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Bones chewed by canids as evidence for human excarnation: a British case study.


The possibility of corpse exposure as a component of earlier Neolithic mortuary practice has long been suspected, although specific evidence for such a practice has been slow to emerge until quite recently. Scott's (1992) survey of possible excarnation structures argues convincingly for the existence of raised platforms at a number of sites in Britain both close to and sometimes later incorporated within, more substantial funerary monuments. He cites several examples where such structures may have collapsed, after which human remains fell to the ground. Scott further notes that such remains are frequently incomplete, particularly as regards the small bones of the hands and feet and argues this to be consistent with excarnation. Several further identifications of possible excarnation sites have since been made in various parts of Britain including Balfarg (Barclay & Russell-White 1993), Longstone Edge (Archaeology Review 1996-97), Bannockburn (Rideout 1997), Berstness (Denison 2000), and Langford (Garton et al. 1997). Conversely the skeleton found beneath the outer bank at Windmill Hill (Whittle 1990) provides clear evidence of corpse exposure at ground level. This adult skeleton had apparently been deposited in an articulated state. The scattering of certain elements (notably the bones of the left leg) led Whittle to conclude that the corpse must have lain exposed at least until the soft tissues had decayed, before being later sealed beneath the enclosure bank.

More recently, human bone from this period exhibiting damage consistent with scavenging has been noted at several sites. Amongst the assemblage from the Cotswold-Severn monument at Parc le Breos Cwm, Glamorgan, approximately 50 per cent of the material from the transepts exhibited destruction consistent with scavenging by large mammals (Wysocki & Whittle 1998). The scavenged material was weathered, as opposed to material from the passage, which was neither weathered nor scavenged. This was taken to suggest differential treatment of these two samples (Wysocki & Whittle 1998). Certainly, the apparent differences in the taphonomic history of these two groups would suggest that the scavenging was related to funerary practice, rather than animals simply gaining access to the chambers. Gnawing by canids was also noted on a quantity of the human bone from Hambledon Hill, some of which appears to have occurred whilst material was still in articulation (Mercer & Healy 2004). At the causewayed enclosure at Etton, more than 50 per cent of the human bone found in the ditch fills had been scavenged by carnivores, suggested to be either dogs or foxes (Armour-Chelu 1998). The material illustrated from Etton (Armour-Chelu 1998: fig. 242) exhibits similar damage to that observed at Adlestrop. This contrasts with animal bone from the same site, of which only four per cent bore evidence of canid gnawing. Again, this suggests some differential form of treatment being given to the human bone, also implying that if people had not been 'willing' for such scavenging to take place, access to corpses could easily have been prevented.

In this investigation, bones from a Neolithic barrow in Britain were examined to elucidate their post-mortem history.

Adlestrop Barrow

Adlestrop Barrow is an earlier Neolithic funerary monument of local (Cotswold-Severn) type, excavated between 1935 and 1938. During these investigations a quantity of human remains was recovered. Re-examination of this skeletal material during 2003 has produced a variety of new data which have provided fresh insights into funerary practice both at this site and for other Neolithic funerary contexts. A particularly significant aspect is the large proportion of material that appears to have been scavenged by carnivores. Dogs may have been among such carnivores, and the bone assemblages in local mortuary practice also commonly include the remains of dogs. This raises the question of the role of dogs in mortuary practices during this period.

The monument was discovered in September 1934 by Mr Charles Freer, then aged 18, accompanied by his two brothers, Stephen and Tom, aged 14 and 12. Charles noticed a low mound with projecting limestone blocks on Adlestrop Hill near the border between Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire (NGR: SP 2537 2829). He became convinced that this was not a natural formation and after obtaining permission, the brothers undertook to excavate the mound, despite having no prior excavation experience. Digging took place throughout the summers of 1935 and 1936, largely by Stephen and Tom working alone, although assistance and supervision was provided by Prof. C.I. Gardiner, the curator of Stroud Museum. The excavation revealed an eastward facing stone chamber formed by three orthostats, the entrance of which had been deliberately blocked. The chamber was not roofed, although two recumbent slabs nearby may have fulfilled this function. During 1936 the chamber was cleared, exposing a quantity of human bones, which the Freers removed.

In 1938 a further investigation was carried out by Helen Donovan of Oxford University, to obtain further information concerning the monument's construction, describing the Freers' excavation as 'unsatisfactory and incomplete' for having given more attention to the skeletal remains (Donovan 1938: 152). Donovan's trenches succeeded in establishing the extremities but not the original form of the monument (Figure 1) and also recovered many further small fragments of bone. Donovan concluded that the monument represented an overlap of burial customs, on the basis that the apparent ovoid form was 'similar to round barrows' whilst the human remains were of 'Neolithic type' (Donovan 1938:162). More recently, the site has been suggested to have been a portal dolmen (Lambrick 1988: 14) whilst the mound may in fact be a later addition, converting the monument into 'long barrow' form, as at a number of other Cotswold-Severn sites, such as Notgrove and Sales Lot (Darvill & Grinsell 1989; Darvill 1996, 2004). The slightly irregular form of the mound partly derives from the topography of the hill, whilst the monument had also been affected by collapse and disturbance. Allowing for these factors, it is argued that the barrow is not inconsistent with the general tapering form (with terminal chamber) seen in other Cotswold-Severn monuments, with no reason apparent why it should not be included in the group.


The human remains

The skeletal material was first analysed by Dr A.J.E. Cave of the Royal College of Surgeons whose opinions were summarised by Gardiner (1936: 104) with a subsequent short report given by Donovan (1938). On re-examination a total of 963 human bone fragments were present. The vast majority of fragments were very small (<5cm) with 587 (61 per cent) recorded as 'Unidentified'. Only 376 fragments (39 per cent of the total) were identifiable to element. Consequently, in analysing this material it was necessary to distinguish between these 'identified' and 'unidentifiable' portions of the sample. Overall surface preservation was relatively poor and little insight was gained by analysing surface features microscopically. Age and sex assessment were conducted according to the standards given by Buikstra & Ubelaker (1994) and the data concerning sub-adult skeletal development given in Scheuer & Black (2000). The assemblage comprised material from a minimum of three adults and four sub-adults.

Vertebrate scavenging

Amongst the identifiable fragments, 76 (20 per cent) exhibited evidence consistent with scavenging by vertebrates. As shown in Table 1, the vast majority of such damage corresponded to the toothmark artefacts and patterned destruction described by Binford (1981) as being consistent with the action of canids (selected examples illustrated in Figures 2-4). The most likely agents responsible for this were deemed to be either wolves or domestic dogs, although foxes were also considered. Scavenging by bears was considered less likely, due to the lack of large spiral fractures, generally inflicted by these animals (Murad 1997: 397; Murad & Boddy 1987: 1821). The three spiral fractures which were present, compared well with published examples of canid-inflicted breakage. The only damage characteristic of any other species was two examples of rodent gnawing.


Figures 5 and 6 show the scavenged material by numbers of fragments and as percentages of the total number of fragments of each element. For some elements, generally the smaller, more compact, parts of the skeleton such as calcanea or tall, only a small number of 'fragments' are listed. Although this is in part a genuine reflection of these elements only being present in low numbers, these figures also derive from such bones being more resistant to fragmentation than some of the larger elements such as the long bones or innominates. When viewed in percentage terms these smaller elements may appear to have been subject to scavenging in greater proportions than other, more fragmented parts. For example in the case of the femora, although only 66 per cent of fragments displayed evidence consistent with scavenging, these may represent a much higher percentage, possibly even 100 per cent, in terms of the actual number of femora represented, as not every fragment of a particular bone may exhibit damage identifiable to scavenging. Elements represented by low numbers of fragments (five or less) have therefore been shaded differently on Figure 6. Scavenged material was observed from all regions of the skeleton apart from the skull and mandible. It would appear likely that every corpse interred in the monument had been subject to some degree of attention by scavengers. Certainly all of the 'putative' individuals identified exhibited diffuse damage consistent with scavenging (Figure 7).



The context of scavenging at Adlestrop

Patterning of bone destruction by canids has been observed to vary with circumstance. In studying modifications made to animal bone by wolves and Inuit dog packs Binford (1981) noted two distinct patterns of damage. Bone from dog yards and wolf dens, which had been accessed by the animals for extended periods, exhibited a different damage signature from that collected at wolf kill sites. Bone from the kill sites was characterised by 'some furrowing, relatively common puncture marks and some crenulated edges, with pitting and scoring being much less common' (Binford 1981: 48). In contrast, bone observed from dog yards and wolf dens had been more extensively damaged, exhibiting 'extensive pitting, scoring and more extreme furrowing' (Binford 1981: 49). At kill sites the primary focus of canid behaviour is meat consumption, with disarticulation being secondary to this. The presence of soft tissue during meat consumption tends to protect the denser bone of the shafts from becoming heavily scored or pitted (Binford 1981), with the main focus of damage to bone falling upon the softer, thinner cancellous bone at the articular ends. The more extensive pattern of damage seen on bones from wolf dens and dog yards was observed to result from what Binford referred to as 'boredom' chewing. In such circumstances bone no longer protected by soft tissue, is gnawed for extended periods producing heavy pitting and turned in the jaws producing extensive scoring. Over time the ends of long bones tend to be completely destroyed producing bone 'cylinders'.

The scavenging of carrion constitutes an ecological niche, which will be filled in any ecosystem. Therefore the question of whether human remains are likely to have been subject to scavenging depends solely upon the degree to which funerary practices render corpses accessible. However, the suggestion that scavenged remains constitute evidence for the deliberate exposure of corpses may be confounded by the fact that the entrance of scavengers to a structure such as a chambered tomb is difficult to exclude. But, where patterns of damage are consistent with meat consumption, rather than 'boredom' chewing, this could imply termination of the accessibility of the respective remains before scavenging activity progressed further. Such an inference could be consistent with the short term exposure and subsequent gathering and removal of remains.

Canids have been observed to disarticulate and consume the bodies of large mammals in a predictable sequence both regarding the order and approximate timing with which different regions of the body are affected (Table 2). In relation to this sequence a number of features of the damage seen at Adlestrop suggest destruction to have been relatively advanced. The damage to the humeri and clavicles suggested scavenging had progressed at least to stage one. All the proximal femoral fragments were punctured and furrowed. The presence of punctures on the femoral heads indicates that the lower limbs had become separated from the innominates, as these surfaces would otherwise be protected by the acetabulae. Such damage implies disarticulation to have proceeded at least to stage two. The low numbers of hand and foot bones present could derive from a number of factors, although this would also be consistent with scavenging. Certainly, the presence of a punctured navicular suggested scavenger involvement in disarticulating the extremities of at least one of the corpses. Damage to the superior and inferior surfaces of many vertebral bodies, indicated sections of spine also to have become disarticulated, with the majority of such destruction seen on lumbar vertebrae. This would be consistent with at least stage three of Haglund's (1997) sequence.

Despite the above observations there are also indications that scavenging may not have surpassed stage three. Firstly, although damage to the ends of long bones was widespread, in the majority of cases the articular ends had not been destroyed completely. Also, the lack of scoring (Table 1) further argues against the 'boredom chewing' that occurs when canids have prolonged access to remains. The overall pattern of destruction at Adlestrop closely resembled that described by Binford (1981) as resulting from meat consumption. Several possible interpretations were considered which might explain the pattern of damage observed, each dependent upon where and when scavenging might have taken place:

1. Post-depositional scavenging in a 'sealed' monument

Scavenging animals gained access to the monument after bodies had been deposited and it had been closed.

2. Post-depositional scavenging in an 'open' monument

The monument was always open, and human remains were always accessible to scavengers.

3. Excarnation followed by collection and deposition of remains

Bodies were excarnated for a limited period during which time they were accessible to scavenging animals. The remains were then collected as part of a multi-stage mortuary rite ending finally in deposition within the monument.

4. Canids as 'cause of death'

The individuals with canid-related bone destruction were 'victims' of such animals. Alternatively they had perhaps died in circumstances in which there was a delay in their bodies being recovered, with animals scavenging the corpses during the intervening period. In this scenario the 'scavenging' is not a product of funerary activity at all.

Hypotheses one and two were deemed unlikely as these fail to explain why the sequence of destruction did not progress to stage four. If the animals responsible had 'unlimited' access it is argued that the degree of destruction should have been much greater, particularly regarding long bones. Also if hypothesis two were correct, this would beg the question of why there is any bone left to discuss. In an experimental study Willey and Snyder observed a group of five wolves to totally consume two deer fauns within 24 hours, with no identifiable bone remaining (Willey & Snyder 1989:158). Even conservative estimates, such as those produced by Morse et al. (1983) from experiments in Florida, predict that no trace of a skeleton would remain within 15-20 years (cited in Carr & Knusel 1997). The third suggestion is therefore argued to 'best fit' the evidence on the basis that this is most consistent with both the type of damage seen and the apparent cessation of the sequence of destruction. Although hypothesis four seems unlikely to the author, such an idea remains difficult to actually disprove. However, given the number of other sites where canid scavenging is apparent (see below), it would seem more realistic to interpret such evidence as relating to funerary practice, than to repeated instances of people being killed by wild animals (or some other personal disaster), and their bodies then being fortuitously recovered.

The implication of meat consumption by canids might also imply the respective animals to have accessed the corpses relatively quickly after death. In experiments with variously exposed pig carcasses in Virginia (between late spring and early summer), the corpses were completely skeletonised within 12 days, largely due to the activity of invertebrates (Morton & Lord 2002). A pattern of damage consistent with that described by Binford (1981) as resulting from meat consumption was also observed in a study conducted by the present author, of bones that had been accessed by canid species at a local wildlife park (Smith 2005). It may be of further relevance that the animals involved, the North American Wolf (Canis lupus) and the African Wild Dog (Lycaon pictus) only had access to the respective bones for two to three days. Such circumstances where the animals' access to bone material is interrupted following primary episodes of meat consumption were felt to broadly resemble a scenario where excarnated human remains have been gathered after a short period of accessibility to scavengers. In the case of the bones from Adlestrop the precise length of exposure is difficult to gauge. The above examples illustrate that the damage observed could have been inflicted within only a few days, whilst Haglund et al.'s (1989, 1997) work demonstrates that the corpses might each have lain exposed for weeks or even months within a possible maximum of just under a year.

Dogs or wolves?

A point of particular interest at Adlestrop is that all four putative individuals were scavenged to a similar degree. Whether the corpses were exposed simultaneously or at different times is not known. However, the fact that the animals responsible appear to have been prevented from having indefinite access to these remains suggests a degree of control and by implication possibly even direct observation of the scavenging process. Such apparent control raises interesting questions concerning the circumstances in which the remains were scavenged. The opportunity to arrest the actions of the respective scavengers at a similar point in the case of all four corpses may be more consistent with the animals involved being domestic dogs rather than random scavenging by wild species. This is certainly a strange idea by modern standards, but one that seems to warrant exploration.

A further point of interest is that bones of canines have often been found within monuments, although this has not always been recognised at excavation. For example the immature dog skeleton found at West Tump (Brickley & Thomas 2004) was originally identified as a human baby (Witts 1881: 207), or the dog's mandible from Notgrove (Figure 8) initially identified as that of a pig. A dog's skeleton was allegedly found at Eyford (Greenwell 1877:517), whilst bones apparently from two different breeds of domestic dogs were found at Nympsfield (Bate 1938: 212). At Cuween Hill, Orkney, 25 dog skulls were deposited with five human skulls, in addition to seven articulated dog skeletons each placed with two to three human skulls (Jones 1998:311). Brickley and Thomas (2004) cite a number of further examples of dog burials from prehistoric and particularly Neolithic contexts (including Waylands Smithy, Grimes Graves, Windmill Hill and Newgrange). The frequency of dog remains in funerary contexts coupled with their often clearly deliberate deposition argues against these being simply the post-depositional intrusion of animals which subsequently died within monuments, as suggested by Barber (1988) for faunal material in several Orcadian tombs. Such inclusions might support the idea of an association existing between the ancestral dead and domestic dogs, or perhaps of dogs being regarded as significant in the transition from 'living' to ancestral status. Certainly, the propensity for dogs, usually trapped in buildings, to eat their (deceased) owners has been observed repeatedly in forensic contexts (Rossi et al. 1994; Tsokos & Schulz 1999). However, despite the above suggestions, the possibility remains that the scavengers could have been wild animals.


Certainly if corpses were regularly exposed at a specific location, such as a causewayed enclosure, scavenging animals would soon become aware of the benefits of frequenting the area. Wolves in particular will have been a constant threat to livestock. If they were being tolerated as a component of mortuary ritual this might raise the question of whether wolves were in some way being actively propitiated or appeased by permitting them to assist in transforming the dead.


The evidence observed on the human bone from Adlestrop is argued to be most consistent with a scenario of excarnation followed by the collection of remains which had been scavenged by canids. Whilst this scavenging may have been effected by wild animals it is argued to be equally, if not more likely that the animals responsible were domestic dogs. Recent studies of the British Neolithic have tended to emphasise regional variation both in material culture and ritual behaviour with a variety of differing forms of treatment of the body apparent such as defleshing or the progressive disarticulation of skeletons initially deposited in monuments as articulated corpses (Saville 1990; Smith & Brickley 2004; Smith 2005). Although superficially varied, such funerary practices can be argued to be united by a general theme of transforming the body, usually from intact corpse to 'clean', disarticulated bones. At Adlestrop, canids, whether wild or domestic, are suggested to have been directly and deliberately involved in the physical transformation of remains. The fact that assemblages from beyond the Cotswold-Severn area, including Hambledon Hill and Etton, exhibit similar evidence indicates that such rites were not specific to this region alone.

Corpse exposure fits the general concept of secondary burial practices as rituals involving extended rites of separation followed by a period of liminality (Hertz 1960; Barrett 1988; Huntington & Metcalf 1991). Discussions of such practices in prehistory often invoke ethnographic observation from societies, recently (or still) practicing such rituals. Amongst such societies the point of final collection and deposition of remains is generally regarded as the point where the transition of the soul is completed, with the deceased individual regarded as having finally left the realm of the living (Barrett 1988; Cart & Knusel 1997). The majority of the dead during the earlier Neolithic were disposed of by means that are not archaeologically visible. Excarnation is certainly a possible explanation for this scarcity of human remains, with a quantity of the material surviving in monuments representing a small proportion which were either protected from scavengers by exposure on platforms or which were exposed at ground level and actively collected rather than simply left. The question remains therefore, of whether the individuals whose bones were selected for retention were in some way regarded as special and if so why?


The research presented was funded by the AHRB and the Leverhulme Trust (Grant no: F/000941AJ). The author would like to thank Megan Brickley for her advice and support throughout, also the staff of the Museum in the Park (Stroud) for access to the material from Adlestrop. Special thanks are due to Tom and Stephen Freer for providing a wealth of information concerning their excavation of Adlestrop Barrow and for taking time to read an earlier draft of the work presented here. I would also like to thank the staff of Cheltenham Museum for access to the material from Notgrove and Richard Thomas for identifying the dog mandible (Figure 8). I am particularly grateful to Bob Lawrence (West Midlands Safari Park), for assisting with the work on bone destruction by canids. The comments of the two anonymous referees of this paper are also appreciated.

Received: 14 February 2005; Accepted: 15 July 2005; Revised: 20 January 2006


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Martin Smith, Institute of Archaeology and Antiquity, University of Birmingham, Edgbaston, Birmingham, B15 2TT, UK (Email:
Table 1. Damage consistent with scavenging at Adlestrop by type and
skeletal element. Types of damage (other than rodent gnawing and
spiral fractures) are as described by Binford (1981). The figure
for long bones excludes unused epiphyses which have been counted
as 'smaller' elements. The number of rodent gnawed bones in
parentheses indicates fragments exhibiting damage consistent
with both canids and rodents

 Puncturing Furrowing puncturing
Element only only & furrowing

Long bones 13 7 16
 elements 32 0 2
Innominates 5 0 0

 Rodent Spiral Crenulated
Element Pitting gnawing fractures margins

Long bones 0 2(1) 3 0
 elements 1 0 0 0
Innominates 1 0 0 4

Table 2. Stages of canid assisted disarticulation
(Haglund et al. 1989: 589; Haglund 1997b: 368)

 Range of observed
Stage Condition of remains postmortem interval

0 Early scavenging of soft tissue with 4 Hours to 14 Days
 no body unit removal (this stage
 generally entails no bony
 involvement--Haglund et al.
 1989: 587)
1 Destruction of the ventral thorax 22 Days to 2.5 Months
 accompanied by evisceration and
 removal of one or both upper
 extremities including scapulae
 and partial or complete clavicles
2 Lower extremities fully or partially 2 to 4.5 Months
3 All skeletal elements disarticulated 2 to 11 Months
 except for segments of the vertebral
4 Total disarticulation with only 5 to 52 Months
 cranium and other assorted skeletal
 elements or fragments recovered
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