Excavating burials is one of the more highly skilled and paperwork heavy jobs on site. Before any bone is lifted, the burial is fully exposed and fully recorded with photographs, a plan, and a burial sheet. All the field notes and the information on the burial sheet must be as complete as possible.
The burial will be recorded on a pro-forma burial sheet. This will take time as most of it can be filled in before the bone is lifted, but other parts must be returned to once the burial has been taken up. There are three that we use as appropriate - adult, juvenile and infant burial sheets. The sheet ultimately must be filled in its entirety and an example of the kind of information required is shading in the bones that are present .Using the skeletal diagram on the sheet. This may be amended subsequently if more bone is found in soil samples, such as toe or finger bones,. Students are instructed to take levels of the skull, the sacrum (if possible), and the feet. In the case of incomplete skeletons this may vary. They are also to take levels on any artefacts accompanying the burial. Multiple photographs of each burial are required. These are taken with and without accompanying scale, arrow, and board. With burials it is preferable to take a photo with just the scale for publication purposes. A plan indicating the position of the burial, grave cut (if visible), as well as coordinates and levels are required.
When it comes time to lift the burial the bones must be lifted extremely carefully in a systematic manner. Whenever possible we always try to start with the skull. We bag bones as we remove them and we are sure to place them in specified, pre-labelled bags according to the side of the body and body part, i.e. left hand, left foot, left ribs, etc. We must be diligent and be sure that all the filled bags are properly labelled and kept together in a single box. Finally, the grave cut, if discernible, is planned and the profile is drawn.
In post-excavation human bone is cleaned for precisely the same reasons as animal bone, i.e. to prevent further damage and to assist with specialist analysis. However, because of ethical considerations surrounding the treatment of human remains, there are additional protocols that need to be addressed during the washing process. Prior to washing any human material, it is important to firstly examine the external surfaces of the bone to ensure that there is nothing adhering to the bone that may be of value to later analysis. If any adhering substances are identified they are carefully removed and this material along with the surrounding soil is placed in a clearly labelled bag/container (transferring all the information from the original bag to the new bag with an inclusion of an additional note identifying the retained substance). Having determined that a bone is free of adhering substances it is suitable for washing. Bones that are extremely fragile are cleaned using soft bristle brushes to gently remove the soil from the bone surface.
The process for washing human bone is as follows. A clean basin is filled with tepid or cold water and a suitable drying tray is arranged. The tray is lined with cloth and it is imperative that only one burial will be assigned this tray. Each skeletal element must be clearly separated using dividers. All the information written on the bag to be washed is copied onto a permatrace label. This label will identify the material placed on the drying tray. Next the information is entered in the Bone/Burial Washing Register, ensuring that the entry is in the correct cutting and the appropriate section. Prior to washing a skewer is used to loosen/detach any large clumps of soil adhering to the bone surface or lodged within the bone cavity. Having removed excess soil from the bone, using lukewarm water (without any detergent or additives) and a soft bristle brush the bone’s surface is slowly and gently washed, removing the remaining soil. Then each cleaned bone is placed in the drying tray. After a bag is complete the water in the basin is poured through a sieve to capture any bone fragments that may have dislodged during the washing process. The tray is then placed inside a dryer. Once dried, they are placed back in their cleaned original bag. All bags from the burial are to be kept together in a box.