The Spear and Skull: A Critique on the Methodological Approaches Used to Interpret Skeletal and Material Remains in Archaeological Sites

Carmella McManus, University of South Dakota


In recent years there have been instances in which burial sites were misinterpreted due to a lack of a multidisciplinary approach to interpret the meaning of skeletal and material remains in archaeological sites. Such an instance can be demonstrated by the misgendering of a set of Viking remains in Birka, Sweden where the presence of a spear in the grave led the archaeologists to believe that the deceased individual was a male. These findings were later reevaluated, leading to the discovery that the skeletal remains were in fact female. This misidentification was a result of putting too much weight on the material remains of the site prior to any osteological analysis being conducted. This research examines the positive and negative effects of using the various theoretical approaches to understanding mortuary remains in archaeological sites separately and in conjunction, thereby testing the hypothesis that it is neither the material approach nor the skeletal approach but the multidisciplinary approach that should be used in the reconstruction of the past at archaeological sites. A comparative analysis of osteological and cultural research of gendering and sexing Viking burials will be performed analyzing the issues of the singular disciplinary approach in the archaeological context. This study will focus on the strengths and limitations of the biological and material approaches to reconstructing identities from burial sites. The materials, methods, and results of several studies examining two different Viking burial sites suggest there is higher accuracy in reconstructing the past through a multidisciplinary approach. This research could be the stepping-stone to how we analytically approach mortuary contexts in the future.