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Mortuary Analysis

Submitted by admin on Tue, 01/29/2008 - 2:33pm

Skeletal remains of eleven individuals were recovered from Santa Isabel.  Most were of infants (ages 0-3 years), and were buried in shoe-shaped ceramic urns.  Art historian Laura Brannen suggests that these vessels are actually effigy 'wombs', since they often have appliqué decoration associated with female anatomy.  The fact that all skeletons found in these 'womb'pots' at Santa Isabel were of infants supports this interpretation. Because the vessel usually retained moisture, fragile bones rarely preserved.  In mosf of these burials the only skeletal remains were teeth.  Isolated adult teeth were occasionally found in the vessels along with the sub-adult teeth, possibly representing a form of mourning ritual.  In one burial urn a stingray spine was found; otherwise non-skeletal artifacts were limited to such things as small sherds or fish bones that would have been mixed in with the soil matrix. 

Shoe pot

Shoe-, or womb-pot


Infant skeleton in burial urn

Infant skeleton in burial urn


Most of the urn burials were found away from mounds.  Two were found, one over the other, to the north of Mound 6 and east of Mound 5 in what may have been a courtyard if Mounds 5 and 6 were part of a mound group.  A cluster of five urns was found west of Mound 5, in an area that shovel testing had indicated as having an extremely low artifact density.  A farmer planting banana trees encountered a complete bowl, such as are used to cover the mouth of the burial urn.  When we investigated we found the group.

grouping of burial urns

Cluster of burial urns (note fallen lid between two urns)


Three primary burials were found, of an adult male and of two children.  The adult male and one of the children were found in parallel alignment at Mound 5.  They were both extended and buried on their sides.  Curiously, both were missing their feet -- it is unclear if this was part of the mortuary ritual or a post-depositional disturbance.  The skull of the adult exhibited well worn teeth, but only minor caries (Chilcote and McCafferty 2005). 

Adult male and child burials at Mound 5

Adult male and child from Mound 5


Detail of adult skull

Detail of adult skull, in situ


The adult male was buried with four small pre-forms of greenstone around the body, including one in the mouth.  He was also associated with two bone tools, perhaps weaving implements, and a chert drill.  An unusual complete vessel was found near his right hip; it resembled an elongated urn with zoomorphic faces on the four sides.  The child was placed with its head resting on a turtle shell, but with no other grave goods.

Bone batten     Chert drill

Bone weaving tool (batten?)                              Chert drill


Vessel with zoomorphic faces

Vessel with zoomorphic faces

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