Harris, Nathaniel John, 2010. Disposing of the Dead: An Investigation into Prehistoric Mortuary Practices During the Neolithic and Bronze Ages at Ban Non Wat, Thailand.
Ban Non Wat is a prehistoric mounded site located in the upper Mun Valley of Northeast Thailand. It was excavated over five years under the Origins of the Civilization of Angkor research project, which uncovered 635 human burials ranging from pre-agriculturalists to Late Iron Age inhabitants. This thesis examined 244 adult burials in nine mortuary phases from the Neolithic and Bronze Age, applying an anthropologie de terrain approach. The main aim of the thesis was to examine the mortuary practices used in each mortuary phase and compare these practices over time.
Anthropologie de terrain is a taphonomically based methodology used to reconstruct past funerary practices. Upon careful examination of skeletal elements within a grave it is possible to determine; whether a burial was primary in nature or occurred over multiple episodes (burial type), the original position of the cadaver within the grave (burial position), and what kind of container an individual was interred in (burial context). An anthropologie de terrain approach was adapted to allow the analysis of a large number of burials based on photographs and field drawings. Iron Age burials were excluded from the research because of their often disturbed and fragmentary appearance.
Two hypotheses were put forth: that mortuary practices would change over time as social, technological, and susbsistence practices became more complex; and that mortuary practices would be linked to social identity. The aspects of social identity examined were sex, age, wealth, and the location of the burial as it has been suggested by Higham (pers comm.) that the grouping of individuals at the site may represent family clusters. By examining links between mortuary practices and social identity it was possible to assess the suitability of the mortuary practices examined as indicators of different modes of social organisation.
An increase was found in the variety of mortuary practices used over time, especially burial context, which showed the most variety at the end of the Bronze Age. This differed slightly from findings at the nearby site of Ban Lum Khao (Willis and Tayles, 2009), where Late Bronze Age individuals were interred in one context.
Links between mortuary practices and social identity were not found for the Neolithic or Bronze eras. The practice most likely to show conclusive results was burial context, which had relatively large sample sizes. However, no correlations were found between burial context and any aspect of social identity investigated, suggesting two possible interpretations. Firstly, burial context is not a reliable indicator of social status, as there were no demonstrable links between context and wealth. Secondly, an unidentified variable other than sex, age, location, or wealth influenced the choice of container. It was proposed that this variable was the season of death, with busy periods coinciding with the rice harvest necessitating less elaborate and time consuming burial practices.