revealed that sites with fewer skeletons (20 or fewer) were most likely to have the highest level of stratigraphic and Harris Matrix reporting. Larger sites, with potentially the most statistically viable bioarchaeological data available, are the most likely to neglect stratigraphic reporting. They are also the most difficult to reconstruct retrospectively. When contrasted with archaeological grey literature reports regarding sites without human remains, there is a far greater discussion and reporting of phasing and more plentiful integration of phasing evidence into the reporting of the archaeological finds. Overall the data show a clear discrepancy in Harris Matrix construction and stratigraphic reporting on archaeological sites with human remains. More detailed and clearer levels of stratigraphic evidence need to be included in grey literature reports. I would argue that the reports that included a Harris Matrix demonstrate that its inclusion is the simplest, clearest, and most concise method with which to communicate the complex structure of burial ground sites, allowing the reader to comprehend and make informed decisions about the bioarchaeological data based on stratigraphic evidence.

Quantifying the effect of the Harris Matrix on bioarchaeological data

Analysis of the effect of Harris Matrix construction on bioarchaeological data revealed that for all 15 sites analyzed, changes to the Harris Matrix significantly altered potential interpretations of the paleopathological data (Fig. 8). It is apparent in these results that a lack of Harris Matrix has a detrimental effect on the bioarchaeological data analyzed. Retrospective reconstruction will have a significant impact on the resulting bioarchaeological data.

To highlight one example, at the site of the Guildhall in London the effect of a Harris Matrix is clear (Cowal 2007). Without a matrix, the trauma crude prevalence rate (CPR) is 18.6% between A.D. 1050 and 1230. However, this result misrepresents the period, as using the stratigraphic record to split the data set, the trauma CPR decreases substantially, from 35% from A.D. 1050-1140 to 10.3% between A.D. 1140 and 1230. This difference in trauma rates over time would be lost without proper stratigraphic evidence, hindering the interpretation of bioarchaeological data. The impact of phasing evidence on bioarchaeological interpretations is important to consider and should be included in report writing, with a Harris Matrix being the clearest way to accomplish this.

Archive material viability assessment

The primary archives from 40 burial grounds were assessed for their potential for the retrospective reconstruction method. Retrospectively constructing a Harris Matrix from the primary archives is potentially problematic, and the success will vary significantly according to the quality of the site archive's primary records. Seventy percent of archives assessed were initially found to be viable for retrospective Harris Matrix reconstruction, and most of the archives were largely intact, generally with a high quality of archaeological recording. However, it was quickly realized that for retrospective Harris Matrix reconstruction, all of the records had to be present and correct in the site archive. Commonly occurring discrepancies between final site plans and the rest of the primary record rendered many site archives unviable for reconstruction. In all instances, original GIS/CAD drawings were vital for reconstruction from primary records alone, and this information was the only way to identify the exact positioning of each individual skeleton. GIS/CAD data also proved to be inaccurate in places, so every context sheet, photograph, and plan had to be checked against every other, which proved to be a very time-consuming process. It can be concluded that for this method to work, only a combination of primary context records, GIS/CAD data, and photographic evidence makes it possible to reconstruct a Harris Matrix. Where any one of these elements was found to be missing, it proved impossible to make informed decisions about the exact stratigraphic relationship. A combination of other archaeological evidence is critical for the interpretation of this evidence. Ultimately, it was concluded that 35% of site archives were viable for use in this method (Fig. 9). Though the viable site archive rate of Harris Matrix construction is limited to one in three cases, this is still a large proportion of bioarchaeological data that could be accessed in the future. The data yielded from having the ability to divide data and date cemetery phases more accurately will result in higher-quality bioarchaeological research. This reconstruction would assist in making our bioarchaeological data sets more representative of the period of focus and decrease the likelihood that individuals from earlier and/or later periods are influencing the analysis. It also gives us the ability to analyze inter-site and intra-site pathological variation over time.

Retrospective Harris Matrix reconstruction

Retrospective Harris Matrix reconstruction was undertaken using five burial ground site archives with an existing Harris Matrix in order to compare the reconstructed Harris Matrix to the one originally constructed at the time of excavation (Fig. 10). A McNemar Test (McNemar 1947; Sheskin 2000; Somes 1983) and a Stuart-Maxwell Test (Everitt 1977; Maxwell 1970; Stuart 1955) for correlated proportions revealed that the original and reconstructed matrices were statistically significantly different in all five instances. This was to be expected, as this method of reconstruction was estimated before the study to be only a general reflection of the original. It was found that in all instances there was a high degree of similarity between the original matrix and the reconstructed version; accuracy ranged from 67.9% to 92.8%.

Each retrospective Harris Matrix reconstruction required significant levels of critical judgment. Differential interpretation of nodal points and points of critical judgment dramatically altered the bioarchaeological data, and these points of contest and areas of stratigraphic uncertainty should always be highlighted in research utilizing these bioarchaeological data. For instance, making a decision about the position of a nodal point can be based on the type and validity of the evidence available to the archaeologist contrasting and interpreting the Harris Matrix, but this interpretation can lead to the margins between separate phases being altered, leading to changes in how skeletal assemblages are split into phases and eventually data sets.

Phasing the retrospective Harris Matrix was found to be an inexact science, reliant upon a degree of assumptive decision making. Knowledge of the wider site context would make the archaeologists who worked on the site able to make an informed estimate regarding points of critical judgment (Harris 1975:115), as opposed to an outside party who cannot comprehend the nuances of the particular site and stratigraphic relationships (Clark 1993:285). Such information is key when making critical judgments in the interpretation of the Harris Matrix, the phasing of which directly affects the outcome of the bioarchaeological data, yet this information may not be found in an archive. However, the reality of commercial archaeology is that there is not often the time to fully construct and phase every Harris Matrix, ensuring it has been exhaustively interrogated. In order for this situation to improve, Harris Matrix construction should be encouraged in bioarchaeological standards and museum archive standards for deposition. This requirement would allow commercial units to justify spending time on the completion of the Harris Matrix on all burial grounds. This practice will ultimately improve the value of bioarchaeological data sets. The method will go to some lengths to rescue data that have been lost; however, retrospective Harris Matrix reconstruction is problematic, and it should be emphasized that it is a last resort as it will never allow access to all the original data that would only have been attainable at the time of excavation. The time and effort required to reconstruct a Harris Matrix from the primary records also outweighs the expenditure needed to construct a Harris Matrix at the time of excavation. This research has found that relying on the primary archives will never fully be able to replicate a Harris Matrix constructed on-site at the time of excavation. However, it has been possible for one-third of site archives, and it has also enriched the bioarchaeological interpretations by allowing greater temporal resolution.


The opinion poll showed a discrepancy between the perception of burial ground Harris Matrix construction practices and the reality. Greater consideration of the phasing of cemetery sites, as well as how this phasing was achieved, needs to be implemented when using data from burial grounds in research. There needs to be a greater emphasis on the stratigraphic context and the interrogation of the site archive as a whole in relation to bioarchaeological studies of these assemblages. More fundamental is the apparent lack of understanding regarding the Harris Matrix construction and implementation, which is problematic as it plays a crucial role in the interpretation of bioarchaeological data in the academic sector. On an average archaeological site, a Harris Matrix is considered to be an important prerequisite of documentation, but there appears to be a tendency to abandon its implementation on burial grounds for which their creation is either too complex or time consuming. This study found that the absence of a Harris Matrix for a burial ground leads to a reduction in the value of the bioarchaeological evidence available. The grey literature survey revealed too much variety in Harris Matrix, stratigraphic, and phasing reporting, likely due to a lack of standardization, which is currently leading to a loss of data. Quantifying the impact of the Harris Matrix on bioarchaeological data revealed changes to the data in all instances, and more attention needs to be afforded to stratigraphic evidence in bioarchaeological research. Minor changes in the phasing of a skeletal assemblage can have a significant impact upon statistical analysis undertaken by bioarchaeologists; in these results the implementation of the Harris Matrix would have significantly changed the outcomes, and this would likely have an impact on final interpretations of such data. Bioarchaeologists need to be more aware of the phasing decisions that have been reached prior to their implementing data from such assemblages in their research. Bioarchaeologists utilizing such data should assume that the archive material can often not have been fully explored within the time constraints that commercial units have to function and that there could be additional phasing evidence relevant to their data sets in the primary archive. Bioarchaeologists are constantly increasing the amount of data that can be retrieved from skeletons, yet the inconsistent implementation of this basic principle of stratigraphy often curtails the full potential of the data sets. There is a need to be less hindered by reductionist perceptions of bioarchaeological data and to exploit the archive material to its fullest extent. The archive material viability assessment found that in general, one in three burial ground archives are of a high enough quality to allow for retrospective Harris Matrix reconstruction and are underused. However, Harris Matrix construction and phasing reporting should be added to bioarchaeological standards and field guidelines to encourage the preservation of data and give the commercial sector impetus to allow more time for Harris Matrix construction and integrated phasing in every instance. Finally, the retrospective Harris Matrix reconstruction found that lost data can be retrieved using this method but that its implementation will never be as accurate as a version constructed on site at the time of excavation. In a significant volume of cases, however, reconstruction is a useful tool for regaining vital strati-graphic data, the use of which will alter bioarchaeological data sets and interpretations.


Very special thanks go to Dr. Ian Richards at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David, Dr. Andrew Millard at Durham University, and Andrew Davies for their help much needed help with tackling the statistical analysis. Thanks also go to Dr. Edward Harris at the National Museum of Bermuda, Dr. Rebecca Gowland at Durham University, Alice Rose at the University of Cambridge, and Felicia Fricke at the University of Kent for their significant support and insights, which greatly improved this work. Thanks also go to everyone at Oxford Archaeology, with special gratitude to Nicola Scott. Further thanks also go to Jacqueline McKinley at Wessex Archaeology, Don O'Meara at Wardell Armstrong Archaeology, and Malin Holst and Dr. Anwen Caffell at York Osteoarchaeology for their comments and advice. Gratitude also goes to Alan Mason for his perspectives and insights regarding this research. Thanks also go to all the reviewers who took the time to read and comment on this work; their feedback has greatly strengthened this work. Thanks also go to the Northern Bridge Doctoral Training Partnership for supporting this research. Final thanks go to everyone who took the time to participate in the surveys for this study.

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Bennjamin J. Penny-Mason (a*)

(a) Department of Archaeology, Durham University, UK

(*) Correspondence to: Bennjamin J. Penny-Mason, Durham University, Department of Archaeology, South Road, Durham, County Durham, DH1 3LE


Received 09 August 2016

Revision 09 February 2017

Accepted 13 February 2017
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Author:Penny-Mason, Bennjamin J.
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Date:Mar 22, 2017
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